Lyle Rexer: Reporting from the Shanghai Biennial
Lyle Rexer, New York–based independent writer and critic and editor of the upcoming Aperture title The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (May, 2009), is currently traveling in China for the Shanghai Biennial and reporting for Exposures.
Shanghai, Sept 8.
Ben Davis of artnet, who is here in Shanghai, put it best: Shanghai is a cross between SimCity and Los Angeles. Buildings spawn clones of each other like spores breeding, and one begets others just like it. This has a long precedent in Chinese art. As early s the bronze age, the Chinese mastered a mass manufacturing system based on modular parts that allowed craftsmen to assemble 10,000 figure for the emperor’s tomb.
And so it goes. It helps explain the peculiar quality of so much of what I’ve been seeing in the galleries and especially at the Biennial here. So, an installation of Michael Lin ‘s at Shanghai Gallery that involved him buying the contents of an entire store in his neighborhood in Shanghai (everything from rubber gloves to soup spoons) looks like a number of projects in various galleries and Biennials. There is a different sense of originality, or, maybe the market is growing so fast, there is no way to satisfy it without working different variations on successful themes.
The Biennial takes place in the stately confines of the Shanghai Art Museum, which is in fact quite small, but inside there was so much work, so arbitrarily arranged, that it felt like a fair, impossible to get your bearings. The theme: Translocalmotion. Something about dislocation, urbanization, growth and movement. Honestly, the scheme becomes more elaborate every year, the attempts to control and justify the work more intricate, and the larger motives behind the presentation more transparent. There is just so much money, so many new buyers, so much entertainment buzz around all this. Before we get to the art, a few vignettes:
For the opening and the thirsty VIP visitors (there seemed to be 10 million VIPs here), the sponsors provided all that was available: Martell cognac and Starbuck’s coffee. (MOMA, are you paying attention?) Potato chips and diet Coke. In the elevator, here was the conversation: “I was so lucky. I had just enough time between Helsinki and Seoul to stop in Brussels. I was in Beijing for three days and I have to get to Singapore after the show here. Will I see you in London?” This was repeated over and over again, often by wealthy American and European women with their well-polished teenage daughters in two, and the curators and dealers whom you never get a chance to see in New York but are all here. “New York is so over,” one dealer said to me.
Then there is the story or proverb told to me by my Shanghai writer friend about the man who wanted to draw a dragon but instead drew a snake. It was a beautiful snake but he wasn’t satisfied with its snakeness so he put legs on it. So much of the pieces here were like that, some core of interested but then the need to cover very base – so an installation became a video which became set of photos, etc.
At the Biennial, I was surprised at how little actual photography there was. Almost none. There were several of Thomas Ruff’s digital JPEG rip-offs, one especially striking of the Pearl of the Orient communications tower here, which is a wonder. That seemed especially redundant when the developing landscape is already virtual, generated, as Ben Davis said, out of a repeating computer program. The other two “photographers” represented were the Korean Kim Sanggil, with gigantic Struthlike urban construction photos, of buildings not yet finished or not quite “readable” in a functional or aesthetic sense. There was an idea lurking here (OK, not an idea, exactly but a kind of special pleading) and the work looks good because he knows how to pick a spot, but the critical verbiage around this was impossible, repetitive, and slightly missed the point. I was not at Venice when Rob Storr was criticized for his (on the one hand) no paintings and (on the other) too academic presentation, but I guarantee you it did not suffer under the weight of language that this one did. What was mpost worrisome was that much of this language did not come from the Curators but from the artists themselves, especially with the video works. The other photographs were from the German documenatrist, Klaus Mettig, from his series “Don’t Be Left Behind.” Straightforward stuff and striking ethnography from marginal parts of China, but the elaborate theorizing! Oy.
Objects (like photos) are so over. Put it in a video.