Chinese Artists and Their Politics: Hugo Boss Asia Art at Rockbund Art Museum
January 12, 2014

Rockbund Art Museum is a private museum showing contemporary art exhibitions.  Open since 2010, the museum is located near the bund and housed in a 1930s building that has been restored by British architect, David Chipperfield.  When I visited Shanghai, the museum featured HUGO BOSS ASIA ART, an award given to a Chinese artist under the age of 35.

In its first iteration in the Asian region, seven artists had been shortlisted for the 2013 prize, and each artist (or artist collective) was given space in the museum to showcase their pre-existing or newly created work.  The list of artists and the winner of the 2013 prize can be found here.  Here are some of the presentations that I found particularly intriguing.

The artist duo, BIRDHEAD, created an immersive environment of blown-up black and white photographs featuring dynamic portraits of the artists and their friends, interspersed with landscapes and other visually arresting images.  The viewer navigated a hallway of these photographs to be greeted by a framed photographic work of an ostrich head and bird wings, together with waves.  Calligraphic scripture, at the end of the hallway, boldly declared something along the lines of 歓迎再次来到鳥頭世界 ('Welcome to the world of BIRDHEAD again').  As the visitor traverses this hallway of images, BIRDHEAD seems to be indicating that our everyday is full of images, some of which catch our perceptual attention, and others which fly right by us, all of which comprise the world in which we live.

Cohesive in narrative, and surprising to the viewer wandering around the museum was Li Wei's works.  Help (2013) was a site-specific installation featuring a life-size human wearing mental ward pajamas, hanging off the railings of the central hollow area in the museum.  Plan: 2'55'' (2013) was installed throughout various areas of the museum and suggested elements of an unfinished story, through outlines of human shapes drawn in yellow masking tape on the floor and police security tapes cordoning off other areas.  Making good use of the museum space, Li 's works make the viewer question the institutional structure of museums, and the viewer's complicit and voyeuristic role in creating a narrative.  

Li Wei, Help (2013)

Li Wei, Plan: 2'55', installation detail (2013)

Kwan Sheung Chi's varied practice was evident in several pieces exhibited.  Producing installations and videos, he highlights absurd situations and questions social norms.  Untitled (White) (2013) was one such work.  Reminiscent of Felix Gonzalez-Torres' poster works, where works by the artist were printed in unlimited editions that were free for the taking, Kwan Sheung Chi stacked white poster paper with one sentence printed on the floor reading "自由取用 / Free", provoking viewers to question such issues as the relation between artistic production and the artist's hand, and the meaning of human labor.  I also enjoyed One Million (RMB), a video of the artist's hand counting bills, which is comprised of a short video that loops until the artist counts to one million.  

One of the most powerful (and personal) pieces that directly commented on the role of the contemporary artist in Chinese society, and the relation between capital and artistic production was Art is Vacuum by Li Liao.  Li Liao presented a transcription of a conversation he had with the father of his then fiancee (now wife), who was concerned that Li Liao, as an artist, would not be able to provide for his daughter.  In the installation space, Li Liao installed a framed letter from the museum congratulating him on being shortlisted for the 2013 prize.  A caption next to the letter read that Li Liao had given 40,000 RMB, the production fee received from the museum for the exhibition, to his fiancee's father "who now has become [his] father-in-law."  

Li Liao, Art is Vacuum, installation detail (2013)