With the aim of presenting “the state of art today against the backdrop of the unprecedented social realities of 2017”, Beijing’s esteemed private art institution, The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art’s current exhibition, The New Normal: China, Art and 2017, continues the institution’s ongoing series of group shows surveying China’s current artistic output. Presented as mounting a “center-wide survey of recent developments” and occurring every four years, UCCA’s previous group shows have included Breaking Forecast: 8 Key Figures of China’s New Generation of Artists (2009) followed by ON | OFF: China’s Young artist’s in Concept and Practice (2013). The New Normal is an ambitious upsurge in scale from UCCA’s previous exhibitions, featuring the work of twenty-three artists from China and, in addition the large-scale show, occupies all four of UCCA’s gallery spaces.
The exhibition’s layout itself features a series of ‘rooms’ interspersed throughout the gallery space, with each artist occupying their own enclosed sphere. The result is a maze-like interior with the dimly lit external corridors of these pavilions creating a complex, although linear, path between the divergent works within. The format of the narrative traces a temporal progression through historical formalisms and contexts, into present commentary and towards speculative predictions of futuristic political and aesthetic contexts. Evidently, the underlying intent behind this format is a conviction in the inherent diversity and independence of the multitude of practices within its galleries - ultimately a pursuit of a presentation of dialogue, difference and artistic dissent. In many ways, this aim is arguably achieved with The New Normal, yet there is an inescapable commonality, not because of the diversity of political and artistic critique, but rather because of the bias of critique. This theoretical bias is an increasingly problematic feature to look at through a broader lens of both Western and Eastern museum curation, particularly within the presentation of politicised works and the propensity towards the advertisement of dialogue that often belies a deeper avoidance of internal artistic, social and political examination.
The extraction of this bias lies largely in a reading of both the superficial and subaqueous levels of the curation and the artistic practices exhibited. In the case of The New Normal, the show is presented as exhibiting the Chinese artistic output through, “China’s evolving national condition vis-à-vis the rising backlash against globalization on other continents” with a view to “responding to a fragile and unpredictable present.” In this regard, the overt thematic critique is an analysis of the differing effectiveness of Chinese economic and political systems versus a perception of the collapse of western values that have descended into “mass shootings, aborted ceasefires, violated norms, and tainted elections.” The dual names of the exhibition itself further intensify this hyper-politicised connection. In this vein, The New Normal refers to the Chinese authorities rhetoric on ‘the new normal’, concerning economic growth from 2015 that advocates a steady capitalist and international approach. Furthermore, the Chinese title of the exhibition is a ‘state of exception’ in reference to the phrase coined by Carl Schmitt and expanded by Giorgio Agamben, articulating a political situation in which the status quo is abruptly suspended and replaced by temporary conditions that ultimately become the norm. The exhibition’s accompanying text suggests that China’s attitude towards economic development, typified in the rhetoric of ‘the new normal’, may represent this ‘state of exception’ within China as the Chinese look outwards while the Western world increasingly looks within.
Given the current geopolitical circumstance, this argument holds sway and the artists represented within the exhibition each support a projection of an internationalist, albeit Chinese-centred, artistic dialogue. Despite the exhibition’s title and the emphasis on native, Chinese artists, the range of nationalities represented include the Philippines, USA, Germany and Qatar. Alongside this, the schooling of many of the artists is also particularly global with many having trained or lived in various locations around the world; thus, enhancing the position of China as a proponent of globalization. However, the concurrent antithetical tone is an ineluctable critique of the political ‘other’, i.e. the differing global social and political systems. The notion can be seen through the inclusion of pieces such as Black Friday (2016) by Sophie Al-Maria and A Poet Who Never Saw the Ocean Wrote a Novel About the Ocean (2017) by Liang Ban. Al-Maria’s piece is a powerful anti-capitalist video work focusing on the rapid expansion of shopping malls within the Persian Gulf. The work presents a contemplation on the homogenizing force of capitalism and speculates on an all-encompassing techno-dystopian future. Ban’s sonic work refers to the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East by playing a series of recordings of waves from the beaches upon which the refugees had landed. Despite the exhibition’s inclusion of severe and problematic global socio-political issues of the current day, the aforementioned works demonstrate that there is a diversion of animadversion against the ‘other’ political bodies over China.
This is not to say that on a broader scale The New Normal departs from curatorial biases that are also inherent in other global institutions, in fact, to a certain degree there is a level of nuance and self-reflection within the exhibition that can be ardently missing in cultural spheres with supposedly greater claim to uninhibited artistic expression. Take for instance the inclusion of Ma Haijiao’s brilliant three-channel video installation Familial Separatism (2017) that explores the evolution and collapse of different generations of one family as a reflection of the social conditions of contemporary Chinese society. Or more subtle perspectives on the individual in society in Chen Chenchen’s The Mercy of Not Killing (2017), which laments the power relations between the spectator and the spectated as the viewer stands over images of several people hanging from a ‘cliff’ as though about to fall to their deaths. The overall consideration of The Mercy of Not Killing concerns the suspension of brutality for civilisation and the constant state of tension between the two. The work ultimately acts as an analysis of being the spectator in a sphere devoid of direct control. This in itself is arguably a tenacious addition to the broader artistic and cultural discourse occurring within China.
Overall, The New Normal is a strong exhibition composed of several interesting pieces, but its most intriguing aspect lies within its curatorial execution. Though composed of a diverse array of allegedly ‘dissident’ voices, these voices are compiled into a corporation branding of the ‘politic’. The curation displays a discourse that does not quite reach beyond the realm of what is acceptable to critique. As such, it represents a global issue of the inherently problematic positioning of art museums (either public or private) as spaces in which authentic socio-political discourse can take place. Or perhaps, more accurately, this critique is not institutional but a global intellectual sciolism of our own cultural biases and the struggle to represent ‘the other’ and ourselves in balanced terms.
The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017, is running at The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art until 9th July 2017.
The complete list of participating artists includes: Chen Chenchen, Cui Jie, Gao Lei, Guo Xi, Lawrence Lek, Li Jingxiong, Li Qi, Liang Ban, Liao Fei, Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho, Liu Yefu, Ma Jianfeng, Ma Haijiao, Sophia Al-Maria, Miao Ying, Max Hooper Schneider, Shen Xin, Wu Tsang, Wang Guangxu, Lantian Xie, Yao Qingmei, Zhang Ruyi, and Zhu Changquan.
Featured image: Liang Ban - A Poet Who Never Saw the Ocean Wrote a Novel about the Ocean, 2017. Sound installation, Dimensions variable, 21’. Courtesy the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.