A Review of Afterimage: Dangdai Yishu at Lisson Gallery, London
By proposing a fresh and alternative definition – or lack thereof – of Chinese contemporary art, guest curator Victor Wang presents a symphony of dynamic, multi-disciplinary and insightful artworks by nine brilliant Chinese contemporary artists. The show unfolds to, and together with, the viewer as an open and unremittingly changing discourse, its currents imbued with a penetrating and movingly authentic echo of individual agency.
Afterimage: Dangdai Yishu at Lisson Gallery is a critical response to the conceptualisation of Asian contemporary art in the West. Victor Wang succeeded in deconstructing the monolithic concept of Chinese art which was firstly a result of Euro-American Orientalism and then became a projection of the art market. As the doyen of Chinese art history Wu Hung wrote: “Contemporary art in China does not pertain to what is ‘here and now’ but refers to an intentional artistic/theoretical construct that asserts a particular temporality and spatiality for itself.”
Drawing from his theories, Afterimage addresses the fluid and hybrid concepts of both ‘Chineseness’ and ‘contemporaneity,’ veering away from strict dichotomies between local and global, traditional and modern; thereby proposing an alternative scenario of new mediums and subject matter. Already problematising the notion of a homogenous contemporary Chinese art, the show focuses on the individual narratives of several artists, communicating within distinct yet interrelated spaces.
‘Chineseness’ as a uniform spatial and cultural framework is rejected in the exhibition through the inclusion of diasporic artists and non-Han ethnic minorities. Zhao Zhao’s Xinjiang video (2018), invites the intrusive eye of the viewer to enter the domestic settings of Uighur families, a marginalised Muslim ethnic minority living in North-West China. Their confrontational, authentic and raw gaze is difficult to bear, reaching a deep place in our hearts. The individual humanity of the subjects predominates any identification with a uniform Chinese culture and art. The temporal framework of contemporaneity is instead questioned by embracing artists of different age, mainly of two categories: those born during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and a younger generation of artists who came of age in the 1990s, when the socio-political reforms of Deng Xiaoping came into effect; transforming China into an economic colossus.
Given the ambitious critical approach, we have to acknowledge the merit of the young curator, Victor Wang, who was not afraid to confront himself with a highly debated yet fashionably postmodern topic. When walking through the exhibition spaces, spanning the two separate Lisson Galleries in London, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the magnificent yet daunting heterogeneity of the materials and ideas which granted a great pool of agency to the positionality of the artist and the interpretation of the viewer.
The first room in the Bell Street Lisson Gallery unfolds in front of us as a miracle of colours, concepts and craftsmanship. Upon entering, we are confronted with Xiang Jing’s sculpture Whole Dark (2005) who suspiciously invite us into the gallery, testing whether our presence is welcome. Perhaps we can proceed, but under its scrutiny.
We feel observed while walking on the colourful and beautifully weaved carpet by Lin Tianmiao (Protruding Patterns, 2014), adorned with Chinese characters accompanied by its English translations; the character 女 for woman repeatedly marks the surface. The ingenious combination of Xiang Jing’s sculpture, which explores questions of female identity in the modern age through a gender neutral, black-clothed figure, and Lin Tianmiao’s application of the traditionally-feminine practice of thread weaving, raises undeniable questions of gender.
However, our conceptual pondering is immediately interrupted by the viewing of Interconnectedness 1 and 2 (2019). Made of wire mesh and threads, these sculptural webs deny the viewer any possibility of attaching a single narrative to the work and thus to the exhibition. The series reveals instead that the nature of contemporary Chinese art consists in the co-existence of isolated yet interweaved threads of cotton. The two works remind me of the words of Taiwanese cultural critic Lung Ying-tai: “Human bodies are dispersed pearls, rolling everywhere. Culture is that delicate yet resilient fine thread of silk which string together the pearls and connect them to create a society.”
The deconstruction of one monolithic definition of Chinese art towards a pluralistic approach leads the way to Lin Binyuan’s performance Breakdown (2019) in which the artist employs a hammer to pound a red-brick pillar for six hours, until only debris remain. The column can be read either as a politically-charged titan, hinting at the lack of political freedom, or as an extension of the artist’s body, thereby transforming the performance in an act of endurance. The latter interpretation sets Li Binyuan within the historic legacy of Chinese performance art, linking him to major figures of Beijing East Village such as Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan, both active in the early 90s. By undergoing periods of mental and physical pain, the body of the artist becomes the only unrestricted medium for the expression of personal freedom.
The first two rooms display a coherent narrative despite their attempt to deconstruct knowledge along different levels. This concept, however, significantly loses its strength along the corridor and third room. Aaajiao’s 404 (2007) invites viewers to use an ink roller to apply the internet acronym ‘404’ onto a designated white wall, but its chaotic proximity disturbs the viewing space for Li Binyuan’s performance. They also appear to have little aesthetic and conceptual relationship: wouldn’t Aaajiao’s 404 be more impactful when placed in conversation with Wang Youshen’s Newspaper installation as a commentary on the power of words, whether written, printed or virtual?
The third room seems to further disperse the vigour of the art contained. The works are connected through a fragile thread of female identity, which is poorly communicated; almost timid to express itself. Xiang Jing’s dominant sculpture Slipping, Ticktock, Ticktock (2005) of modern womanhood, solitude and loss of identity, appears as a forgotten toy in an anonymous room alongside Ma Qiusha’s artworks which seem arbitrarily chosen. The final room rallies in its successful return to nurturing the dynamic spirit of Chinese art, hosting an impressive narrative of Yu Hong’s self-portraiture alongside socio-political events of the time. The ongoing series Witness to Growth (1999-) which powerfully juxtaposes concepts of the private and the public, art and politics, unquestionably deserves its own room.
Afterimage: Dangdai Yishu hypnotises the viewer with a great selection of artists, works, mediums and concepts. However, a hefty ambition has resulted in an over saturation of visual material which is then injected into an already complicated discourse; ultimately dispersing the narrative and weakening the creative power of the works. The stated concept of post-figurative is also barely touched upon in the exhibition and not given accurate depth, losing strength into a manifold of practices without the chance to delve into them. In what does the post-figurative condition exist? Is it just an issue of medium and subject matter, or the rise of different concepts and socio-political issues? Perhaps, it is about ‘being contemporary,’ deeply internalising the sweeping changes of Chinese society and responding to these realities with personal flair. One thing is certain, Aaajiao, Li Binyuan, Lin Tianmiao, Ma Qiusha, Wang Youshen, Xiang Jing, Shen Xin, Yu Hong and Zhao Zhao remarkably embody the intense creativity of contemporary Chinese art through the raw emotions of anxiety, confusion, pain, curiosity and hope.
Written by Maria Dolfini, a Contributor to Arteviste