During Monday’s downpour, with little cash to hand and most galleries shut – where best to hide from the gale-force winds and horizontal rain than The Hayward? My umbrella only went inside out twice on the short walk from Waterloo, and by the time I’d got there I’d mastered the art of holding Starbucks, brolly and skirt down all at once! Now that’s multi-tasking.
I first heard about Art of Change: New Directions from China from an ad in the Metro for ‘participants’, I was pretty keen about this until I realised the role included being suspended in a series of awkward positions for up to four hours – however I didn’t realise that one of these “often uncomfortable positions” was lying curled up in a sleeping bag, as a volunteer was happily doing on Monday afternoon.
The exhibition was mixed: at times enlightening, shocking or beautiful, but also often a little disappointing. Xu Zhen, Made In Company and Yingmei Duan dominate the first section of the gallery with remote-controlled gym equipment, sculptures resembling concrete tombstones and a series of performance areas – the last of which I unfortunately didn’t get to see ‘in action’ (Yingmei herself performs at 2pm on Mondays). The works themselves are analytical of contemporary society – body image, the art market, the media – yet are rather unsuccessful in communicating this.
The strongest piece of this introduction to the exhibition is without a doubt Xu Zhen’s The Starving of Sudan, which features the controversial 1993 media image whose backlash led to Kevin Carter’s suicide. The piece discussed the ethics of photojournalism as a group of photographers position a small child into their favoured shot. It is pessimistic, reinforcing the idea of photojournalism as contrived and biased, whilst asking the audience to re-evaluate their opinion of the media. It is not heavily opinionated or forceful however, instead Xu’s film work is light-hearted as we watch a child laugh and interact with the vulture, before his playtime interrupted by photographers; this technique also adds another layer to the piece – in displaying a child’s rightful occupation, carelessly playing, it reiterates the tragedy of Kevin Carter’s photograph. The Starving of Sudan is certainly subjective at its foremost, as Xu states it provokes the viewer to question “the nature of ethics; people have to decide where they stand”.
The exhibition improves as it progresses: the next unexpected surprise was Liang Shaoji’s Windows, part of his Nature Series: a collaboration between Liang and his silkworms. Liang is a peaceful man living an apparently idyllic lifestyle in the sacred Tiantai Mountains, his studio a short distance from his silkworm nursery; a calm existence which his work embodies entirely. Wisps of white reduce window frames, heavy rocks and huge iron chains into delicate sculptures, heavenly and dreamlike yet firmly rooted in the beauty of our own natural world. Liang describes this entire series as “a sculpture of time, life and nature; a recording of the fourth dimension”; “when the warm, soft threads of silk wind themselves around materials such as metal, glass, stone or the human body, for me this is connected with the basic questions of human existence. To a certain extent, the spun threads of silk represent an endless thread of life and they are capable of overcoming hardness with softness”.
Although incredibly fragile, the silkworms represent a spirited force of life as they work their way around the most complex of window frames and sculptural pieces. After admiring their work, Liang then invites his audience to sit and listen to these little beings crawling, chewing, and weaving their magic, before leading us through to a miniature nursery to admire these ugly, but masterful, maggots. Overall, Liang’s work seems to be about recognising both the “tremendous weight and tremendous lightness life can have” yet seeking out the silver linings, appreciating the enduring glory of nature and generally living life with your ‘cup half-full’.
Although Art of Change is a motley collection, a select few make the ticket worth it – and some make you regret you ever bought one: Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. I possibly haven’t even been more disgusted by a piece of work than I was by Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other. I usually avoid artists who deal with self-mutilation, animal sacrifice etc. so my education in grotesque art is limited, maybe that makes me naïve, but personally I don’t believe that life should ever be endangered by art. This film by the two artists made me completely disregard the rest of their part of the show – except maybe the four-metre tall obelisk of human fat titled Civilisation Pillar, a comment on our image-obsessed culture – as I was just horrified. The film features six fighting dogs which are tied to treadmills facing one another, teased and egged on to perpetually run at each other, snarling. Firstly, just the name ‘fighting dogs’ is obviously an animal rights violation right there, secondly artists using them to make money is completely unethical, and furthermore they are adding to the issue a layer of humour and morbid fascination; it’s just completely sick. Using animals or people in this way is possibly acceptable if you are highlighting, and protesting against an issue, but they aren’t. If Xu Zhen had used an actual starving Sudanese child for his piece there would obviously and quite rightly have been complete outrage, yet at least he is questioning the ethics of our media , however Sun Yuan & Peng Yu are just simply continuing to make the shocking but brainless material which brought them to fame.
Moving on swiftly: upstairs features a witty satirical piece studying China’s table tennis fad by Wang Jianwei, but the fine works of Gu Dexin and Chen Zhen complete the exhibition downstairs.
Gu Dexin is a fascinating character who had no formal training in art yet has exhibited in Beijing, Paris and now London and his works are solely dated – no titles, no description, as Gu explains “the audience is free to think what it will”. Images of pork being rolled between the artists thumbs hang salon-style in gilded frames; a simple animation discusses the difficulties of being human, or a stick-man more specifically; and tiny figures resembling red resin Buddha are in fact weird creatures with multiple breasts, conjoined, giving birth – the work is completely bizarre and erratic, but well-crafted, a welcome surprise after the sterile work of Made In and Xu Zhen for example.
Finally we come to Chen Zhen whose moral do-gooding almost absolves Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, almost. Chen died of a blood disease twelve years ago, an illness which he felt allowed him to reflect better on the human condition; his Purification Room is one of Art of Change’s statement pieces, objects from our everyday lives are coated in mud to sterilise them both physically and to remove them of their materialistic value – it is 2012 as an archaeological dig, reflecting on the largely unnecessary commodities which fill our homes. Chen’s Testament further criticises contemporary society with the burning of newspapers, referencing book burning under both Nazi rule and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Testament purges us of the stale and corrupt workings of the media.
While his large pieces convey some of society’s current issues, Chen’s Beyond the Vulnerability works directly to correct these: a touching piece which saw Chen and his family move to Brazil to work with children in Favelas, giving them candles usually used in local Candomble religious ceremonies to instead build miniature versions of their houses – a creative outlet, whilst celebrating and investing pride in the architecture of their hand-built shanty towns. This project is the interventionist piece needed by a show which otherwise mainly comments upon high contemporary society – exercise equipment, a joke about white cube galleries – or vague, indiscernible concepts as seen in the remainder of Sun Yuan & Peng Yu works which features a triceratops and a rhino and supposedly investigates evolution.
An undeniably diverse and interesting exhibition, Art of Change is fantastically curated and helpfully accompanied by plaques explaining the recent history of China – and a brilliant digital archive which allows visitors to access hundreds of other Chinese contemporary art pieces if they aren’t entirely satisfied by the artists in the Hayward. Certainly worth a visit if just for Liang Shaoji’s film work, Xu Zhen’s silk worms, Gu Dexin’s small curiosities and Chen Zhen’s political statements – a tip though, do look at the Hayward website to find out when Yingmei Duan is performing as this really will make the tenner worth every penny!