Exploring Contemporary Art at the Rockbund

hsu_03.jpgA still from the video portion of Hsu Chia-Wei’s Marshal Tie Jia, 2013. © Still: Chia-Wei Hsu

To some, contemporary art is silly, or pretentious.  Much of it seems random, a slapdash of shallow thought in the artists’ search for originality.  The Rockbund Art Museum’s show featuring the seven finalists of the Hugo Boss Art Award for Emerging Chinese Artists, held from September 12 to December 8 of last year, was no exception to this trend.  This is not to say it was all bad; I was surprised to enjoy as much of it as I did.

Some hold the opinion that if you say it is art, or put it in a museum, it is art.  My search has always been for something a little more specific.  The Rockbund’s show allowed me to explore and focus my definition a little bit more.  The museum itself is housed in a tall, narrow brick building of five stories, formerly the Royal Asiatic Society and home to the old Shanghai Museum. The Rockbund’s stated mission is to be a sustainable organization dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art from all over the world.  It has no permanent collection, simply a series of shows held throughout the year, each for a few months at a time.

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 3.49.32 PM.pngLi Liao’s A Slap (Wuhan), 2011. © Still: Li Liao

Much of the artwork shown at the Rockbund for this show seemed in part to rise out of a postmodernist ideal that art can be democratized; that anyone, really, can create art. The natural progression from the modern art that preceded it–which was heavy in its personality, its abstraction, its focuses–is to wonder if anyone can create art, what makes art good or bad? What makes anything exemplary in a field where the product of the artist can be so simply created? The following artists helped me in answering those questions.

The first floor of the exhibition featured Shenzhen’s Li Liao, who dealt primarily in recorded media, both video and audio.  One video featured Li standing alone on a busy sidewalk, eyes closed, silent. People pass by for the most part, although some of the more curious stop and watch.  Out of nowhere an accomplice appears, slaps him as hard as possible, and walks away.  The artist re-centers, eyes never opening.  The crowd grows larger and larger until, with no explanation forthcoming, they disperse.

An audio piece by the same artist was simply a recording of a conversation between Li, his future wife, and her father and brother.  The text of the conversation was on the wall, along with an English translation. Neither the father nor the brother approved of Li’s profession.

Another interesting artist was Hsu Chia-wei of Taipei.  Hsu’s work consisted of two vast multimedia pieces.  His stated goal was “to build sensual visual narratives about geographical, historical, and cultural regions of Asia.”  That is, he seeks to maintain a sense of anthropology in his art; in that sense, it was certainly well done.  The larger of the two pieces was named “Marshal Tie Jia” after the frog god whose “permission” he was required to seek before the inhabitants of Turtle Island—a small island off the coast of Taiwan—would allow him to film there. The piece used everything from oil on canvas to official “documentation” made up for the purpose of the show to single-channel HD video.  It charted Hsu’s quest to seek permission, as well as what he was able to discover about the natives who lived on the island.  There was a letter he had written to the  “Marshal” detailing his interest and respect for the god, a flawlessly filmed video of nighttime tribal dancing on riverboats (accented by large torches at the end of each boat, reflected into the water). All these things blended together to form an intricate narrative that highlighted the culture of the local people while also keeping a subjective eye on the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese culture.

I was initially skeptical of each of these pieces; when I first began work on this article, I was inclined to say that what I saw was–as a Guardian article announcing art critic David Hickey’s retirement from the contemporary art circuit put it–“the result of ‘too much fame, too much success and too little critical sifting.’”  Part of my feeling this way was because each seemed more like an anthropological study than anything artistic; but in the months since seeing the show I’ve noticed that they stuck in my mind.

Each piece was a little bit more than what it was on the surface had more below the surface than I had first seen, and that, I think, is a definitive hallmark for art.  Li’s video captured interest in the moment of filming, there were social undertones, a crescendo, peak and decrescendo.  His recording seemed gossipy and pointless at first, but looking deeper it is more like a laidback comment on the position, or perception, of the artist in the modern day.  Hsu’s piece, however culture-heavy it was, entwined the experience, the imagery, and the beauty—both physical and spiritual—of the island culture presented so well that although it’s the one I still question most, I am certain that there were enough artistic elements to it that could explain its presence in an art museum.

The result of this show is that I am beginning to believe that part of the contemporary  art movement is essentially commentary on, or a study of, humanity. What struck me in particular was that in the end it was not “artistic merit” that I sought, but simply a sense of human interest, a comment on some aspect of society. Perhaps it is simply the fate of art to be questioned, to seek alternative means of expression only to have its means, media and legitimacy constantly questioned.

The Asia Art Award for Emerging Chinese Artists exhibition is over, but the Rockbund Art Museum always has interesting shows going on. The current show, extended until April 20, features contemporary Indian artist Bharti Kher. Student price 10 yuan. RAM is close to the Bund, at 20 Huqiu Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai.
Telephone: (8621) 3310 9985.
Web: www.rockbundartmuseum.org
If you’re interested in the work of Taipei’s Hsu Chia-Wei, his blog is at http://hsuchiawei01.blogspot.hk.

If you’re interested in the work of Shenzhen’s Li Liao, you’re on your own I can’t find a website.

This article was written by Kiril Bolotnikov. Send an email to oncenturyavenue@gmail.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Kathy Wang