Even as it evokes choice, “ON|OFF” is an ambiguous show title, alluding to the selective nature of communication. In the context of China’s huge online culture, it designates the decision to switch virtual private network (VPN) software “on,” granting the user full access to the Web, or “off,” thus accepting the censorship of the so-called Great Firewall of China. According to Leap magazine senior editor Sun Dongdong, who organized the exhibition with critic and independent curator Bao Dong, the term is also about restriction and choice in the lives of emerging artists.

This ambitious 50-person show is subtitled “China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice.” The phrase lends a serious critical tone to what might otherwise seem like another “definitive” survey of Young Chinese Artists (almost a brand name these days), a reading the curators are keen to avoid. Instead, the exhibition is presented as a “research project,” and a postscript on the final wall text states that whether or not these artists “represent the art of a generation” is irrelevant.

For the visitor this is above all a huge, formally diverse exhibition. Unlimited Chance Acquired (2012) is an installation by Huang Ran featuring four tall panels of steel gridwork erected in a cross shape; at floor level, black machines gently spit bubbles toward these metallic walls, which are charged with a high-voltage current. Upon contact, the bubbles expire with a sharp crack and a flash of blue light. It is a severe display with a touch of sublimity.

A contrastingly noiseless piece by Shang Yixin, By the Sea (2012), continues this artist’s use of light to articulate form. From a plain backboard, iron points spike outward (in the best delicate yet aggressive surrealist manner), casting a gentle, wavelike shadow. Barely perceptible variations in light from above alter the shadow, endowing the fence with subtle life. Elsewhere one finds Chen Wei’s staged photographs of a fountain inside a room, with coins dropped anonymously for good fortune. Li Ming’s performance video (part of his video series “Nothing Happened Today”) shows the artist, dressed entirely in black, spraying white paint from an aerosol can toward an electric fan.

There are shocking works, too. Chen Zhe, who often documents self-mutilation by herself and others, has mounted an assortment of photographs and scrawled letters on the wall. Collectively titled Bees (2010-12), they suggest the spiritual erosion of everyday life through a remorseless mix of quotidian scenes (laundry on a clothesline, a full ashtray propped on stained sheets) and images of naked flesh cut with a razor. Easier to take, a video by Fang Lu focuses on a girl engaged in zany, ardent actions, such as sawing shoes in half and whipping food and drink into disgusting concoctions (Lovers Are Artists II, 2012).

In UCCA’s Great Hall, sound from other works carries around Liu Chang’s confident architectural piece Untitled (Midnight Flight), 2013, a large, gray rectangular box with a circular form seen through an opening in one side, and an uncanny situational offering from Xu Qu, wherein standard water cooler bottles mounted on the wall are attacked daily by an attendant with an axe, causing the water to pour out. Nearby, black marble plinths support Xu’s plaster sculpture of a forearm and a real coffee cup (It’s Not a Matter of Time, 2012-13). He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-13) is a full-size, collapsed leather version of a military tank, complete with wilted cannon barrel.

Oddly, almost all the show’s paintings are confined to a small room at the start of the exhibition—a decision that seems to bespeak a “painting is dead” curatorial attitude. Undaunted, the painters (in conversation) have wittily dubbed the little front gallery the Masters Room. At the other extreme, the last area of the show is jammed with giant installation works by artists such as Lu Yang, Zhou Tao, Zhang Ding and the Chen Brothers, rendering the art somewhat indigestible.

Ultimately, different works will turn different viewers on or off. Whether the exhibition testifies adequately to the creativity of this generation remains to be seen (and let us not forget those artists who aren’t included). For the moment—while acknowledging the dilemmas of choice—“ON|OFF” impresses with both its scope and the ability of the artists presented.

Photo: View of He Xiangyu's Tank Project (foreground), 2011-13; in "On|Off" at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.