Bigger than and much improved over its predecessors, “Reactivation,” the ninth edition of the Shanghai Biennale, is a great advance for China’s cultural scene, even in a year when censorship and tax arrests have plagued the country’s arts community. With a solid investment from the Shanghai government, plus additional funds from private sponsors, the biennial opened in a brand-new location, the Power Station of Art, formerly the Nanshi power plant, which served as the Pavilion of the Future at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. With almost 97,000 square feet of exhibition space within a 333,600-square-foot facility, the new venue demands large-scale works to fill its voluminous halls, a requisite that the team of biennial curators met with sometimes thrilling results.
The stress of completing construction and installing works by 90 solo artists and collectives from 27 countries fell primarily to chief curator Qiu Zhijie, the Hugo Boss Prize-nominated artist who led the biennial team, which included Hong Kong dealer/curator Johnson Chang (aka Chang Tsong-zung), New York-based media theorist Boris Groys, and Jens Hoffmann, deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York. In addition to mounting the exhibition at the Power Station of Art, the curators invited 30 cities, from Detroit to Auckland, to host pavilions located in empty buildings along Nanjing Road, bringing over 100 additional artists to the event.
Shanghai Biennale veteran Huang Yong Ping provided the jaw-dropping work that welcomes visitors just inside the Power Station’s main entrance. His Thousand Hands Kuanyin (1997-2012) is an enormous version of Marcel Duchamp’s bottle rack, reaching three stories high, with steel hands covering its 1,000 prongs, each holding an object of significance in Chinese culture-from chopsticks to Buddha statuettes. Many other works make full use of the space in an attempt to stun viewers, including Falling Like a Feather (2012) by Wang Yuyang, a string of white neon lights suspended in the center of the museum as if tumbling through the air, and Swiss artist Roman Signer’s explosion of blue pigment, created by dropping a 440-pound container of paint down the 492-foot-tall chimney of the old power plant.
More subtle works, almost overwhelmed by the event’s spectacles, are far more engaging. Chinese artist Lu Yang’s four-channel, 3-D animation The Anatomy of Rage (2011) mixes a depiction of the fierce, many-armed Buddhist deity Yamantaka with diagrams and texts relating to the brain’s “anger center.” Israeli artist Nira Pereg’s videos quietly dissect life among religious groups in her home country. Pakistani artist Naiza H. Khan’s installation “Observatory Archives from Manora Island” (2010) is a nostalgic mix of watercolors, photographs and bronze artifacts that together reflect urban decay.
Also on hand are works by many Western art stars, from Thomas Hirschhorn and Gillian Wearing to Sophie Calle and Joseph Kosuth, all new to Shanghai audiences. But the pleasure in this somewhat chaotic show is stumbling on discoveries such as Hong Kong artist Ho Sin Tung, who invented an imaginary film festival, complete with hand-drawn posters, seating charts and film stills, or the eight-member Beijing collective Irrelevant Commission, whose video Family Letter (2012) documents a performance in which each artist blindfolded his parents and brought them to a spot they remember from their childhood. The resulting scenes of parents, resting their hands on the shoulders of their grown child as the three walk through the streets of a city, parallels the experience of most visitors to this exhibition, wandering halls not knowing what they were about to encounter.
The city pavilions, installed in a former department store as well as various derelict spaces, bring a wider range of contemporary art to the mix. Detroit presents a neo-vaudeville team, The Hinterlands, with dancer Haleem (Stringz) Rasul. Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum contributes a fully operational estate sale by artist Jon Rubin, and the project space Cleopatra’s, from Brooklyn, offers a karaoke bar equipped with videos by 50 artists. Dakar’s contemporary art space Raw Material Company shows photographs of that city’s Chinatown by Kan Si, while Vancouver presents a whale skeleton composed of plastic chairs hanging from the ceiling, along with pseudo-primitive masks, made from disassembled sneakers, displayed in vitrines as if in a natural history museum—an installation by First Nations artist Brian Jungen.
China can be a tough place for international contemporary art like this, since local audiences are still quite nationalistic in their tastes. But based on the enthusiasm of the crowds at the opening, the curators of this year’s Shanghai Biennale have found the right formula for winning over Chinese viewers.
Photo: Huang Yong Ping: Thousand Hands Kuanyin, 1997-2012, cast iron, steel and mixed mediums, 59 feet tall; in the Shanghai Biennale at the Power Station of Art.