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Shanghai Biennial 2012
at 4:20pm on 10th April 2012

1. Jon Rubin flea-market - contents of Pittsburgh, USA deceased estate contents for sale.

2. Yau Jui-chung, installation view of Taiwan disused public buildings photography.

3. The User: installation view of their 'Matrix Printer Quartet'.

4. Linda Lai's parcel installation.

5. View of Ho Sin Tung's HKIFF installation.

All Photos: John Batten


The Shanghai Biennial opened in October 2012, amidst frantic activity to complete refurbishment of its main venue, the former Nanshi Power Plant, originally built in 1897. Re-named the ‘Power Station of Art’ and announced as China’s first dedicated museum for contemporary art, its location alongside the Huangpu River is in a section of the former Shanghai Expo site. The museum hosts the Biennial’s main exhibition and complements the many satellite venues along Nanjing Road and other parts of Shanghai.

Power Station of Art - venue of the Shanghai Biennial 2012.

This is the ninth and most ambitious Biennial that Shanghai has mounted and comprises three distinct sections organized by chief curator Qiu Zhijie of China; and co-curators Boris Groys (Germany), Jens Hoffmann (Costa Rica) and Johnson Chang Tsong-Zung (Hong Kong). The main section has a theme of ‘Regeneration’ covering notions of ‘resources’, ‘revisiting’, ‘reform’ and ‘republic’ featuring 98 artists from 27 countries. A second section, project displays installed in parks, including the large Zhongshan Park; while the third section of the Biennial is the ‘Intercity Pavilions Project’ featuring art from 33 cities from around the world.

Artist Ho Sin Tung and City University of Hong Kong lecturer and artist Linda Lai represent Hong Kong in the main section of the Biennial. Ho’s extensive installation, Hong Kong Inter-Vivos Film Festival (HKIFF), comprise drawings, paintings and videos – many of these pieces have just been acquired by M+, Hong Kong’s soon-to-open new museum. This installation is a spoof film festival imitating aspects of the real Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF. Fictional film synopses and scene stills are intricately drawn to imitate and play with the work of real film directors that Ho both admires and dislikes.

Biennial visitors reading Ho Sin Tung's free HKIFF “Festival News”.

Linda Lai’s installation reflects on the experience of many Hong Kong residents sending parcels of consumer items, food and gifts to relatives living on the mainland in the post-Communist revolution decades when China was economically and, at times physically, closed to the world. Taking centre-stage is a large hanging net containing a flotsam of items mirroring the desperate situation of many people in China. Starvation and dire poverty was alleviated by the ‘salvation’ of such food parcels.

A further Hong Kong presence was City University of Hong Kong’s collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy of their digital reconstruction of one cave of the famous Dunhuang Buddhist Caves in Xinjiang. Nearby, Hong Kong artist Lee Kit built a living room installation with a bench, tables and chairs; popular and well used by tired Biennial visitors, but later barricaded due to over-use! Lee Kit, because of links with Italy, was exhibiting under the banner of the Italian city of Palermo as part of the ‘Intercity Pavilions Project’. However, his next Italian foray will be as Hong Kong’s representative at this year’s Venice Art Biennial opening in June.

On entering the ‘Power Station of Art’, a sense of actually being in a former power station is not obvious, however the tall chimney (named ‘Harmony’ by Shanghai government authorities, an example of unabashed propaganda!) can be entered and has been smartly utilized in the Biennial for an ‘intervention’ by the Swiss artist Roman Signer: one of his ‘time sculptures’ comprising a large ball containing blue pigment has been staged to fall down the chimney and the accident results in a floor of splattered blue: a site specific abstract and mixed media ‘painting’.

Overall, the Biennial was stimulating and offers a range of art in different media including many large installation work, however it is the smaller pieces located in the corners of the venue that are outstanding. The Chinese artist Shen Yuan, born in Fuzhou and now living in Paris, exhibits The Well, a wooden sculpture of a Hakka roundhouse, leaning at an angle with an extension from the base of the model replicating a wooden water collection channel that runs into a simple village bucket. This installation depicts the strength of traditional Hakka communities whose roundhouses, as the artist says, “offer protection, childcare, social order and education.”

Peter Fischl & David Weiss’ The Way Things Go, their famous video of 1989, depicting a series of objects - including ladders, tyres, shoes and water, triggered at times by fire and pyrotechnics – falling over one-after-another in an evolving 29 minute sequence. The kinetic energy depicted in the video is compulsive for an audience - and in Shanghai, the video was watched in awe by rows of people. Also popular with the audience was Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal 1, a sculptural light installation using three planes of light: an ellipse, a travelling wave and a straight line. Exhibited in a darkened room, this projection is a changing writhing light form representing the human body.

Government corruption and largesse resonated in a project by Taiwanese artist Yau Jui-chung and a group of students labeling themselves as the ‘Lost Society Document’. Yau organized the students to photograph disused public buildings throughout Taiwan. An elaborate display of photographs with a brief description and cost of each building, and a video explaining the project was intently watched by an audience accustomed to similar waste on the mainland.

Conceptually strong was the presentation by art group ‘The User’ who displayed a group of old-style matrix printers whose sound while printing in unison as a quartet produced a low-tech, but immensely pleasurable, set of composed music amplified within a separate room.

Along Nanjing Road, two large pre-war commercial buildings, awaiting renovation, were the venues for more conceptual and installation art in the ‘Intercity Pavilions Project.’ American artist Jon Rubin bought the entire contents of a deceased estate in Pittsburgh, USA and transported the goods to Shanghai, selling the contents in a replicated flea-market during the Biennial – the audience could buy these goods and the artist requested that a photograph of the object be sent to him where it had been placed by the new owner.

This year’s Biennial has spread itself around Shanghai by using both formal and casual venues in a variety of locations, resulting in an art event that is closer to the public. The Shanghai has considerably expanded over the last five years with a diverse range of commercial, public and non-commercial art spaces. The city and future biennials will benefit from this expansion and the outcome – as suggested in this Biennial – will lead to a far braver spirit and intention to exhibit more politically relevant art.

Throughout the Biennial curator Qiu Zhijie, an accomplished artist himself, provides elaborate sketches as signage to introduce different sections of the Biennial. These sketches are large pen drawings tracing links between artists and other ideas and objects presented as an aerial mapped view of the theme of that particular section. These sketches dominate the Biennial and are very good; however, they also ‘rival’ for attention with the work of individual artists. It is strange situation – but acceptable, as Qui’s drawings are so good and precisely depict the Biennial’s ambitious intentions.

A version of this review was published in Paroles magazine, November

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