Curated by Lu Mingjun, “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness” brings together seven young Chinese artists who bridge the past and present.
With nods to artistic movements of the past such as Dada and Arte Povera, the artists exhibiting in “Extravagant Imagination” forge a new path that explores the possibilities for contemporary art in the “post network” era.
MadeIn Gallery, founded in 2014, in Shanghai’s M50 art zone is just one outpost of MadeIn Company, established by artist Xu Zhen in 2009. The Company is conceived as a conceptual art work as well as a real company. Xu’s own work has become a brand identity of the larger conglomerate. MadeIn Company has a wide range of activities from the fabrication of tangible artworks to the “production of creativity”, usually in the form of events and collaborations.
Xu often uses the quotation of classical western art from an Asian perspective and the seven young artists in “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness” (18 March – 20 April 2016) bring a similar perspective to their observation of internationalism, with a handmade touch to the show that makes it feel alive and exuberant.
An algorithm generating random names for exhibitions was used for the title. The words introduce works that are self-consciously contemporary. The relationships between the works enact the shift from the earlier paradigm of the contemporary – the rhizome, a single root producing multiple independent patterns of growth – to the archipelago of multiplayer environments, where the agency of players remains separate but all coexist in a preordained configuration.
For all the exhibition’s vitality, the concept of making evocative word associations by chance systems has a long heritage. Dada artist Tristan Tzara suggested it in the 1920s. And the exhibition does not always break free of the past but gives tradition new colour.
This vibrancy is immediately apparent in Wang Rui’s, Past, Present and Future (2016), a three-channel work situated in a little garden of a few arranged stones and a modest show of plastic plants. The three screens all show the same figure, cropped by the camera wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt staged against a green screen. The artifice of the setting is complicated by the plastic plants, real, but of the same hue as the video background. The body, close to the camera, has an insistent physical presence, giving life – ‘animation’ – to the Mickey image.
The preeminent status of Mickey in cultural history adds more complexity: the cartoon character’s persona was well established before this body wearing the T-shirt was born. The movements mirror the bashfulness of Mickey’s cute, self-effacing ‘nature’, as if the T-shirt’s image is affecting its wearer. A close up on the left hand screen shows wrinkles in the fabric print with the connotation of aged skin; skin distressed by the accumulated pedigree of the image – the pop style also gazes back, to the same 1920s period when Mickey’s made his screen debut.
Where Wang proposes the historical actuality of Disney’s character, other works consider the friable quality of experiences found on the screen. Another three-channel work, Shen Xin’s, Forms Escape: Prologue (2016), weaves a broad range of source materials together, apparently contrasting capitalism with other social models. The quoted videos drift from aspiration, against unlikely odds, by wanna-be entrepreneurs, to the consumption of intangible spectacle. The clips show image fantasies that do not get to the point, such as the hike to the tourist sight, but not the sight itself, the ambient sexuality of cosplay, and the popular culture of socialism.
Shen is the only artist to work with purely appropriated material. Elsewhere, such as in Li Weiyi’s six videos, all entitled Object in Image (2016), there is a haptic aesthetic. Hands stretch, twist and even dilute intimate domestic images. In one image, viewed up close, a hand presses a soap dispenser, the resulting discharge causing the whole image, including the background to slide to the bottom of the screen. Rather than seeming a technological trick, it is a psychedelic effect: perception appears to be altered or enhanced through action.
In Wang Newone’s HIVE (2015) computer animation is deployed to similar ends. The habitually anodyne CGI image is here a bit hapless. Glitches and weightlessness produce an awkward physicality. Three screens repeat the same sequence but not at the same time. They are mounted on a wall-sized image featuring quantities of meat stored on steel racks in a corporate setting. The animation shows androgynous avatars unable to connect with other items in the same virtual space; these include roasted carcasses and snakes. Collage-like elements interact but they do not seem to belong together. Perhaps it’s a restaurant, perhaps a charnel house? Is it a game we are trying to quit? Or are we trying to enter it?
Lu’s introductory essay, entitled “Excessive Imagination, Deficient Imagination”, claims the artists from the 1990s generation embody a ‘Post Network’ perspective. He identifies this “practice and aesthetic” as originating in 2011, some time after this term was originally introduced by Larry Bartels and Wendy Rahn in 2000, when the most senior of these artists was thirteen years old. The term predicted the explosion of new ways of disseminating media triggered by broadband internet. The outcome is that these artists explore and grapple virtual effects in the same way they relate to tangible materials.
In this sense there is no division between the screen based works and paintings or objects such as Tant Zhong’s The Princess and the Pea (2016), a pile of units of pink high-density sponge interleaved with parchment and wedged between the floor and the ceiling. This column acts as a counterpoint to a real concrete column, an architectural feature of the gallery. “Interface thinking” in Lu’s essay denotes cognitive processing carried with the affect of interaction, a sort of truth to devices where Tant’s work suggests a revival of the Modernist tenet “truth to materials” – or a poetry of untreated low-grade industrial resources, as celebrated by the Italian movement of the late 60s, Arte Povera.
Shi Jiayun’s paintings do something similar with the tradition of oil paint on canvas taking it back to basics, as if the image, the colour and the nature of application were presets left on a default setting. Zhang Jiaxing’s Equally Radiant (2015) uses a different strategy. It is made from cardboard boxes, adhesive tape and plastics, including the impression of a human skull melted into a builder’s hard-hat. It seems to draw less from the computer desktop than the antecedents of practices that honor found materials, particularly Kurt Schwitters’ Merz, also of the 1920s period.
Parallel to current interface technologies, perhaps the artistic strategies of the 1920s are pertinent. The effect of image proliferation has been to desensitise users to image content. The looming scarcities brought about by the global depression of the 1930s made artists in the 1920s cherish discarded materials, just as the Arte Povera group championed the aesthetic potential of materials that were taken for granted.
“The Wonder of Idleness” suggests time spent contemplating the significance of representations, as well as the nature of the interface itself. Older artists may observe these works with either confusion or sardonic irony. They cannot see, or think, beyond the confusion of suffering and satire found side by side on the Internet. The artists on the “Extravagant Imagination” archipelago treasure all the images and all the materials and references at their disposal, and they repurpose them to find the point where the past converges with the contemporary.
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