Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum presents 11 stories from distinct regional cultures as they have evolved throughout the modern era.
“Tell Me a Story: Locality and Narrative” features 11 artists from across Asia who, by exploring their personal ties with the environment, reveal multiple facets of local life that are often left unheard or unseen.
The couplet from the beginning of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber could introduce the exhibition “Tell Me a Story: Locality and Narrative” (28 May – 14 August 2016) at Rockbund Art Museum:
“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”
‘Tell me a story’ sounds like a demand, but it is not a request for the truth. The exhibition is concerned with disrupting the narratives through which places are constituted. The choice of words is a warning too; this is not easy art with anecdotes and colourful locals, but art about how a change in perspective can produce a different territorial view. As various narratives are experienced across the five floors of the Rockbund Art Museum, the localities remain unstable – often destabilised by the stylistic look of contemporary research-based art.
These are not short stories; they are never concise. There are no clear beginnings, middles or ends. Mostly the stories are rambling and indeterminate. Exhibition texts, provided in a 40-page booklet, include challenges such as “attempting to escape from linear historical narratives and arrive at the margins of historical memories by means of estranging narratives about the other”. The descriptions of the works in the exhibition guide are comprehensive. They outline the form and the content as well as the background research interests.
So in the case of artist group Field Recordings’ Let the Water Flow (2016) the information tells the viewer that the work is a five-channel video concerned with life on Shanghai’s Suzhou River, incorporating images drawn from “three different approaches—field observation, research on human geography, and social documentary”. This leaves little to the imagination and the work itself is a verbatim representation of this information.
Another work that gets directly to the point is Tomoko Yoneda’s relatively elegiac photographs of abandoned industrial sites on Sakhalin Island – a historically disputed area, around a fifth the size of Japan – off the east coast of Russia. The images juxtapose decaying factories with rural landscapes, illustrating Yoneda’s comment in a previous interview with Asia Art Archive:
Some (photographs) relate to particular discourses with Japan and current conflicts. With research and accumulated information and images of the events in my memory, I like to visit and witness the actual places – I am startled by the normality of locations that once were the scene of momentous events.
In this iteration, “normality” seems to elide the complexities of the island’s past rather than expose it. Displaced ethnic minority groups, who were victims of territorial interests on the island, may not get the poetry in the exhibition’s evocation of the look of the factories that once provided their livelihood.
The photographs are the most explicit invocations of locality, while in other works, actual places are snared in exhibition making hardware and sunk behind extended research evidence. A Ship Believing the Sea is the Land by Korean artist duo Haejun Jo and Kyeong Soo Lee attempts to “reconstitute the memory of an entire era” with a mixture of elements, including text and drawings, sculpture and videos.
In the work a beached boat, features in the video playing on another wax sculpture of a boat. Both have lost contact with water, they don’t know themselves, they don’t know about drifting and floating. Their narratives tell of estrangement, things that seem flawed but are, in fact, misplaced.
On the opposite side of the room are two 30-minute recordings of performances by Watan Wuma, a member of the Atayal aboriginal ethnic group in Taiwan. One had been live at the exhibition’s opening in the same space; the performers created costumes from newspapers suggesting that their projected characters were constituted by the texts of others.
Alongside the video is Chen Chieh-Jen’s slow-paced 36-minute biopic docudrama Friend Watan (2013) about the artist’s unconventional career move from being a factory worker. It is a challenge to absorb all the material in one visit, even in just this part of the exhibition. These drawn-out, slow wandering actions signal an aesthetic opposition to the bravura of transatlantic culture. Exhibition curator Amy Cheng has previously cited anthropologist Kuan-Hsing Chen’s analysis:
In the past we (in Asia) have only looked towards Europe and the US. Looking back on the production of knowledge in art, we also discover that the majority of this knowledge was constructed based along the great production lines of Euramerican rhetoric.
The open ended narratives, and places evoked through fragments suggest atmospheres in these works are also ‘off-centre’ in relation to the realist tradition of Chinese modern art. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Fireworks (Archive) (2014) takes the spectator into a fantasy space, populated with strange animal sculptures, only revealed by occasional flashes of light. Elsewhere, Au Sow-Yee’s The Kris Project 1 (2016) allows multiple fragments of film from various times and places, hints of folktales and images of ephemera connected to the Asian film industry of the 1950s and 1960s, to inconclusively jostle together.
If, locality in the art of Europe and the US might be exemplified by the indeterminate depopulated sites of Robert Smithson in the photo essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967), Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s ‘typologies’ of industrial architecture in Germany, the works here reject rigidity and classification.
The Grand Voyage: A Study on Name (2016) by Shanghai based artists Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling is staged in an inaccessible glass box, like a closed ecosystem. It is a kaleidoscopic theatrical montage from material that fuses reality, in the form of botanical taxonomy, with other “‘strands’ constructed, concocted, and imagined”.
Guo and Zhang present several discrete tableaus on tables. They suggest ongoing research activity, evoked through document collections, books, ephemera and video material. Images of these workstations are live streamed to other screens in the same dark space. The effect is to blur history. The momentum for the work is real characters and a real plant specimen, with speculative and tangential ideas unfolding in ever changing interrelationships. The myriad resources of the installation can be accessed from many viewpoints. At its heart is the relationship between Kusumoto Taki, the mother of Kusumoto Oine, the first female doctor in Japan, and German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold. The effect is immersion in the rich changing shades and colours of a relationship, as if a relationship too were a particular instance of locality.
“Tell Me a Story” has the pace of a long novel. Rejecting spectacle, the exhibition shows the underlying truths that fictions can reveal, as well as challenging the assumption that localities have unity rather than being an impression produced through human interaction. Embodying evolutionary Asian creative and aesthetic identities, the works are optimistic, suggesting that through art it is possible to promote territorial flux, places secured not by flags, temples and monuments but by shared experiences.
- “Welcome to my life”: video art from the Lemaître collection at Shanghai Himalayas Museum – June 2016 – the Shanghai Himalayas Museum brings together influential video artists from famous collection
- Reframing Modernism at the National Gallery Singapore: curator Lisa Horikawa – interview – June 2016 -“Reframing Modernism” is a joint curatorial endeavour with the Paris-based Centre Pompidou, exhibiting over 200 works from 48 modern artists from Southeast Asia and Europe
- “Asian Art Show 2016”: NON Berlin as a hub for contemporary Asian art in Europe – April 2016 – Berlin gallery features contemporary artists from 7 countries over 14 weeks
- “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness”: 7 young Chinese artists at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai – April 2016 – the artists exhibiting in “Extravagant Imagination” forge a new path that explores the possibilities for contemporary art in the “post network” era
- “Ifs, Ands, or Buts”: Singapore’s Heman Chong at Rockbund Art Museum – February 2016 – the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai holds the first solo museum exhibition in China of Singaporean artist Heman Chong
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