Land Art developed in China in the 1980s proposing itself not as a reaction to the gallery system as happened in the Western art scene but as a way to discuss society’s transformation.

OCAT Shenzhen hosts the group exhibition “Digging a Hole in China” investigating the “potential of land” when facing political and economical issues of globalisation, property and production.

Exhibition site view, “Digging a Hole in China”, OCAT Shenzhen, (March 20-June 26 2016). Image courtesy OCAT Shenzhen.

Exhibition site view, “Digging a Hole in China”, OCAT Shenzhen, (March 20-June 26 2016). Image courtesy OCAT Shenzhen.

Land is the subject of a large-scale show at OCAT Shenzhen entitled “Digging a Hole in China” (20 March – 26 June 2016) which features a variety of media and works by over a dozen contemporary Chinese artists executed from 1994 onwards. In this inaugural show at OCAT Shenzhen, since her appointment as Artistic Director in August 2015, curator Venus Lau, tries to analyse how works by Chinese contemporary artists that are connected to the land, differ from works seen as part of the land art movement of the West that started in the late 1960s. Through this exhibition she plans to “expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art… thereby probing the potential of ‘land’ – as a cultural and political concept – in artistic practice”.

In the West, land art was born out of a reaction and protest against the commercialisation of art and the gallery system. Perhaps the best-known proponent of land art in North America is Robert Smithson, who left the physical and institutional confines of the galleries and set up works of art in the outdoors using land-related materials such as his well-known Spiral Jetty (1970).

During the same period, thousands of Chinese intellectuals experienced the land as part of the re-education programme that swept through the country during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s the concept of Land Art was introduced from the West to China; however, even though there was neither an art market nor a consumer society, there were some areas of overlap. Since that time, Chinese “society has gone through groundbreaking transformations, and ontological, sociological, and political conceptualizations of land have changed drastically: an exploratory and evolving process that has been represented in diverse forms in contemporary art.”

The curator further clarifies the difference between Western land art proponents and their contemporary counterparts in China:

While ‘traditional’ Western land art seeks a conceptual and geographical nowhere, the works in ‘Digging a Hole in China’ turn to a variety of issues such as the rights of ownership, management, and land use, and the transfer of and restrictions on these rights.

Zheng Guogu, ‘Liao Yuan’ (Previously titled ‘Age of the Empire’), 2004–present; Video installation (16′31′′). Image courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and OCAT Shenzhen.

Zheng Guogu, ‘Liao Yuan’ (Previously titled ‘Age of the Empire’), 2004–present, Video installation (16:31 min). Image courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and OCAT Shenzhen.

In 2004, Zheng Guogu purchased a piece of land in his hometown of Yangjiang and has since expanded it to an “empire” of more than forty thousand square metres. He has built roads, planted trees, constructed buildings, and has moved tons of rocks to this site. This has meant that he has violated building codes, including illegitimate changes to land use. He has fashioned “a dialectic of the virtual and the real”. For this exhibition, Zheng transports soil from Liao Yuan (“Accomplished Garden”) from Yangjiang to Shenzhen, and sifts it through a specially-made funnel that naturally forms a perfect pyramid shape.

Liu Wei, Chen Haoyu (Colin Siyuan Chinnery), ‘Propitiation’, 2007, 2016; Mixed media. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Liu Wei, Chen Haoyu (Colin Siyuan Chinnery), ‘Propitiation’, 2007, 2016, Mixed media. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Another work that deals with excavation of public land is Liu Wei and Chen Haoyu’s (Colin Siyuan Chinnery) Propitiation (2007), an on-site work in which a newly constructed space and the act of excavation are the primary components. In the fabricated space the floor is made of black asphalt, while the four walls are covered with square tiles that form abstract patterns. As for the excavation, more than ten holes in the shapes of traffic signs are carved out of the cement floors of the exhibition hall. The work’s title, Propitiation (“Xietu”) stems from a Taoist ritual known as the “propitiation ceremony,” where individuals express their thanks to the God of Land.

Xu Qu, ‘Upstream’, 2011; Standard-definition video, dinghy; 14′58′′. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Xu Qu, ‘Upstream’, 2011, Standard-definition video, dinghy, 14:58 min. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Several works in the show address the issue of landscape “beyond its relationships to agricultural production […] [and] the socio-geological strata of urban planning.” For example, in the video ‘Upstream’ (2011) we see artist Xu Qu with a friend setting off on a journey in a dinghy from the outskirts of Beijing on a putrid creek towards the downtown area. When there is water, they row; whenever they run into land, they walk. They were eventually stopped after boating for five hours. The 15-minute single channel video is exhibited here alongside the dinghy from their performance.

Liu Chuang, ‘Untitled’ (‘Dancing Partner’), 2010; Video; 5′15′′. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Liu Chuang, ‘Untitled’ (‘Dancing Partner’), 2010, Video, 5:15 min. Image courtesy the artist and OCAT Shenzhen.

Liu Chuang’s Untitled (Dancing Partner) (2010) deals with the urban planning aspect of landscape in his single channel video where two identical white cars drive through a city side by side at the slowest legal speed limit. While abiding by the rules, it may seem that they are interfering with the regular traffic order, however they do not create any traffic congestion.

Cao Fei, ‘East Wind’, 2011–2015; Single channel video; 11′11′′. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, THOMAS & FRIENDS and OCAT Shenzhen.

Cao Fei, ‘East Wind’, 2011–2015, Single channel video, 11:11 min. Image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, THOMAS & FRIENDS and OCAT Shenzhen.

Another work that “reflect[s] and def[ies] the rules and regulations that ethically ground road users” is Cao Fei’s East Wind (2001-2015), which records a truck disguised as “Thomas”, the BBC’s popular cartoon train engine scooting around in a city and getting some curious stares from onlookers as it goes about its way of filling up with gas or just taking a break.

“Digging a Hole in China” certainly provides quite a diverse body of work, all of which engage with the subject of the land in relation to China’s current reality. Each work sheds light on the subject from a unique standpoint yet there are also many points of convergence amongst them.

Nooshfar Afnan

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, installation, photography, video, environment, museum shows, events in Shenzhen

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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