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The Shanghai Nights Biennale Artists
Aleksandra Domanovic, “The Dream”Courtesy of the gallery

Shanghai Nights

From censorship to consumerism: as the Shanghai Biennale draws to a close, we look back on the best of the festival

For its tenth edition, the Shanghai Biennale brought together a pulsating list of art-world names to produce a subtle, considered and memorable exhibition in the first state-run museum dedicated to contemporary art in mainland China. The Nanshi Electric Plant was operational from 1897 to 1955, and now finds itself housing energy for TV monitors, and growing lamps for plants and projectors – all accumulating in the creation of a powerhouse of art. From the control room, Berlin-based academic curator Anselm Franke posits: “Shanghai embodies, materially and as an image, a promise for the post-industrial future – the China that will no longer be the ‘world factory’ but rather a ‘social factory’. But what sort of social realities does this society-as-factory produce?

One of the modern world’s largest metropolises and global pass-throughs, Shanghai’s exponential growth, and apartment-on-apartment block architecture, lends itself to the visual language of the future. Blade Runner (1982) was filmed here – as William Gibson put it, “one of the first sci-fis with dirt in it” – and more recently Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her (2013) looked wistfully out across the sprawling megacity’s rooftops, lusting after Scarlett Johansson’s soon-to-be atomised networked voice. Shanghai frequently stands in as a spectacular representation of the future-according-to-Hollywood, so the challenge for a curator is how to represent art in this context in a new and interesting way, while deftly negotiating the tricky political terrain.

Previous Biennales have considered the pace of Shanghai and its economy. China is the fastest-growing market for contemporary art. Franke’s ‘social factory’, however, calls into question not simply the speed of Shanghai’s transformation, but the place of the people within it. The ‘big data dream’ of acquiring and accessing emotions, algorithmic processing and data collection, all filter our bodies for processing; the social is harnessed into a factory for corporations and corporeal governance.  

The artist roster itself is fairly evenly split between international and Chinese artists, spanning decades, materials and viewpoints. French artist Neïl Beloufa’s subtly satirical work “World Domination” takes place in a room where actors re-engineer, restage, and re-perform a political meeting as if they were president, minister of international affairs and military leaders of imaginary states. The film exposes the absurdity of the daily performances at the heart of political relations. This restaging continues in much of the moving image. Yu Cheng-Ta, who represented Taiwan at the 53rd Venice Biennale, engineered a gentle family satire “Practicing LIVE”, which casts art world professionals as family members in a fictional birthday-party scenario – with funny and absurd consequences. Chinese national and Goldsmiths MFA graduate Ran Huang’s “The Administration of Glory”, nominated for a short film Palme d’Or, is a narrative of freedoms and group dynamics that is in equal parts touching and strange.

One fascinating room is filled with large vitrines and maps, an exploration of artist Yin Ju Chen’s engagement in the esoteric practice of astrology. She creates “Liquidation Maps”, in which she draws and assembles astrological charts of political genocides in 20th century east Asian history, in order to expose different systems of knowledge production and cultural memory. Berlin-based prolific artist Aleksandra Domanovic’s work “The Dream”, in which a Terminator-esque hand (a print of the Belgrade Hand) protrudes from a wall next to a timeline that runs from Ada Lovelace’s first computer program in 1843 to 2099, when Ray Kurzweil has predicted that most conscious beings will lack a permanent physical form. The work sits alongside Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “The Whole Truth”, taken from his active research into voice, speech and its instrumentalisation by the state in judicial systems. Anselm Franke remarks that “this (China) was always a biopolitical state”.

Ming Wong, who works between Berlin and Singapore, presents his work “Windows on the World”, which draws an initially unlikely comparison between sci-fi (which arrived in China in the 1970s) and early-20th century Chinese opera. The deck of a spaceship TV stack installation suggests these looping, predictive narratives in a context that aligns them visually in places with Tarkovsky and Soviet sci-fi, but serves to question China’s relationship to modernity.

The Biennale stands as a bringing together of strong international art that you may not encounter in your everyday art consumption – situated within the megalopolis as expats hustle between the Costa Coffee and the Starbucks and drink cocktails on rooftops.  

The state-run Power Station of Art is also, as with all things on mainland China, state-censored. Franke’s Biennale, however, looks outward from the city to the world, playing the personal narratives and global interaction room by room, but implying the larger questions about where we are going as a global society, bound as we are by technological state surveillance, DNA databases and data farms.

Shanghai Biennale runs until March 31: click here for more