Dichotomous Narrative

Yuz Museum, Shanghai
04.09.16 – 15.01.17

Translated by Daniel Szehin Ho

Overpop looks like an archival exhibition that innovates by looking at the past. Yet in the lame dialogue between China and the West, it loses out to a comparative approach.

The Yuz Museum spent two years researching this exhibition. In the end, it has presented the two curators’ concepts together, although they are separate concepts, reflecting quite different approaches. One of the curators, Karen Smith, believes that this exhibition ‘harmoniously presented different understandings’, accidentally suiting the government’s wishes to mould society. But whether the exhibition really works like that is another matter.

At first sight, Overpop felt a bit like a rehash. From the 1960s onwards, Pop, with its use of popular cultural symbols, abstracted and reconfigured ideas, establishing a specific aesthetics and paradigm. However, after half a century’s communications revolution, contemporary art had already utterly abandoned any trace of this movement’s visible influence. A great degree of the significance of Overpop resides in the attempt to disentangle some of the threads, in the midst of what looks like a messy, chaotic, contemporary art scene.

In China, within an Internet environment that had been slightly behind the times, post-Internet art suddenly blossomed into a trend that was widely welcomed by artists. Artists were forced to create in an ever more ferocious post-Internet environment, which left them at a loss as to what to do next. This was one of the aspects that Smith wanted to present in the exhibition. However, owing to the deficiencies in cultural material that was created by this rupture, artists attempted to take advantage of the rapid rate of economic expansion, by closing in on the rewards at lightning speed.  In the process, the different artistic directions came to reflect varying degrees of Western influence, and this was one of the principal reasons for the apparent diversity.

Overpop sets out to present us with a number of references, to help clarify origins. In the exhibition, these references may be said to operate on two levels of signification. First, in the so-called Western context, there are works in styles that bear a heavy historical imprint. With the passage of time, this historicism has exerted an increasingly deep and extensive influence on Pop culture. Secondly, in the so-called Chinese context, the successive ruptures have created numerous incompatible positions; artists have grouped together in isolated communities, each of them presenting their work in a different cultural context.

‘Pop’ presented a logic and a methodology for artistic creation. Setting out with a set of relatively uniform ideas and critiques, it gradually deepened and developed into ‘post-Pop’. The Internet has provided just one source of new material within the framework of recent developments. The creative aspects of this, which were originally referred to as ‘post-Internet’, including video sites, social media platforms, digital media technology, and so on, have been able, therefore, to revert to their original positions in mass culture. Post-Internet art was included in Overpop, and everything might be said to work, since an industrial aesthetic may be seen to derive from advertising samples.

Alex Israel turns the lenses of sunglasses into abstract sculpture; Anicka Yi uses soap and shampoo to create temporary installations of consumer items; Tabor Robak transforms everyday objects into animations, in a virtual environment. And all these works clearly accord with the criteria of selection laid down by Jeffrey Deitch. First, the works have a strong expressiveness; viewers do not need to have the visual tension explained to them, in words. Secondly, the works combine popular cultural elements in new media, social networks, and so on; through this combination, they are connected to the creative logic of traditional Pop art, and on that basis, they are distinguished from, and go beyond, mass culture. These two criteria define the features of the Western works in the show, and also undermine the fashion for post-Internet art, in a roundabout way.

In Deitch’s selection of works, we can see the care he has taken, to avoid becoming infatuated with the question of media. Works are not shown to possess a greater advantage, simply by virtue of the technology they employ; his standards are still visual and make sense. This can be seen in the works of Helen Marten and Samara Golden. Marten’s collage works can be traced back to the tradition of Robert Rauschenberg, bringing real life onto creative works enclosed within a frame, by engaging in the positioning of everyday objects. Meanwhile, Golden’s The Flat Side of the Knife is a subtle work that lies between the virtual and the real; the psychedelic scene she fashions for viewers reminds one of the virtual environments in electronic games. Yet Golden has not constructed these scenes with digital techniques; instead, she has exercised restraint, in employing lens, video, sound and sculpture, to make the work. Technique does not just upstage everything in the name of ‘technique’.

As the curator of the Chinese section, Smith has struggled to achieve a balance with a curatorial concept that allowed for a multifaceted presentation of Chinese artists’ works. The seven artists she has selected certainly represent starkly divergent aspects: He An constructs romantic narratives with waste products from industrial advertising; Xu Wenkai ( a.k.a. aaajiao ) creates monuments from computer user interfaces, covering a period of several decades; Tong Kunniao makes large-scale installations with small, cheap goods… In laying out these multiple narratives, Smith has succeeded in reflecting what she describes as a ‘distinctive contemporary cultural framework’. Disregarding, for the moment, the quality of the works she has selected, however, her curatorial ideas cannot help but seem excessively modest, and even a little timid. In response to the clear concept of Overpop expounded by Deitch, Smith has chosen to react in an indirect way – presenting the ‘diversity’ of conditions in contemporary Chinese art, as mentioned before. In fact, we can probably find a multifaceted aspect to any group exhibition that is lacking in a clear direction, if we choose to.  If we are not to ascribe this approach to a form of laziness, we might be tempted to dismiss it as impotent. Right from the start, the curators’ aim of contrasting Chinese and Western art meant that this would inevitably create a certain imbalance. This is not merely a numerical imbalance, in the headcount of Chinese and Western artists on show, but a more significant asymmetry, in terms of historical connections.  Moreover, in such a thoroughly globalised social context, we might well be justified in asking whether it is really effective to work on the basis of a number of dichotomous positions. Out of the seventeen  artists selected for the exhibition, one is a Korean artist based in New York, several are Chinese artists who have studied abroad before returning to China, and there are several artists of Chinese origin who are living abroad. The separate identities of these artists effectively debar the possibility of a meaningful ‘dialogue’.

In the end, we regretfully, but clearly, see that this ‘dialogue’, which ought to have been pleasing, ends up creating a thoroughly detestable situation. Such dichotomous narratives not only neglect the cultural conditions that are spreading smoothly around the globe, but crudely oversimplify the influence of a variety of social contexts on artistic creation. Thus, the lame dialogue between China and the West, as presented to us in Overpop, does not possess any objectivity, while its clearly articulated subjective ideas would undoubtedly have proved more effective as part of a non-dichotomous narrative.


2016年9月4日 – 2017年1月15日


余德耀美术馆此次花费两年时间调研,最终将两位策展人各执一词的观念同时展出。Karen Smith认为这个展览“将不同的见解和谐地呈现出来”,不经意地符合政府塑造社会的心愿,但是否如此却是另当别论。





Alex Israel将太阳眼镜镜片放大成为抽象雕塑、Anicka Yi利用肥皂香波制造带有时效性的消费装置、Tabor Robak 使日常物转变成虚拟环境中的动画金这些作品都符合Jeffrey Deitch明确提出的选作标准:其一,作品本身有强烈的表现力,观者不必通过文字就能感受到视觉张力;其二,作品结合了新媒体和社交网络类的流行文化元素,通过这种结合与传统的波普创作逻辑关联,并在此基础上区别并凌驾于大众文化之上。这两个标准定义了此次西方作品的面貌,也以一种迂回的方式削弱了后网络艺术的风头。

在Deitch对作品的选择中,我们可以看到他对媒介痴迷的警惕性,作品在此并不因为它所使用的技术而更具备优势,他的标准仍是视觉的并且行之有据的。这一点从Helen Marten和Samara Golden的作品中都可以体现出来。Marten的拼贴创作可以追溯到Robert Rauschenberg的传统,通过对日常物的经营布置,将现实生活带入架上创作;Golden的The Flat Side of The Knife则是介于虚拟与现实之间的微妙创作,她为观者营造的致幻场景让人联想到电子游戏中的虚拟环境,但Golden并没有使用电子技术去搭建这样的场景,而是克制的利用镜面、影像、声音和雕塑完成。技术在其间不再为了“技术之名”而喧宾夺主。

作为中方策展人的Smith,试图通过多元呈现中国艺术家的作品为策展概念拉锯出平衡态势。七位艺术家的确表现了迥然不同的面貌:何岸利用工业性的广告废材进行浪漫叙事、徐文恺将过去几十年间的计算机用户界面制作成丰碑、童昆鸟利用廉价小商品制造大型装置在铺陈开的多种叙事中恰也呼应她指出的“独具特色的当代文化架构”。且不论甄选的作品好坏,但在策展理念上,Smith未免显得过于谦逊而有点露怯。应对Deitch明确提出的” 概念,Smith选择了一种非正面回应的方式金呈现上文所说的“不一而足”的中国当代艺术现状。而事实上,我们几乎可以在任何无定向的群展中看到所谓的“多元”面貌,这种概括方式如若不是偷懒也会被理解成无能为力。