Even the Air Smells Sweet
Forget the Horizon
chi K11 Art Museum, Shanghai
10.11.20 – 28.02.21
Joint Second Prize
Entry in Chinese
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
I’m not quite sure when it began, but Shanghai’s luxury shopping malls are always filled with the same smell. It’s a very delicate aroma, which smells a little sweet, making one think of the cakes and fine crockery on the table at a luxurious English afternoon tea party. Research by scientists has proved that smells dictate 70 per cent of our daily emotions – humans are creatures whose actions are often based on impulse, and the sense of smell affects these actions more than the senses of hearing or sight. Why do all the McDonald’s restaurants in the world emit the fragrant aroma of freshly cooked French fries? This smell, which makes middle-aged people feel nostalgic and children become obsessed, ensures that the homely scene of the family having a filling meal together after a shopping trip or a visit to an amusement park remains etched in our minds, securing McDonald’s a place in the nuclear family’s collective consciousness, which is passed down the generations.
The smell of luxury malls is luscious, opulent, disarming. In some unfathomable way, it makes you feel that you have become more refined, richer, so that you can’t help opening your wallet, apparently convinced that as long as you own some consumer goods that are as fragrant as the store itself, you will have a beautiful life that is just as fragrant as these products.
When you walk into the Forget the Horizon art exhibition in the K11 mall in central Shanghai, you can immediately feel your body being enveloped by the luscious aroma that permeates the air. In 2020, curating a contemporary art show in a shopping mall is like taking measures against the coronavirus – it has become the new normal in these strongholds of consumerism. The diffusion of the term ‘curate’, from the four white walls of art museums focused mainly on the elite, to consumer venues visited by the general public, seems to have restored attention to the word’s original sense of ‘looking after’ and ‘taking care of’.¹ It’s already November 2020, and there are too many shattered souls and lost faiths that need to be looked after and taken care of. The coronavirus pandemic is still biting hard in most countries around the world, and a fresh lockdown is once again testing humanity’s patience, confidence and empathy. Since the millennium, the world has been marching triumphantly forward, amid soaring stock markets and technical innovation. Humanity seemed to have attained the Star Trek vision of ‘Live long and prosper’, ahead of schedule.² And when biotechnology can now replicate even the human organism, what could stop the advance towards a future that seems to be already here?
To put it fatalistically, the sudden emergence of the coronavirus has felt like the biological world giving humanity a rude awakening – a warning that, amid all their revelry, humans need to reflect on their behaviour. Many ancient debates remain unresolved, and there are also fresh problems to challenge the human soul. What is freedom? What is truth? Even more importantly, what is ‘alternative truth’? And in the face of all this, what can art do? In the midst of this onslaught, in this time of contemplation, the exhibition Forget the Horizon, a group show curated by Lu Mingjun, featuring the artists Song Ta, Wang Xingwei and Xu Zhen, opened at the chi K11 Art Museum in Shanghai.
‘The Tower of Babel has no summit; it stretches straight up into the clouds.’ This dedication, on a basket of flowers given to Xu Zhen and placed at the entrance to the exhibition, already hints that this is not an exhibition that will leave you indifferent. It also reminds me of the Jedi Knights in Star Wars. In George Lucas’s world, these guardians of the galaxy, armed with lightsabres and trained in martial arts, are the protectors of faith and the Force. In the Forget the Horizon exhibition, the curator categorises Wang, Xu and Song as three male artists born in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s respectively, who grew up in three different geographical regions: the north-east, southern China and eastern China. They each dance with lightsabres and wear trendy footwear, striding with one foot towards the boundless creative Force of the artist, while the other foot moves in sync with the rhythm of our age – sometimes, they themselves are the rhythm of the age.
Walking into the exhibition space, no one can miss out the step of going across to squeeze the hand sanitiser bottle in the shape of St Paul’s Cathedral, to wash and disinfect their hands. Xu Zhen’s work Tool, made during the pandemic, maintains his customary quick-witted, caustic approach, somewhere between teasing and provocative, tackling the present head-on. In a large display case, a blue-green ‘What’s Up’ dialogue box sends out the apparently concerned greeting: ‘Are You OK?’. Whether the participants in this conversation are two specific women, or artificial intelligence, is not important: in a place where commerce and culture interweave, producers and consumers are the same, they are all ‘humans at play’ ( homo ludens ).³
Among the trends in the development of global contemporary art over the past decade are the dramatic increases in exhibition space, in demand for exhibition content, and in the number of people attending exhibitions. Art has taken on the role of the ‘social lubricant of our great cities’.⁴ Yet has the expansion of exhibition spaces into society given roots and a voice to contemporary art’s social criticism? Or has art simply been re-fermented into a gamified experience, a cultural commodity? Not long ago, Xu Zhen, who previously took over parts of Huaihai Road⁵ for an exhibition he curated, said mockingly in an interview with a journalist: ‘People in every industry all seem to think that art is like Laoganma – all you need to do is dip things in it and they’ll taste good.’⁶ In the exhibition hall of the chi K11 Art Museum, where the aromatic scent lingers in the air, art has turned into a fragrance, and it smells a little sweet.
If we take the Jedi Knights as a metaphor for this exhibition, then Master Yoda, who channels the Force, is definitely the eldest of the three, the north-easterner Wang Xingwei. His For That Star Again depicts a strange scene of soaring through space: here Jupiter shimmers, the Milky Way beckons. If you’re starting to hear the classic theme tune from the Star Wars movies echoing in your ears, well, when you notice that Wang Xingwei’s version of the starship Millennium Falcon, as it surges into space, has metamorphosed into a giant sweet corn cob, the space travel soundtrack in your head will certainly come to an abrupt halt. It feels both unexpected and not really relevant. In Wang Xingwei’s paintings, the assemblage of images is like music that’s slightly out of tune, leaving you wondering whether it’s the result of some deviation in the standard of the musician’s performance, or a problem with the sound system. In his pictures, the combination of impressive realist technique and the perplexing surrealist mood is – to go back to the language of painting – a response to the study of painting’s social nature by modernist painters, from Manet onwards. As painting’s nurturing of self-awareness continues to develop, Wang Xingwei’s contribution includes the celebratory folk style of a crop-planting song from north-east China, and the humour and cunning wit of a north-eastern song and dance duet.
The popularity over recent years of the ‘north-eastern cultural renaissance’, which began in the literary world, raises an issue of great relevance to this exhibition: the nostalgia and nativism of the new north-eastern literature not only caters to the tastes of members of the ‘new middle class’ but also touches on their own situation. These incomers to the big cities, who are still energetically charging along the path towards economic success, are also the main group of consumers for malls such as K11 in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Whether they come to the mall to buy a brand-name handbag, or spend 99 yuan to visit the exhibition Forget the Horizon, an art show of the same nature as these consumer goods will also bring the shoppers some delight during their shopping trip, leaving a trace of new dreams in the daily lives of these working people. This is the eternal truth of art’s existence – a spiritual token, something rare in our increasingly material contemporary world.
At least the next generation among this group will certainly share more of a common language with Song Ta, the youngest of the three artists participating in the exhibition. Wearing a very bling wristwatch and the most fashionable vulcanised rubber-soled shoes, Song Ta has turned the exhibition space into a fashion show, screening a film of the fashion brand he founded, Urban Chigga, participating in New York Fashion Week.⁷ The scene is decorated with fluttering red and white flags with Song Ta’s name printed on them, accompanied by the pounding beat of hip-hop music, and Song Ta delivers every visitor who enters the room onto the brilliantly lit catwalk. Song Ta’s ‘nonsense’ and ‘political incorrectness’ do not stand up to scrutiny – yet as an artist, in a bastion of consumerism like K11, they chime with key elements of the campaign to promote China’s ‘national brands’: middle-school uniforms and domestic-brand Huili shoes.
When did this begin, that the childhood of the one-time ‘flowers of the nation’ has been turned into the nostalgic consumer goods of today – and nostalgia has become the reflex reaction of modern people seeking to protect themselves against an insecure society?⁸ Thirty years ago, when the world was only just getting to know contemporary Chinese art, ‘Chineseness’ made its debut with ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’, both rich in symbolism. Big-character posters, Tiananmen, and even traditional Chinese intellectuals like the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, came to represent ‘Chineseness’ in the eyes of the West. Today, in a globalised world, to talk about Chineseness is really just like flaunting the ‘national brand wave’ – its limitations are obvious. A quick browse through TikTok, the international version of Douyin, shows that the nostalgia of teenagers all over the world is cloaked in similar ‘military-style’ school uniforms – the world of young people, held together by social media, has long since been seamlessly interconnected.
In the symposium that preceded the opening of the exhibition, the curator Lu Mingjun stressed repeatedly that this was perhaps an extremely ‘incorrect’ exhibition, which the majority of people might even dislike; it was part of his strategy to make offending the audience a litmus test for assessing the exhibition – and turn content into attitude, regardless of whether or not it was wrong. Richard Hamilton once said the audience would only remember art exhibitions that invented a ‘new display feature’. If we combine these two standards to consider this exhibition, its bright spot is the unapologetic attitude of the three artists, who each use a ‘new feature’ to critique consumer society – by turns mocking, clever, warm, witty, provocative, passionate… At the same time as subverting audience members’ ideas and expectations, they also ask them to pay for the privilege. This is precisely the type of freedom of personal choice in a ‘liquid-modern culture’ discussed by Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Culture is turning now into one of the departments in the “all you need and might dream of” department store.’⁹
K11 is not just a department store crammed full of desire, it is also an art museum where even the air smells sweet.
1. The English word ‘curate’ is derived from the Latin cura, which means ‘care’; a curatore is ‘someone who provides care’. The word ‘curator’ was first used in the Roman empire to describe an official of the empire in charge of public matters of all [various] kinds.
2. The greeting used by Vulcans in the television series Star Trek. It expresses the belief that there is no limit to interstellar beings’ ability to expand to other planets, where they will flourish and achieve immortality.
3. Homo ludens was a term invented by the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in 1938, meaning ‘man the player’. It emphasises the importance of play to humankind. In today’s world, where humans suffer from a serious attention deficit, this concept has been refined to mean that whatever people do, all experiences are seen as a game. Gamified thought has spread to all areas – in the view of this writer, art exhibitions in shopping malls are designed to cater to gamified consumers.
4. Nick Foulkes, ‘Why art is the social lubricant of our great city’, London Evening Standard, 10 July 2009.
5. Translator’s note: An upmarket shopping street in Shanghai, on which the K11 mall is located.
6. Translator’s note: Laoganma is a popular Chinese chilli sauce brand.
7. According to the online Urban Dictionary, ‘Asians who are influenced by urban hip-hop culture’ are known as ‘chigga’. The word, made up of ‘Ch’ from ‘Chinese’ and ‘igga’ from ‘Nigga’, suggests that Asian people who like hip-hop want to become Black. This kind of fashionable internet vocabulary is based on habitual perception and judgement – and in the opinion of this author it contains racial prejudice.
8. Translator’s note: ‘Flowers of the nation’ refers to the generation of Chinese children who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the years after the Cultural Revolution.
9. Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Education in the Liquid-Modern Setting’, Power and Education, 1:2 ( 2009 ), p. 158 <journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.2304/power.2009.1.2.157>.
走进位于上海市中心的K11商场“绝地通天”艺术展，立刻会感觉到身体被洋溢在空气中的甜美气味包裹起来。2020年，在商场里策划当代艺术展已同新冠防疫一样，成为消费主义大本营里的新日常。“策展”（ Curate ）一词从精英阶层占主体的美术馆内四方白墙向普罗大众造访的消费场的扩散，似乎又回归了“策展” 词源的本义对“呵护”和“照顾”的关注¹。时间已到2020年11月，太多破碎的心灵和失落的信仰需要被呵护和照顾。新冠疫情依旧死死钳咬着世界上大多数国家，再次的禁足隔离考验着人类的耐心、信心和同理心。千禧年以来世界在股市高涨、技术创新中高歌猛进，人类好似提前进入了《星际迷航》里“live long and prosper”²的憧憬。生物技术连人类生物体都可以复制，还有什么能阻止未来的节奏吗？宿命地讲，突然而至的新冠病毒就如生物界给人类的当头一棒，提醒狂欢中的人类自省其身。许多古老的命题依旧纠缠不清，更有新的难题挑战灵魂。何为自由？何为真相？更何为“选择性真相”（ Alternative Truth ) ？这其中艺术又有何作为呢？在这样的冲击和反思中，策展人鲁明军邀请宋拓、王兴伟、徐震三位艺术家共同呈现的展览“绝地通天”，登陆上海K11 美术馆。
“巴别没顶，直插云霄”，展览入口这句送给徐震的花篮上的题词，已经暗示着这将不会是一场让你无动于衷的展览，也让我想到《星球大战》中的绝地武士( Jedi Knight )。 这些修炼武艺，手持光剑的太空卫士，在乔治·卢卡斯的世界里，是信仰和原力的保护者；在“绝地通天”展览上，策展人将他们设定为分别出生于60、70、80年代末， 出生成长在东北、华南和华东三个地理区域的三位男性艺术家。他们各自舞着“光剑”，足蹬潮鞋，一脚跨向艺术家天马行空的创作原力，另一脚紧踩着当下时代的节奏，有时候，他们自身就是时代的节奏。
走进展厅，谁都不会错过去挤压圣保罗教堂造型的洗手液瓶消毒洗手的步骤。徐震在疫情中创作的《工具》持续着一贯的敏捷尖锐，在揶揄挑衅之间，直指当下。包装在大型展示盒内蓝绿相交的“What’s Up” 对话栏里，发出貌似关心的问候 “Are You Ok?” ，对话的双方是某女还是AI，这不重要，在商业与文化交织的地方，生产者与消费者一样，都是“游戏的人” （ Homo Ludens ) ³。近十年来全球当代艺术的发展趋势之一就是展览空间剧增，对展览内容的需求剧增，观众参观展览的人数剧增。艺术充当起“我们伟大城市的社会润滑剂”⁴， 然而展览空间向社会的扩张是将当代艺术的社会批判性落地发声呢？还是再次发酵为游戏化体验的文化消费品？不久前，早已以策划艺术展览横扫淮海路的徐震在记者采访中调侃道：“各行各业全都觉得艺术就像老干妈一样，蘸一蘸好吃。” 在香气萦绕的K11美术馆展厅里，艺术又一次成了香薰，闻起来有点甜。
如果拿绝地武士来比喻这次展览，那么聚合原力的尤达大师（ Master Yoda ）就一定是三人中最年长的来自东北的王兴伟了。作品《再次为了那颗星》描绘了一个奔向太空的奇异情景，这里木星闪烁，银河系召唤，如果此刻你耳边开始响起星战电影中的经典主题曲，那在你看到奔向太空的王兴伟的“千年隼号”（ Millennium Falcon ）在这里蜕变成一只巨型老玉米时，你脑中的太空之旅音乐一定会戛然而止。出人意料又不着边际，在王兴伟的绘画中，图像拼搭就如变调的音乐，令人疑惑是乐手演奏水准的偏失还是音响设备的故障。聚合在王兴伟的画面上感人的写实主义功底与迷惘的超现实主义意境，回归到绘画语言，是在回应马奈以来的现代主义画家对绘画社会性的研究。在绘画滋生自我意识的进程中，王兴伟式的贡献里有来自东北大秧歌的喜庆民风和二人转式的幽默狡黠。近年来由文学界开启的“东北文艺复兴”热，提出的一个与本展览甚为关联的问题：新东北文学的乡愁和乡土，既迎合了“新中产”趣味，又触动到他们的境遇。这些依然在追求经济资本的路上努力奔跑的“外地人”，同时是北上广一线城市里K11同类的商场中主体的消费人群。他们来商场无论是买名牌包，还是花99元看展览“绝地通天”，与消费品同质的艺术展览，也会带给购物者“血拼”之际的狂喜，给打工人们平庸的日常中留下一丝念想。这是艺术存在的永恒真理，是当下越来越物质的世界中我们所剩无几的精神信物。
至少，这个群体中的下一代一定与三位参展艺术家中最年轻的宋拓有更多的共同语言。带着金闪闪的腕表和穿着最流行的硫化胶底鞋的宋拓把展览现场改成了时装发布会，播放自己创立的时装品牌“Urban Chingga” 参加纽约时装周的影像。现场飘着印着宋拓名字的红白颜色主打的道旗，配上节奏强烈的hip-hop音乐，宋拓把每一个进入展厅的观众都送上了炫目的走秀台。作为艺术家，宋拓的无厘头和经不起推敲的政治不正确⁵，在K11这个消费主义大本营里，落到了推销国潮的关键词上：中学校服、国民回力鞋。从什么时候开始，曾经的祖国花朵的童年变成了今天怀旧的消费品，而怀旧是现代人对不安社会做出自我保护的条件反射。30年前，中国当代艺术刚刚被世界认识的时候，“中国性”以符号式的“政治波谱”和“玩世现实主义”出场，大字报、天安门甚至竹林七贤式的中国知识分子成为西方人眼里的中国性（ Chineseness ) 。今天，在全球化的世界里，再谈“中国性”其实和炫耀“国潮”一样，局限性都是一目了然的。浏览一下国际版抖音的TikTok，全世界的少年乡愁都披着相似的军装式的校服，社交媒体维系着的年轻人的世界早已无缝连接了。