The Skynet schedule. Drone anarchy. Genetic enhancement. Neurology of VR. Facial recognition and civil liberties (2012). Deep machine learning. Algorithmic trading. Blockchained AI. Musk’s dark dreams. Choose your flying car.
Shanghai’s the Power Station of Art is hosting The Ninth Wave, a solo exhibition of work by Cai Guo-Qiang (1957-), through to October 26. It’s … explosive.
The name of the show, and its central exhibit, is taken from a painting (1850) by Russian artist Ivan Aivazavosky (1817-1900). This image of inundating disaster is of clear relevance to the show, but it also serves as a pretext and screen for an adoption of signs that Cai Guo-Qiang invests with singular (and cryptic) evocations. Deep rhythms of time, power, and number are a consistent theme flowing through the exhibition.
The Ninth Wave (2014) is a re-purposed boat, crowded with (99) stuffed animals. It was floated down the Huangpu to be installed in the show, making it the memorial of an event — a signature of Cai’s work. Superficially, it’s a Noah’s Ark, and an icon of ecological calamity, but this barnacled hulk, with its crew of traumatized inhuman survivors, also satirizes the dramatic narratives — whether comic or tragic — that are employed to frame the profound, ruinous tides of cosmic transition.
Cai Guo-Qiang has seared his name on the cultural imagination in fireworks, pursuing an incendiary path to neotraditonalist aesthetic restoration. Working with gunpowder is the revival of a traditional Chinese artistic medium. Cai modernizes its potential for public spectacle, in ‘Explosive Events’ or ‘Pyrotechnic Explosion Projects’ which are stunningly documented in the show. Yet, among the things Cai explodes is media compartmentalization. The fallout from his work includes char-marked images, production diagrams, and video recordings. His detonations spread across the entire multidimensional domain of visual aesthetics. Time itself is envisaged as a system of explosions, burns, and debris.
Chinese Capitalism: less statist than commonly believed?
If read between the lines, this might be the least bad article on the Hong Kong disturbances UF has seen yet (which isn’t saying much).
Neo-Secessionism in America.
Odd news from Russia.
The ebola threat.
The Incredible Machines conference held last Friday and Saturday threaded discussion of technology (by theorists and artists) together with some impressive boundary-pushing on the exploitation side. Despite some inevitable tech-hitches, the ‘real’ (or Vancouver meat-space) and virtual (global Cyberspace) components of the event were inter-networked with remarkable vividness, and even a certain smoothness. Internet-driven delocalization was crossing a threshold, in a way that any future international event will find difficult to ignore.
Whatever else is to be learned from ‘A Dream I Dreamed’ — the Kusama Yayoi exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai (Dec 15 to March 30, 2014) — the most superficially striking lesson is sociological. Shanghainese — and especially young Shanghainese — can’t get enough of this stuff. After almost two months, queues no longer regularly stretch all the way through People’s Park and out onto Nanjing Xi Lu, but they still over-spill the gallery. Both thematically and socially, this is a show about multitudes.
Kusama, born in 1929, has an artistic career stretching back to the 1950s. Throughout seven decades, as her celebrity has waxed and waned in waves, her artistic focus — or, more exactly, her strategic ‘obliteration’ of focus — has remained remarkably constant. Sensuous disintegration of self and world into dot pattern has been a continuous preoccupation.
There’s always something huge happening in Shanghai — and usually several things. Out at the leading edge over the last two years has been the tsunami of urban development along the Huangpu waterfront to the south of the Puxi metropolitan core, in an area that has been named ‘Xuhui Riverside’ or ‘West Bund’. The scale of what is underway there is (of course) utterly stunning.
A mixture of new residential complexes and prestige towers is under construction, and the immediate waterfront has already been redeveloped into a strip of interconnected parks and boardwalks (constituting the 8.4km ‘Shanghai Corniche‘). Along the river, a neo-modern aesthetic prevails, characterized by elegantly re-purposed heavy industrial structures: slabs of concrete, disused rail tracks, and massive cargo cranes. As elsewhere in the city, the heavy-duty Shanghai 1.0 has been playfully folded over itself, in a stylish celebration of modernist heritage. The future is presented as a re-launch of the past. For anybody mesmerized by time-spirals, it’s irresistible.
When art history invokes the ‘contemporary’, it refers to now, the current moment, and thus points into an unresolved perplexity. Now remains undefined, whether by science, philosophy, or mystical religion. Our contemporary ‘now’ is not merely an instant — not even a stretched or dilated instant. It is a time that is still with us, or which we continue to participate in, at once proximate and elusive, still awaiting its sense, obliquely intersecting the narrower present of chronological location and practical schedules.
The visual arts, at their most reflective, enter into this perplexity as into an animating spiral. Whilst succumbing to categorization — or time definition — within a still obscure and incomplete contemporaneity, the art work can also make the act of definition its own, reaching out into the now, and telling us what it has found. In doing so it tests itself against an ultimate abstraction.
In some such now, current but chronologically indeterminable, Chinese visual art encountered a critical threshold. The difference between heading forward or backward, advancing or retreating, ceased – at some ‘point’ — to be an option, or a choice. Instead, for that complex cultural trend and inheritance at once defined as — and defining — neotraditionalism, true modernity was discovered in the acceptance of tradition as a path. This wave of creative – even explosive – experimentation was also an excavation, and a recovery. It demonstrated that innovative variation was inextricable from the maintenance of a course, directed into a future already cryptically indicated by the past.
Beyond Black and White: Chinese Contemporary Abstract Ink, on show at Pearl Lam Galleries (until September 7, 2013), focuses with glorious intensity upon the neotraditionalist current. In keeping with this focus, it both fulfills and deranges expectations, through the audacious explorations of a heritage made new.
Paradox prompts thought. Arriving at the unthinkable after proceeding, step-by-step, along the path of reason, unsettles comfortable mental routines and points – obscurely – towards something new. Nothing twists this prompt more intensely than time-paradox, which grates thought open upon the basic tangles of reality.
The main creative current of Shanghai visual arts grasps this instinctively. Whilst predictably multidimensional (and in other respects unpredictable), the work revealed by Shanghai artists and art spaces gravitates distinctively towards themes and techniques that can be plausibly described as neo-traditionalist. This inherently paradoxical inclination is itself a deep tradition, with relevance far beyond the visual arts and knotted roots that can be traced back to the Song Dynasty.