The art of being followed
Being followed by a stranger is an experience that will mark your visit to the exhibition ‘Art of Change: New Directions from China' at the Hayward Gallery in London. The exhibition is a first outlet for a new generation of artists and uncovers new directions of contemporary art in China.
The exhibition hosts a mix of installations, videos and live performances by nine contemporary Chinese artists, whose artworks span from 1993 to the present days. Their names are Xu Zhen, Madein Company, Yingmei Duan, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan & Peng Wu, Wang Jinawei, Gu Dexin, Chen Zhen. Although such names might sound unfamiliar to many western contemporary arts enthusiasts, they represent a new generation of Chinese artists who struggle to establish themselves in a country where visual art other than painting is often restricted.
The exhibition is not aimed to be provocative or send political messages, rather to promote a generation of young, creative Chinese artists. As Stephanie Rosenthal, the exhibition's curator, points out: ‘Art of Change: New Directions from China' is intended to offer a platform for performances and installations to Chinese artists who lack financial support either from institutional or private donors. In the view of the curator, such financial restrains push artists to the edge and induce them to produce very experimental works in order to stand out from their peers. The works exhibited at the Hayward Gallery certainly display a deep experimentation for their appearance and meaning, unmatched by much of western contemporary art.
The setting of the exhibition and its content are impressive. Facing the entrance from inside the gallery, a group of performers dressed in striped pyjamas stand in silence. Upon visitors' arrival each performer follows a visitor along the exhibition without engaging in any apparent interaction. This performance by artist Yingmei Duan is a piece about her native country China where strict control by the authorities on individuals is common practice and restrictions on freedom of expression exist. At the Hayward Gallery the visitors perceive the effect of being followed as a playful still invasive game, but never frightening and controlling as it is for an artist in China.
Yingmei Duan displays two other performance works: ‘Sleeping, In Between and Patience' and ‘Happy Yingmei (2011/2012)'. The artist stands out for its extreme experimentation especially in ‘Happy Yingmei,' where she proposes a surreal performance that can be perceived either as a dreamlike experience or nightmare, depending on the reading of the visitor. To view the performance the visitor must bend to enter the room, preventing any outside glimpse of the performance. However, once entered in the dark room similar to a cave, the visitor's attention is diverted towards a Chinese woman sitting on a cut trunk in a recreated autumn like forest with plenty of dry leaves on the floor. As soon as the visitor looks at her, she starts singing a melody, standing up and slowly walking on bare feet towards the observer, crashing leaves and looking consistently into the eyes. She walks closer and closer, until her face almost touches the visitors' face, who reacts in thousands different ways, becoming part of the performance itself. For many this scarring, weird, and amusing experience is hard to forget.
Continuing the visit there is a remarkable example of experimental installation entitled ‘Nature Series (1988/2012)' by Liang Shaoji. The work comprises thousands of silkworms that weave their silk around sculptural objects representing physical and visual transformation. According to the artist, the entire series is "a sculpture of time, life and nature; a recording of the fourth dimension". The visitor also engages with the performance by Wang Jianwei, who invites the audience to play ping-pong in a dark room on a misshapen table, and the installation by Chen Zhen entitled ‘Purification Room' that uses everyday objects covered in ashes ‘to purify the objects after use'.
By the end of the exhibition the visitor has an overwhelming feeling of how arts restrictions in China induce artists to produce new forms of art, pushing even further the boundaries of experimental art. Towards the end of the show, it is also reassuring that your ‘follower' has vanished and you are finally left alone. The hope of many is that a similar occurrence will happen to artists in China in the not too distant future.