Exhibition: ‘Wastelands’ at Ovada Gallery, Oxford

Yesterday evening, after an afternoon at Whitechapel Gallery for a project meeting (blog post to follow), I went home via Oxford to see ‘Wastelands’, a group exhibition of eight Chinese contemporary artists curated by Katie Hill (Office of Contemporary Chinese Art (OCCA)) and Cai Yuan. The opening quotation in the accompanying catalogue sets the premise for the exhibition…

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”

As I arrived at the gallery, they were placing fresh sunflowers in the basket of a bicycle that was leaned against the gallery’s English red brick exterior…a symbol, dedication and message of support to Ai Weiwei and his on-going project #flowersforfreedom, initiated on 30th November 2013. Every morning since this date, he has placed, and continues to place, a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside No. 258 Caochangdi studio until he again has the right to travel freely. This has become a viral project online, with global response and collaboration.

His forthcoming exhibition opening in September at the Royal Academy, London, (that I’m rather looking forward to) is causing a stir at the moment as they are trying to use crowdfunding to raise support and monies to bring his Tree artwork from China…take a look at the Kickstarter site here. The value of the pledge rewards are a little questionable. It seems his Cat Garfield (and his wink) seems to have more of an iconic presence than him for this promotional escapade. Maybe they should crowdfund to bring Garfield over instead? Anyway, I’m digressing…as wordgirl standard.

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‘Wastelands’ explores ‘the idea of waste as a result of consumption through different landscapes and materials’ through the work of Ai Weiwei, Cai Yuan, Cao Fei, HMFF, Anthony Key, Sun Haili, Sun Yi  and WESSIELING. Many of these artists are friends and previous colleagues, others very familiar to my Chinese arts radar.

The works include urban explorations of the modern city metropolis in the surreal and abject zombie film ‘Haze and Fog’ by Cao Fei (which I actually co-commissioned during my Research Curator days at CFCCA); comments on manufacture, capitalism and commercialism through text art placards and sculptural branding (an appropriation of the YSL logo) examining sites of production in the vast clothes industry and lack of profile by Wessieling; a play on fabrication in the ceiling to floor cardboard painting installation, what is called ‘aesthetic debris’, and a reinterpretation of “art and language” through the part-obsessive “ism” painting series by Cai Yuan; a comment on biomedical sciences, unnatural reproduction and cloning in Dolly, a supermarket trolley sculpture by Anthony Key; reverting back to minimal sculptural forms to create an abstract ecology of Milton Keynes through appropriated land and images from the edge of a site under redevelopment by Haili Sun; a documentary by the globally renowned Ai Weiwei showing an ambitious architectural project in the new city of Ordos Inner Mongolia that engaged in an ‘out of the world’ location […] where boom and bust co-exist and where creativity takes elusive forms’; the participatory and performative installation ‘Dream Hotel’ that invites the public to stay critiquing China’s economic miracle and surveillance by Nanjing-based HMFF Collective; finally emerging artist Sun Yi, uses daily newspapers as material for drawings in ink, combining fine art vocabulary with free disposable material for everyday consumption of news.

I must not forget that the opening included a short performance by Cai Yuan, in part collaborative with the audience, who burned Chinese hell money or hell notes in two metal bowls either side of the gallery entrance door (as shown in the photos in this blog post). This spirit-life, afterlife, memorial money ritual supposedly transfers a value to the one who has passed – ‘making advance deposits into an afterlife bank account that the deceased’s spirit can access in heaven.’ Do I know anyone in hell? Or do I believe in a heavenly afterlife? Rather big Thursday night questions…and an appropriate take on value systems.

All the artworks raise questions of power-plays (not just limited to creative art production and the art market), cultural producers versus cultural proprietors, observation and surveillance, language-translation-(mis)understandings, production to (over-)consumption, commercialism to ultimately, value. How do we value the (waste)lands we visit, travel and pass through, migrate to and from, and live in on a day-to-day basis? Are we just living in constantly re-recycled wastelands? Are the wastelands of one country the promised lands of another? What is “waste”? Has the land become the language in which we now talk about the past, present and future?

As stated in the catalogue, the exhibition provides perspectives of the destruction and creation in China today, and a diasporic view of “wastelands” as a geographical, socio-political, and global term and theme. I like the fact this show came from curator Katie Hill’s interpretation of the objects in her kitchen that bore the label “not currently recycled” as an unsustainable proposition in today’s current environment. She states,

“What the wastelands of the future will be is anyone’s guess.” – Katie Hill

From a curatorial critique, this exhibition and gallery space made me very content as it harked back to a cultural familiarity when I was living in China…largely, as to how many exhibitions are constructed, communicated and installed with a sense of temporality and raw artist-led energy. To me, ‘Wastelands’ was presenting a real insight into the cultural infrastructures of China through a diverse range of emerging to iconic Chinese contemporary artists…it is as much about the works on show as the relationships between those involved in the project – the process of cultivating an ecology of Chinese contemporary arts practice.

Further words are provided here by friend and colleague Dr Ros Holmes who is Junior Research Fellow in art history at Christ Church, University of Oxford. Her current research focuses on visual culture and contemporary art within China, with a particular emphasis on its interaction with the internet. She has a new blog called ‘The Mediated Image’ that must be followed if you world is Chinese culture. This has just reminded me…I must put her in touch with a new PhD research student from Manchester who is looking at the presence of Chinese contemporary art online through temporary gallery platforms. Note to self (or remind me Ros!). The exhibition is on show until 9 August 2015.

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