West Bund Biennale of Architecture and Contemporary Art

Time Out picks the exhibits to visit before it's too late

This month marks the last chance to see the West Bund Biennale of Architecture and Contemporary Art. Time Out picks the exhibits to visit before it's too late

It is worth paying a visit to the West Bund Biennale of Architecture and Contemporary Art just to see the stunning renovation of the former industrial sight into a vast indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Video installations, sound art and architecture are all on show in or around the former Shanghai Cement Plant situated along the riverside. The outdoor show uses ‘Fabrica’ as its theme and features world-renowned architects, including Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, Michael Bell and Liu Jiakun. With a vast amount to see, Time Out picks the art not to miss, from the best sound installations located in four abandoned oil tanks to eerie photographs that illuminate the city of Shanghai.

Video and photography in the former Shanghai Cement Plant

Luminant series by Jiang Pengyi 
Hung discreetly on the wall in the circular dome that makes up the main exhibition space of the Biennale is Chinese photographer Jiang Pengyi’s Luminant riverseries. Jiang moved from Hunan province to the capital in 1999 to study at the Beijing Institute of Art and Design. In these surreal pictures of China’s urban landscapes he questions the value of breakneck development. Skyscrapers and tall buildings are illuminated against dark foregrounds. They include large-scale real estate developments such as the Chaowai SOHO in Beijing. Eerily beautiful, but also filled with anxiety, they are a comment on China’s fast and seemingly unstoppable urbanisation. ‘Luminant: Government Affair Edifice of Hefei (A)’ is particularly striking: two buildings shine brightly in a frame that is empty aside from green strands of grass. The juxtaposition of nature against urbanity is both alluring and disconcerting.

Let There Be Light by Jiang Zhi 
‘And God said “Let there be light”, and there was light.’ This is the starting point for Hunanese artist Jiang Zhi’s ten screen video installation in which he films men and women – one to each video – who are suddenly confronted by blinding light after standing in darkness. Their reactions mark shock, disbelief, fear and confusion. By showing the darker side of light, Jiang questions the automatic belief that light is a force for good. Seen in this context it is closer to a kind of torture, or at least a brutal exposure, for the people involved. While at first their faces show resistance, soon they give this up for a kind of peace – or mere resignation. As a study in human reaction ‘Let There Be Light’ shines brilliantly.

Dictator E by Lu Yang
Shanghai video artist Lu Yang is no stranger to controversy. In her exploration of bio-art she observes science, technology, and mortality at close range. Her videos have ranged from ‘Kraftremor’, which highlights the involuntary spasms of victims of Parkinson’s disease, to ‘The Cruel Electromagnetic Wave Above Absolute Zero’ which shows an autopsy of a mouse captured by infrared camera. In this video, ‘Dictator E’, frogs are given shocks by electric currents. Their resulting convulsions look almost like dancing, especially when played to the music of sound artist Wang Changcun. Lu has been accused of animal cruelty, but whatever you think, her artwork moves beyond mere aesthetics to provocation, forcing the viewer to think hard about what they are seeing.

Sound art in the oil tanks

Fujui Wang Sound Dots by Fujui Wang 
Fujui Wang (aka Ching-Shen-Ching) is a pioneer of sound art in Taiwan – he founded the country’s first noise label, aptly named Noise, in 1993. Now head of the Trans-Sonic Lab in the Centre of Art and Technology at the Taipei National University of the Arts, his installation at the West Bund Biennale is a definite highlight. In ‘Sound Dots’ long wires stringed with bulbs hang from the ceiling. They switch on and off rapidly, and seemingly randomly, creating sudden pulsations of light. The bright, but brief, illuminations are reminiscent of fireflies. The light also creates a low buzzing noise similar to the burr of insects on a balmy summer night. Evocative but sparse, it encompasses technology and nature to create a stunning whole.

Tank Listening Shanghai by Yao Dajuin 
Sound artist Yao Dajuin’s works dive into a city’s peculiar and unique noises. Past examples include ‘Geophone Nanking’, ‘Bridge Listening Beijing’ and ‘Wind Listening Taipei’. In ‘Tank Listening Shanghai’, Yao, who is currently based at the renowned China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, infiltrates an entire abandoned oil tank and redesigns it into a ‘Panopticon prison structure’ -- based on a correctional building designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Bentham took the name from Greek mythology and the hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes who could keep watch on multiple things at the same time. A Panopticon prison is designed so that a guard can observe the inmates at all times without them knowing. In this installation, the abandoned circular oil tank mimics the spherical structure of a Panopticon. The oil tank is poorly lit and bare aside from black seats placed around its circumference. As you walk past each one you can hear different whisperings of Shanghai goings-on. As the viewer explores the installation, they simultaneously become an eavesdropper of the city’s sounds.

Chamber Music – Homage to Morton Feldman and John Cage’s Radio Happenings by Samson Young 
Created specifically for one of the four oil tanks at the Biennale site, Hong Kong sound artist and composer Samson Young’s ‘Chamber Music’ makes full use of the vast cavernous space. In it, the viewer (or listener) walks around the sparse open area and passes by different objects that emit sounds. They include a retro radio, a fan blowing a plastic bag, and a paddling pool. There are also items that make no sound at all. Young was originally trained in music composition, receiving a PhD from Princeton in the subject and that shows here: there is a beauty to the way each discordant piece works both separately and together to create a cacophony of noise.