picks out our favourite works from the Shanghai Biennale, which ran from September 2012- March 2013 including installations, sculptures, sound works, paintings and videos.
Pointing at the Moon
X Scenes - X Times
'Pointing at the Moon' by Han Zijian
When a fool mistakes a finger for the moon it’s pointing at, he loses sight of both the moon and the finger. Han Zijian represents this saying with a huge pyramid of severed fingers, made out of silica gel, set on a lunar terrain. The temptation to take home a finger – shared by several journalists and curators we spoke to – really adds to Han’s concept. Just like stealing one of the sunflower seeds from Ai Weiwei’s ‘Seed Cathedral’, thieving a rubbery white index finger is to see a souvenir instead of a thoughtful art work – essentially to mistake the finger for the moon. 'I noticed that some fingers were going missing, but I acquiesced to that,' Han told us. 'They can't take my real finger.'
Installations are a great strength of the 2012 biennale, and there are many more worth mentioning, including Wei Yi’s static explosion creator ‘X Scenes – X Times’, an electro magnet that randomly changes strength as it slowly moves over piles of iron filings.
Light, Falling Like a Feather
‘Light, Falling Like a Feather’ by Wang Yuyang
‘Light, Falling Like a Feather’ provides some much needed continuity between several floors of the museum. To create the piece, Wang generated a virtual environment with its own rules of drag and gravity in which a fluorescent tube would fall like a feather. He realised this simulated descent in the museum by using dozens of lights to plot the tube’s existence not just through space but also at multiple points in time, like Marcel Duchamp did with his busy ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’.
Also… Described as scarification in the subcutaneous skin of the wall, Loris Cecchini’s ‘Gaps’ are ripples modeled on observed phenomena, molded in polyester resin and introduced to their plaster habitats. They’re works that are of the museum, not just intrusions into it.
Symphony for Dot Matric Printers
The Quiet Bodies
‘Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers’ by The User (Thomas McIntosh and Emmanuel Madan)
These Canadian artists repurpose obsolete technology with microphoned-up printers playing from a score written in letters and punctuation and conducted by a network server. There’s something wry about the inclusion of a work first exhibited in 1998 at a 2012 biennale – it’s as if the curators are not only repurposing obsolete technology, but also ‘obsolete’ art work.
Also… While it’s more properly considered an installation, Jiang Zhi’s ‘The Quiet Bodies’ is one of the stranger sonic contributions to the biennale. In a room where it’s clear that we’ve missed the party, spent fireworks casing are arranged in towers while the drones of exhausted musical greeting cards, stagger through a droning rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’.
State of Shades: Chinese National Oil Painting
Chinese National Oil Painting Pale Brown
Painting by Abraham Cruzvillegas
‘State of Shades: Chinese National Oil Painting’ by Société Réaliste
The Société Réaliste has averaged out the colours of 175 major oil paintings at the National Art Museum of China, reducing each one to a single hue, and arranging them alphabetically by the titles of the original works. These averaged colours have also been combined to create a single hue that represents all of Chinese painting – milk chocolate, as it turns out. Société Réaliste’s process generates superficially ‘representative’ but semantically empty works, not unlike most national art collections (see our introduction to the China Art Palace
Also… You shouldn’t (and won’t) miss Abraham Cruzvillegas’ huge primate calligraphy works. Inspired by Korean calligraphy and oversized political cartoons from his native Mexico, Cruzvillegas painted these apes with a broom on sheets of paper he first primed with several layers of varnish paint.
Voir La Mer
The Anatomy of Rage
‘Voir la Mer’ by Sophie Calle
French artist Sophie Calle traveled to Istanbul where she met people born blind and asked them what they imagined would be the most beautiful sight. One respondent said the ocean. Calle took blind people from Istanbul to the beach, to look out at the sea they’d never seen, and filmed their reactions – shoulders shuddering as they cry, tears rolling from cloudy eyes. It’s sadistic for Calle to remind blind people of what they’re denied, though of course the work also reminds the sighted of what we have. It’s a beautiful piece that starts and ends with cruelty – the blind can’t see the work they’re part of.
Lu Yang’s ‘The Anatomy of Rage’ charts the anatomical origins of rage in a mythical creature, the Most Honoured Svadi-devatu, a destroyer of decadent societies whose people stop listening to the teachings of Buddha. Anger arrives first in the thalamus, we’re both told in audio and shown onscreen, which stimulates the amygdale and triggers further brain activity.The Shanghai Biennale continues until March 31.Want more? Read about the best of the biennale's city pavilions, our interview with its curators, and the thoughts of New York Times senior art critic Holland Cotter.