Titling their show “Farewell to Post-Colonialism” and taking the stance that the discourse around the subject has become overly institutionalized and politically correct, the curatorial team of the Third Guangzhou Triennial—Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj, and Johnson Chang Tsong-zungadopted a rhetoric of negation and an agenda of “renovating the theoretical interface of contemporary art.” Of course, the immediate problem with such aims is that they are themselves already firmly ensconced in the existing cultural discourse. And the “cultural managerialism” of contemporary art production and presentation with which they take issue is, ironically, nowhere better exemplified than by the organizational structure of this Triennial itself.
A remarkable managerial endeavor in which the 181 participating artists from 40 countries are overseen by an elite team of three curators, seven research curators and, beyond that, a wide network of associates, advisers, administrative staff, assistants, interns, and preparators, the Triennial actually began in early summer with the first of seven “Forums in Motion,” each occurring in different locations, from London to Beijing to Hong Kong. Part of a growing trend toward collective gatherings, workshops, conferences, schools, and platforms all designed to “mobilize artists and scholars,” these forums actually functioned to fine-tune a detailed, often theory-driven framework for the exhibition. This was a process of consensus building more akin to a political party’s rally than a meeting of enemies on the battlefield, and—as happens at Guangzhou—the resulting “predigested” institutional framework becomes the most significant aspect of the exhibition, often rendering the art irrelevant. At the same time, almost in an effort to recapture that relevance, the curatorial team must actively question the dominance of the very discourse that has legitimized their endeavor in the first place. What emerges is a de rigueur rhetoric of resistance, radicality, reinvention, and renewal that we see repeated, in one form or another, in the statements of intent attached to numerous “festival” exhibitions.
This contradictory and empty gesture of resistance was made apparent in many of the works on display in the Triennial, perhaps the most pointed example being Lu Jies installation No Foreigners Beyond This Point (2006/2008). Recalling Santiago Sierras intervention at the 2003 Venice Biennial (in which a guard posted outside the Spanish Pavilion allowed only Spanish passport holders inside), Jie installed a sleek revolving door set between two rooms of the museum with the title’s phrase inscribed in red across the glass. However, there was no guard to stop foreigners from entering and the door was not locked. Other evocations of political disenchantment took the form of weak appeals: one for love, by Sharon Hayes, Everything else has failed, don’t you think it’s time for love (2008), a sound installation featuring one of the American artist’s now-famous oratories; and another suggesting that winning isn’t everything: How to Become a Loser? (2008) by Qiu Zhijie, in which the artist and a team called Total Art Studio fitted the tires of a truck with rubber stencils that, inked with black paint, printed phrases such as you win, but you never sleep well along the road from Beijing to Guangzhou. Playful and sincerely yearning for radicality, these works—like numerous others—were nonetheless undercut by the brutal paradox at the heart of the exhibition, which smothered the very rebelliousness it supposedly sought to ignite.
What we witness in endeavors like the Guangzhou Triennial is an insistence on openness, contingency, and immediacy that is, in fact, preconditioned, scripted, and closed. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, this “valid imposture” is a sanctioned abuse of power that, far from leveling existing hierarchies, serves only to reinforce them. The search for the “outside” is today truly an insider’s game. Conversely, if artworks are expected to perform deterritorializing miracles, then they must be truly underground; fugitive, out of sight, and dangerous—myths, rumors, and things left to our imagination that cannot be co-opted or controlled. Perhaps the most effective recent example of this methodology is Ai Weiweis Fairytale (2007) at Documenta 12: a thousand Chinese in Kassel, hidden in plain sight. At Guangzhou, Pak Sheung Chuens Page 22 (Half Folded Library) (2008) offered another successful instance of the covert approach, except for the fact that that piece was represented by photographs of open books—half the books in the main branch of the New York Public Library—turned to page 22, with the corner of said page folded over. The project would be stronger without such representations, perhaps “distributed” as a brief statement (unverifiable except by those able to go to the library and see for themselves).
Similarly, Lee Kits picnic-inspired Unknown Sealed (2008), part of his ongoing series of social engagements that take place around his signature handpainted fabrics, could also dispense with the photographic documentation. Having heard about these picnics while in Hong Kong last spring, I liked them immediately. The simplicity and open-air freshness of the gesture seemed a pointed liberation from the dank atmosphere—akin to an abattoir—that one finds in so many art institutions and galleries these days. It was telling that, in the context of the Triennial, Kit’s “picnic” was demoted to the status of a prop, safely ensconced inside the museum walls.
"Third Guangzhou Triennial" originally appeared in the December 2008 / January 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' December 2008 / January 2009 Table of Contents.