‘Optional Exercise’ reminds us that making art is a choice. The current phase of socio-economic transition in China presents a difficult predicament; cultural context – ‘the sublimating melody of a rising great nation’ is juxtaposed with the ‘survival environment’, that is, increasing pressure on individuals amid their daily lives. For the artists, those most highly charged with expression and response, a second duality exists: which way to create. Either they can face head-on the pressure to survive, or they can withdraw into an interior world of reflection and self-contained innovation, in the words of the exhibition text: ‘observe in awe and veneration the sky overhead’. This smacks of nature/nurture – will artists create according to their inward eye, or will they involve themselves in the exterior environment that nurtures their creative passage even as it puts pressure on it? To address the pressure of survival at the same time as maintaining a standard of innovation and cultural logic is the task of artists now. Choosing to reject this optional exercise means becoming merely a ‘floating cloud’. Thus, the premise of the exhibition reiterates the decisions that face – and will face – all the artists that have ever been. Much as it might lend specificity to this show, none of this is really anything new; framing these decisions in the particular context of artists in China arguably reveals a will to separation from artistic output elsewhere. Harnessed to this, the context of breakneck urban/socio-economic development – crucially important though it is – loses depth somewhat.
These reservations aside, as one walks around this exhibition one feels glad these artists, irrespective of their environment, chose action and created a set of very varied and absorbing pieces. Commanding the main room is Zhang Qikai’s Delivery (2008), seen before in Beijing but by no means less compelling for its reappearance. Mounted in the belly of an old black wooden rowing boat are fourteen television sets, each showing a different film taken on public transport of people on their daily travels. At once lyrical and habitual, it is a worthy centrepiece. A different reflection on something day-to-day is Zhang Zhenyu’s 100821, for which the technique used is original. Having used papier mache to create a large rectangular layer, the artist has used a fine point – a needle, perhaps – to scratch precisely at the surface to create what looks from afar like print, but which up close is more a textural mass. Pictures, headlines and columns of text appear in these broadsheet rectangles, but none reveal their true content. Highly skilled is Hu Qingyan’s A Bamboo Pole ; a deliberately modest title is fitting for these pieces, lying on the gallery floor, which have in fact been beautifully fashioned from wood. As such, they remind one of Hu Xiaoyuan’s Wood/Wood, for which wooden planks were covered in white fabric and the grain painstakingly repainted in ink on top, so subtle as to have been missed by some.
There is humour, too. Part of Zhao Guanghui’s Unearthed Future series, Computer Bones is slightly older, having been made in 2006; In a glass case are displayed a monitor, computer, keyboard, all cast in ‘bone’ (the materials are named as dentifrice and bone powder) and placed part-buried in sand as if just having been dug up. It is thought-provoking to reflect on the contemporary in the sense of looking back on it; although a study in obsolescence that passes wider comment on our fixations with updating, materialism and technology, this work is also funny. On the wall opposite is Titanic, a colour video installation by Zhang Liaoyuan. In it, people are seen in a supermarket stacking shelves, browsing through magazines and picking out their shopping – only they are soaking wet from jets of water springing through the shelves, pooling under their feet and surging up through the floor. Everyone acts normally as water shoots powerfully past and into them. The work seen here is one of three videos; the others look on a hotel and a library, also invaded by water. In purely visual terms Titanic is truly witty, yet the underlying theme is the vigilance of national psychology: despite disaster and adversity, normality continues. Wilderness, by Zhang Wei, on the other hand, can in no way be described as funny. This is an animated film in which an astronaut, wired up to a headset, crawls towards a fuzzy TV, dragging the chair he is tied to. When he ‘enters’ the TV, the world he finds beyond is surreal, perverse, unsettling. Men in conical red hats march in legions, carrying poles atop which are the bones and dismembered pieces of human-esque mannequins, pieces they also push in wheelbarrows across a desert-like, post-apocalyptic landscape. Loudspeakers are mounted on high with bunting hanging from them, colourful and gay; at the end of the film, we see through the eyes of the astronaut, now inside this weird and frightening landscape, the blown up pieces of mannequin-people turn into televisions, lurid-coloured wire growing in piles at their bases. Accompanied by a slow, low electronic pulse, Wilderness is notable for its compelling horror.
These, and the other works on show in ‘Optional Exercise’ together conjure a complex picture of artists’ works in the present moment. The grouping of such different pieces together arguably strengthens the impact of each, such are the varied experiences of looking and feeling before each one. The idea of ‘Optional Exercise’ need by no means be limited to the artists at work here; rather, it extends to the viewer too whom, having first made the decision to come and see the exhibition, may examine and interpret each piece and the show as a whole as they personally choose. The decision to act is not, after all, the privilege of artists alone, whether in the context of China or elsewhere. In seeking so clearly to map out its premise according to the dilemmas and context of Chinese artists, it seems, ‘Optional Exercise’ in fact points to a wider field of choice.