SHANGHAI — A gigantic metallic structure resembling a crashed airplane beckons from the second level of the vast Shanghai Power Station of Art that is host to the 11th edition of the Shanghai Biennale. Designed by the Chinese collective MouSen+MSG, the structure is titled “The Great Chain of Being – Planet Trilogy” (2016), and you can actually venture inside it. Embarking on a disorienting journey down a narrow, uneven pathway through dark cavernous spaces, you encounter a gigantic plant, robots, and ultimately a dystopic extraterrestrial world. The piece unsettles your perception, a running theme in this biennial, which is curated by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, the Indian trio comprising the Raqs Media Collective.
There has been a recent spate of biennales in Australia, Morocco, Yinchuan China, and Singapore where postcolonial identity has staked its claim. But the Shanghai Biennale, titled Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments and Stories, is less concerned with examining the ongoing dichotomy between Eastern and Western cultures, than it is with questioning and disrupting the status quo in multiple ways. The exhibition takes inspiration from the Chinese science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, in which the author probes how a third body in physics disrupts the push-and-pull between two objects, creating states of uncertainty. For instance, in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation “So Far” (2016) there is a palpable tension between two forklifts as they try to pull apart three enormous crocks, joined by a vacuum machine that removes the air “inside and between them,” becoming “one system” that is imbalanced and unpredictable in its configuration.
Throughout the exhibition, which scatters the works of 92 artists from 40 countries over three floors, you are presented with new and meaningful realms of possibilities within the fields of science, geography, history, and politics. In Yang Zhenzhong’s five-screen video installation “Disguise” (2015), robotic, unacknowledged workers from an assembly line in China wearing the same white mask are miraculously individuated. Seen on large, slow-moving screens, these identical mask-wearers are gradually, and quite magically, freed from the exacting repetitiveness of their programmed actions as we begin to recognize their individual talent. Projected on multiple walls in the exhibition space, one becomes haunted by these masked faces that slowly come alive.
Power is also reversed in the Danish collective Superflux’s video “Exchange of Pigs and Bits” (2016). It weaves a superb parable about Chinese pigs that were imported by Denmark about 150 years ago — long before China became an Asian superpower. Displayed in the shape of a large revolving disk that is attached to the ceiling, viewers are encouraged to relax on pillows directly below the video and listen to the history of Chinese emperors and trade. Here, one cannot miss the irony of Denmark’s reliance on pig export to China to fortify its economy — and the power China wields in such trade relations. In the adjoining room, China’s insidious power is another point of focus with Sammy Baloji’s photographs, Kolwezi (2011–12), taken in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Images of the devastated landscape by the Chinese mining industry in Kolwezi are juxtaposed with photographs of posters made in China that depict real and imagined cities in the Congo area. These posters, which are generally hung in homes, hotels, bars, and salons in Kolwezi, reveal a wide chasm between the existing poor conditions and a protracted fantasy.
On the third level of the Power Station, Desire Machine Collective’s “Dewaal” (2012–14) collects the sounds of different protests, from New York to the Assamese border on the eastern periphery of India. The protesters’ demands, which often fall on deaf ears, are audible only upon placing one’s ear to the wall. In Khaled Barakeh’s series The Untitled Images (2014), unseen victims haunt the images of Middle Eastern war refugees carrying white, ghost-like forms, representing injured or dead loved ones. Barakeh removes the bodies from the photographs, amplifying the conditions and neglect of war. Here, intangible forms like the protesters’ muffled voices and the refugees’ silhouettes bring our focus to the overlooked hardships of ordinary people.
Two artworks in particular captured the effects of disruption in a visual, and perhaps more abstract, way. Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno’s “Sonic Cosmic Webs” (2016), made up of two beautifully fragile spider webs illuminated by a light projection, and Wang Gongxin’s “The Dialogue” (1995), consisting of two suspended light bulbs that alternately dip into a dark pool of ink, are highly subtle and evocative commentaries on the tenuousness, and even the imperceptibility of truth.
The success of the biennale lies in the way it looks beyond the opposition of Eastern and Western cultures. While the exhibition has too many works, and some are less illuminating than others, the Raqs Media Collective’s choice of artists from across the globe presents multiple points of view.
I left the biennale with a particular artwork in mind: Vishal K. Dar’s mesmerizing “Maruts—Storm Deities” (2016), installed in the 165-meter-high chimney of the power station, where seven oscillating beams of light set at different metronomic meters represent the storm deities of the Rigveda and reflect onto a pool of water. I found my impressions of the Shanghai Biennale articulated in Dar’s description of his installation as “a world of shifting space,” and one in which a “storm is brewing from somewhere and nowhere.”
The 11th Shanghai Biennale Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments and Stories continues at the Shanghai Power Station of Art (200 Huayuangang Rd, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China) through March 12.