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Introduction: Uncooperative Contemporaries

Xu Zhen’s series The Problem of Colour (2000) was displayed along the length of the wall at the far end of the exhibition hall.
Head of Research at Asia Art Archive contextualises the three exhibitions that took place in Shanghai in the year 2000 – The Shanghai Biennale, Fuck Off and Useful Life.

In the history of contemporary art in China, there are a number of exhibitions that have made their mark. In 1979, for instance, a loose affiliation of students and self-taught artists known as the Stars 星星 Group hung their work on the rails outside the National Art Gallery, without authorisation, and arguably produced the earliest exhibition of contemporary art in the country.01

 A decade later, the ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’ 中国现代艺术展 opened, in February 1989, as the first display by unofficial artists inside the hallowed halls of the National Art Gallery (today known as the National Art Museum of China). 02 Though the performative firing by artist Xiao Lu 肖鲁 of a pistol on the opening day led to the show’s immediate closure, it could be said to have been a shot heard around the world, loudly proclaiming the ’85 New Wave generation of artists – just before the events in Tiananmen that year. Or the improvised series of performances from late 1993 into 1994 staged and documented by a loose grouping of artists in the so-called Beijing East Village 北京东村, a set of buildings on the city outskirts that they happened to occupy, and which became a defining milestone in the history of performance art in the country.03


Then there is the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. Unlike the above examples, it did not take place in the capital Beijing, at that point still the seat of political, economic and cultural power, but in Shanghai, which had been the country’s cosmopolitan ‘city on the sea’ in the twenties and thirties, but which in the nineties was still re-establishing itself as an Asian hub of finance and modern urban culture. Nor was the Biennale initiated by artists, or the result of any artistic trends or movements. Instead, it emerged as the brainchild of organisers at the Shanghai Art Museum, who were state employees and, as such, a strategic product of the government. Yet while it may have enjoyed the official stamp of approval, it did not prove entirely satisfactory. Whereas the earlier art events mentioned above were undeniably succès de scandale in a classic avant-garde vein, the Biennale was denounced by detractors on both ends of the cultural spectrum as a failure. 04

If it is the 2000 Shanghai Biennale – together with the satellite exhibitions ‘Fuck Off’ 不合作方式 and ‘Useful Life’ 有效期 – rather than earlier exhibitions that form the focus of Uncooperative Contemporaries, the eleventh volume in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series, it is because this cluster of shows perhaps most definitively diagrammed the onset of contemporary art in China in the wake of globalisation. Taking place at the turn of the century, the biennial exhibition served its intended purpose of focussing the art world’s attention on China, and also pivoted official attitudes to both contemporary art and curatorial authorship. The pairing with ‘Fuck Off’ and ‘Useful Life’, which together with a whole slew of unofficial satellite exhibitions took place at the same time as the Biennale, provide a means of assessing the larger forces at play – economic and cultural, curatorial and artistic.

It is not insignificant that the city hosting these exhibitions also happened to be one of the nation’s key laboratories for liberalisation, and where its first stock exchange opened, in 1990. But while the arrival of marketisation in China did not immediately change the attitude of either the state or artists themselves towards art, it did pave the way for the establishment of commercial galleries. In ‘Shanghai 2000: Let’s Talk About Money’, Jane DeBevoise plots out the development of the art market over the course of the decade leading up to the Biennale, during a period when the city regained its preeminent status as a financial and cultural powerhouse. Detailing the galleries, art fairs and auction houses that sprung up like mushrooms across the country, DeBevoise singles out the galleries in Shanghai in particular for their cultivation of local audiences and international collectors. Notably, one of the city’s early veterans, ShanghART, became the first gallery from China to take part at the 2000 Art Basel fair in Switzerland, which, as DeBevoise notes, was equated by some local press to the ‘Olympics of the art world’. By the end of the decade, the commercial aspects of the art field were prominent enough a feature of the scene for artists such as Zhou Tiehai 周铁海, Xu Zhen 徐震 and Yang Zhenzhong 杨振中 to produce art and exhibitions that commented on it.

However, the 2000 Biennale made clear that China did not wish simply to be seen on the world stage, but also intended to establish itself as an arbiter of contemporary art, what cultural theorist C.J.W.-L. Wee, as quoted by Lee Weng Choy in his essay for this publication, calls ‘the curatorial capacity to represent’. Hence, the show did not only promote Chinese contributors, but included an equal number of artists from Asia, Western Europe, North America, Africa and Oceania. Mia Yu, in ‘Manifolds of the Local: Tracing the Neglected Legacies of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale’, offers a fresh look at the official exhibition, reassessing the particular configuration of local and global discourses. Drawing on archival documents and conversations with interlocutors from the time, Yu maps out the significant divergences in the four curators’ approaches. The two in-house members of the team, Zhang Qing 张晴 and Li Xu 李旭, saw the exhibition as an occasion to redress perceived imbalances in China’s relationship to the West by giving exposure to more mainstream Chinese artists. By contrast, Toshio Shimizu, one of the two non-Chinese curators, championed a broadly non-Western perspective, bringing in artists from other parts of the non-West. For his part, Hou Hanru’s transnational approach took inspiration from Shanghai’s cosmopolitan history to argue for the continued relevance of hybridity and mobility, rather than fixating on national localities. 05 In addition to reviewing the approaches taken by the exhibition’s four curators to the local-global problematic, Yu also examines how those outlooks translated into the actual spatial arrangements of artworks in the Museum. In doing so, she looks beyond the view of the exhibition as a ‘failed’ or compromised venture to underscore the ways that the Biennale’s imaginings of the local, especially the juxtaposition of non-Western artists that it enabled, have since informed current curatorial approaches.

Taking advantage of the increased attention – and foreign visitors – drawn to Shanghai by the Biennale, artists and galleries in the city not surprisingly organised unofficial satellite events, over a dozen by one count, to run concurrently with the larger exhibition. 06 More surprisingly, one of these (nearly) upstaged the main event. But ‘Fuck Off’, co-curated by Ai Weiwei 艾未未with Feng Boyi 冯博一, never aimed to be understated or subtle. Its ambition can be gauged from the roster of 47 artists drawn from across the country, mixing more established artists such as Ding Yi 丁乙 and up-and-comers such as Cao Fei 曹斐 and Song Tao 宋涛 (who with Ji Weiyu 季炜煜 would become the group known as Birdhead 鸟头). Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu’s essay on the exhibition charts the exhibition’s antagonistic stance, making clear that its ‘uncooperativeness with any system of power’ was addressed to both Chinese governmental and Western market interests, both of which threatened assimilation. 07 But that stance was as much a pose as it was a position: the contrast between the provocation of the English-language title and the comparative blandness of the Chinese (translatable simply as ‘uncooperative way’), or the inclusion of photographs of Zhu Yu 朱昱’s shocking performance Eating People 食人 in the catalogue but not in the actual exhibition, suggests the elaborate choreography needed to stoke controversy while actually not being completely shut down by censors. The exhibition’s continuing impact on the international understanding of Chinese art as avant-garde can be measured by both Ai Weiwei’s continued popularity as a household name, and the high visibility enjoyed by several of the participating artists. 08

But not all of the work in ‘Fuck Off’ was cut from the same scandalous cloth. Whereas the artists old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution first hand tended to employ more confrontational, at times visceral aesthetics, their younger peers – those who had grown up in the wake of China’s consumerist turn – produced work of a more ambiguous nature, that engaged the body in less brutal and more mediated ways. This difference becomes even clearer when one turns to ‘Useful Life’, an exhibition of three Shanghai-based artists who also took part in ‘Fuck Off’. Within the relatively intimate three-person exhibition, which was supported by the commercial ShanghART gallery, the media-based work by Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong 杨福东 and Yang Zhenzhong took on a very different affect, offering at time ephebic bodies engaged in uncertain pleasures.09 In terms of exhibition-making, the triangulation of these three initiatives in the present volume is intended to open out to the widerfield of exhibition activity in Shanghai around this moment.

Further afield, the three exhibitions offer an interesting point from which to assess the broader phenomenon of biennials and triennials then being established all across the Pacific, from Gwangju (begun in 1995) to Taipei (1996), Yokohama (2001), Guangzhou (2002), not to mention the Asia Pacific Triennial (founded in 1993), 10 but also with other events in Asia that offer a counterpoint to these mega-events; independent initiatives, often founded in networks of exchange between artists and advancing their own regionally defined alternatives to globalisation’s universalism as well as the overbearing presence of nationalism (as touched upon in the Exhibition Histories volume Artist-to-Artist, dedicated to Chiang Mai Social Installation in the 1990s) 11. On the question of scale, Lee Weng Choy, in ‘Coincidence and Re-collection; Lateness and Insight’, offers his appraisal of the 2000 exhibitions from the perspective of Southeast Asia, tying it in to the larger sequence of events that led to globalisation.

The present volume on Shanghai may also be understood as a successor to the two earlier Making Art Global volumes of the Exhibition Histories series, which address the ‘global’ reorientation of art worlds that was taking shape through the 1990s via two 1989 exhibitions in Havana and Paris. 12 Shanghai in 2000 allows us to consider the legacies of that moment in a new light, as part of another phase of the global changes inaugurated in 1989, and perhaps indicating an understanding of globalisation as a process no longer grounded in the West. While the specific constellation in Shanghai partakes of the broader trend of the global diffusion of contemporary art and its attendant rituals, the dynamics between the different exhibitions in Shanghai offer a stark reminder that the specific conditions under which the contemporary could be articulated varied widely, resulting in situations that could be described as the contemporary with a difference.

Complementing the commissioned critical essays, Uncooperative Contemporaries also presents the ‘voices’ of a dozen artists and curators involved with the three exhibitions, some excerpted from texts of the period, others drawn from more interviews done for the project, which have been assembled for this publication by Anthony Yung, whose research informs the various aspects of this book including its conceptualisation. In addition, the book translates two texts from the early 2000s in their entirety. ‘To Select, to Be Selected and Who Selects: The Shanghai Biennale in the Context of Globalisation’ (2000) presents an assessment of the Biennale by Xu Hong, who at the time was working at the Shanghai Art Museum, and who was familiar with her colleagues’ thinking without entirely agreeing with it. According to Xu, if China was entering the globalised field of contemporary art with the biennial, it was in part to better make the case for what such a globe would look like from the vantage point of China, and to better make its own case for what art and which Chinese artists should matter in that mapping. Xu no doubt understood clearly the capacity of exhibitions as catalysing events, having herself experienced this as one of the artists of the 1989 ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’. In addition, she would have been particularly attuned to the dynamics of representation through her own participation in various exhibitions of Chinese and women artists both in China and abroad.

By contrast, Zhou Zixi’s ‘From Niuzhuang Village to BizArt’ (2004) offers a useful reminder that the local was not exclusively the territory of the national. It could also be far more granular in scale. Written by Zhou as a first-hand account very much based on personal memories, it conveys an intimate involvement with a particular cultural community in Shanghai, through the fact of living and working together in close proximity. Among the figures that share this space can be counted the three artists of ‘Useful Life’, but also other, less well-known artists, who do not participate in the same rituals of shuttling between domestic and international exhibitions. Zhou’s impressionistic recollections reveal an altogether different set of concerns from the nationalistic frame of analysis to be found in Xu Hong’s account of the Biennale, situating the three exhibitions within a very different exhibition history.

In the conclusion to his essay, Lee Weng Choy touches on the ever-evolving present from which the past is understood, evoking the 2019 protests here in Hong Kong. In light of his cautionary note concerning the over-determination of the past by the present, it would be remiss to not acknowledge that at the moment of writing, China and the world are in an altogether different relationship than in 2000. The country has now unmistakably found its footing as a global superpower, and since 2013, the country has promoted its own version of globalisation and its own politico-economic campaign via an updated Silk Road policy known as One Belt One Road (now officially the Belt and Road Initiative). In the field of art, the nation’s economic ascendance can be seen in the growth of the Chinese art market into one of the world’s largest in terms of sheer value. But that has run simultaneously to the decline of art’s function for cultural diplomacy. Meanwhile, globalisation, formerly the golden child of neoliberalism, has come to be viewed elsewhere in the world as less a desired inevitability than as something of a Trojan Horse. This suspicion has only become more urgent with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as the world has quickly become aware of the public health perils posed by large-scale mass transportation, and discovered the hazards of supply-chains stretched thin as thread spanning across the planet. Given the vicissitudes of history, exhibitionary or otherwise, and at a moment when even seemingly basic realities such as the plodding march of calendar time and the availability of viewing publics can no longer be taken for granted – when even the seemingly inevitable and orderly procession of biennials is facing previously unimaginable disruption – we should take heed of the positions that were on display already in Shanghai in 2000, both cooperative and uncooperative, and understand their continued relevance for today.


  • On the Stars Group exhibitions, see Hui Ching-shuen, Janny (ed.), The Stars: 10 Years (exh. cat.), Hong Kong: Hanart 2, 1989; Huang Rui (ed.), Huang Rui: The Stars’ Times, 1977–1984, Beijing: Thinking Hands + Guanyi Contemporary Art Archive, 2008; and Sylvia Fok, The Stars Artists: Pio- neers of Contemporary Chinese Art 19792000, Taipei: Artist Publishing, 2007 (text in Chinese). For an overview of exhibitions in China, including Stars Group and ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’, see Wu Hung, ‘Exhibiting Experimental Art in China’, in Exhibiting Experimental Art in China (exh. cat.), Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Art Museum, 2000, pp.10–46, which expanded into a later exhibition in Beijing, see, An Exhibition about Exhibitions 关于展览的展览:90年代的实验艺术展示 (exh. cat.), Beijing: OCAT Institute, 2016. For a history of exhibitions focussing on Shanghai, see Biljana Ciric (ed.), A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 19792006, Manchester: Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, 2014.
  • On ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’, see Gao Minglu, ‘Post-Utopian Avant-Garde Art in China’, in Aleš Erjavec (ed.), Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicised Art under Late Social- ism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pp.247–83; originally published as ‘Fengkuang de yijiubajiu – Zhongguo xiandai yishuzhan shimo’, Tendency Quarterly, no.12, 1999, pp.43–76. ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition’ is also featured in Phaidon and Bruce Altshuler (ed.), Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 19622002, London: Phaidon, 2013, pp.265–80.
  • Wu Hung, Rong Rong’s East Village, New York: Chambers Fine Art, 2003. See also the discussion of the East Village in Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China, Hong Kong: Timezone 8 Limited, 2006, pp.102–11.
  • A selections of texts and interviews from the period in English can be found in Wu Hung (ed.), Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future, Between East and West, Hong Kong and Lon- don: New Art Media Limited and Institute of International Visual Arts, pp.219–85. In Chinese, a larger anthology of documents can be found in Ma Qingzhong (ed.), Zhongguo shanghai 2000 nian shuang nian zhan ji waiwei zhan wenxian (Documents of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale and its satellite exhibitions), Hubei: Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, 2002. For accounts of the Biennale itself, see Mia Yu’s essay in this volume; Wu Hung, ‘The 2000 Shanghai Biennale: The Making of a His- torical Event’, Art Asia Pacific no.31, 2001, pp.42–49; and Joe Martin Lin-Hill, ‘Becoming Global: Contemporary Art Worlds in the Age of the Biennials Boom’, unpublished doctoral thesis, New York University, 2013, pp.430–599.
  • For Chinese audiences, Hou Hanru would have been the embodiment of hybridised identity and mobility: by the time of the 2000 Biennale, he had already been involved with a number of exhibitions, the second (and last) Johannesburg Biennial (1997), the French Pavilion at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), the third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1999) and ‘Cities on the Move’ (1997–99) among them.
  • See Ma Qingzhong (ed.), Zhongguo shanghai 2000, op. cit., pp. 282–83.
  • Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi, ‘About “Fuck Off”’, Fuck Off (exh. cat.) Shanghai: Eastlink Gallery, 2000, n.p.
  • The controversy surrounding the 2017 exhibition ‘Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World’, in which video documentation of a 2003 performance by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, two artists from ‘Fuck Off’, played no small part, confirms the view of Chinese art of the period as ‘brutal’. See Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru (ed.), Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2017.
  • Philippe Pirotte provides a closer account in ‘“Useful Life”: Reflection Among Exhibition Frenzy (Shanghai, 2000)’, Afterall, issue 29, Spring 2012, pp.95–104. See also B. Ciric (ed.), A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006, op. cit.
  • On the rise of biennials in Asia, see John Clark, ‘Biennials and the Circulation of Contem- porary Asian Art’, Yishu, vol.8, no.1, January/February 2009, pp.32–40 (part of a special section on ‘Contemporary Asian Art and the Phenomenon of the Biennial’); Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, ‘1989: Asian Biennialization’, Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Art History, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2016, pp.111–43.
  • See David Teh and David Morris (ed.), Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992–98, London: Afterall Books, 2018.
  • See Rachel Weiss et al., Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989, London: Afterall Books, 2011; and Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, London: Afterall Books, 2013.