– Spring 2012

‘Useful Life’: Reflection Among Exhibition Frenzy (Shanghai, 2000)

Philippe Pirotte

Xu Zhen, The Problem of Colour, 2000, C-print, 193 x 155 cm. Installation view, 'Useful Life', Shanghai, 2000. Courtesy the artist, ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai and M HKA, Antwerp

Shanghai, November 2000. Three young artists and friends, Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong put together the exhibition ‘Useful Life’, featuring their own work, in a temporary space on Dong Daming Road, in the Hongkou district. Yang Fudong showed a fake photo-documentary about a brothel and a video installation with a complex arrangement of screens and monitors (prefiguring his signature multi-channel video installations). Xu Zhen organised a performance linked to video surveillance and showed photographs of naked men seen from behind with red paint between their legs, as if they were menstruating. Yang Zhenzhong showed a series of photographs of heads on pillows and, for the first time, his now famous work I Will Die (2000—05), a video wherein some forty people tell the camera ‘I will die’.

‘Useful Life’ took place as part of an almost feverish and insistent urge to organise experimental exhibitions at the end of the 1990s in China. It was no exception that the artists figured as their own curators: several of the most important exhibitions that took place at the turn of the millennium in the region had artists as their organisers, including ‘Post-Sense Sensibility: Distorted Bodies and Delusion’ (1999), curated by Wu Meichun and Qiu Zhijie, in the basement of the Yishequ Apartments in Beijing; ‘Art for Sale’ (1999), curated by Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong and Fei Pingguo (whose Western name is Alexander Brandt), in a supermarket in Shanghai; and the infamous ‘Fuck Off’ (2000), curated by Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei, at Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai.1

Until the end of the 1990s there were hardly any appropriate spaces or opportunities for

  1. Art critic and theorist Wu Hung has written extensively about the phenomenon of self-organised underground exhibitions at the turn of the millennium in China. See Wu H. (ed.), Exhibiting Experimental Art in China (exh. cat.), Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum, 2000. 

  2. In the early 1990s the government ‘tolerated’ these projects, as long as they were mostly invisible and limited to a select group of artists and intellectuals. With virtually no access to public exhibitions, artists showed their work ‘underground’ for an audience from within the art community. These exhibitions were wrapped in a shroud of mystery, attracting foreign reporters, which in turn drew suspicious policemen to the scene, which attracted even more foreign reporters, thus generating art ‘events’. 

  3. Davide Quadrio, ‘No Cleaning and No Money Required: The Contradictions of Showing Un-decoded Art in Shanghai’, Randian Magazine, 31 March 2011, http://www.randian-online.com/en/features/ features-2011/no-cleaning-no-money-required.html (last accessed on 24 October 2011). First delivered at the conference ‘“China” on Display: Past and Present Practices of Selecting, Exhibiting and Viewing Chinese Visual and Material Culture’, Leiden University School of Management, the Netherlands, 6—8 December 2007. Quadrio continues: ‘In these temporary spaces, most of the time dusty and badly lit, if not actually left in darkness, unexpected gatherings with artists and artworks were finding their way. Everything was done without a budget, money or cleaning.’

  4. See ibid.

  5. See Els Silvrants-Barclay, Manuela Lietti and Li Zhenhua, ‘Map Six’, unpublished document mapping the Chinese art world, 2006. 

  6. See Wu H., ‘Supermarket’, in Wu H. (ed.), Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, op. cit., p.173.

  7. Zhu Qi is an independent curator born in 1966 in Shanghai. He served as Artistic Director for the 2009 edition of the 798 Beijing Biennale.

  8. Yang Zhenzong in conversation with Chen Xiaoyun, 2007, http://www.shanghartgallery.com/ galleryarchive/texts/id/589 (last accessed on 24 October 2011). 

  9. Xu Zhen and Yang Z., ‘Supermarket: A Memorandum’, document 7B in Wu H. (ed.), Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, op. cit., p.174.

  10. Xu Z., Yang Z. and Alexander Brandt, ‘Supermarket Exhibition: Information for Sponsors’, document 7A in ibid. The German Consulate in Shanghai and the WestLB Bank did provide some funds. The Daneng Evian Mineral Water Company first agreed to sponsor the project but then withdrew because the exhibition was ended prematurely. Other companies donated free services, but the exhibition, notwithstanding the substantial selling of works, ended up in a severe fight over finances between the three curators and those responsible at the shopping centre. See ibid., pp.175—76.

  11. Defne Ayas, ‘A Conversation with Davide Quadrio on Cultural Development in Shanghai and the Complex Case of BizArt’, Yishu, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, vol.7, no.5, September 2008, p.43.

  12. Charles Merewether, ‘The Long Striptease: Desiring Emancipation’, Parachute, issue 114, May—July 2004, p.42.

  13. Yang Fudong, Yang Z. and Xu Z. in conversation with the author, Shanghai, 30 December 2010. 

  14. Ibid

  15. Ibid

  16. See C. Merewether, ‘The Long Striptease’, op. cit., p.46.

  17. Yang Z. in conversation with Chen X., 2007, http://www.yangzhenzhong.com/?p=1502&lang=en (last accessed on 21 November 2011).

  18. See Jonathan Watkins, ‘Medium and Message’, in Yang Zhenzhong (exh. cat.), Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2006, p.2.

  19. See Magdalena Kröner, ‘Yang Zhenzhong, Singularität und Repetition’, Kunstforum International, issue 183, December 2006—February 2007, p.152.

  20. J. Watkins, ‘Medium and Message’, op. cit., p.3. 

  21. Xu Z. in conversation with the author, Shanghai, 14 November 2011.

  22. C. Merewether, ‘The Long Striptease’, op. cit., p.50. 

  23. Ibid. 

  24. Stephen Wright, ‘Shanghai: Spaces Without Qualities’, Parachute, issue114, May—July 2004, p.12. 

  25. Yuko Hasegawa, ‘The White Cloud Drifting Across the Sky Above the Scene of an Earthquake’, Parkett, no.76, 2006, p.81. 

  26. The stereotypical literati painters lived in retirement in the mountains or in other rural areas, not entirely isolated, but immersed in natural beauty and far from mundane concerns. They were also lovers of culture, hypothetically enjoying and taking part in all Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar as touted by Confucianism: painting, calligraphy, music and games of skill and strategy. They would often combine these elements in their work, and would gather to share their interests. Literati paintings are most commonly of landscapes and feature men living in retirement or travellers, admiring and enjoying the scenery. 

  27. For example: ‘Before understanding, you are already the prisoner of all manner of preconditions. What is art for? This is a question repeating [sic] dredged up and dragged to shore. Don’t believe any longer the numbing and turbid explanations of the bourgeoisie. Art, as the quintessential weapon of the new proletariat artist, is certainly the most powerful choice to challenge and squeeze out the old order. Let the rotten get all the more rotten, let it further intensify its essence. Rob others by trickery. Get twice the result with half the effort. Spin fine and mighty words. Justify yourself. Take possession of every possible resource and sphere of influence.’ Chen Yiaoyun, Reasons for a Daydreaming Proletariat, exhibition leaflet, 2011. 

  28. Ibid. 

  29. C. Merewether, ‘The Long Striptease’, op. cit., p.46. 

  30. Hou Hanru, ‘Shanghai, a Naked City: Curatorial Notes, Shanghai Biennale 2000’, in Hou H., On the Mid-Ground, Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2002, p.237. 

  31. See Wu H., ‘The 2000 Shanghai Biennale: The Making of a Historical “Event” in Contemporary Chinese Art’, in Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art, Beijing: Timezone 8, 2008, pp.175—84. 

  32. China began reinventing its own culture in the 1980s in answer to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, when China was not only cut off from the rest of the world, but was also forced to disown and renounce its own culture. The result of this explosive reaction was the 1985 New Wave Movement. It marked the end of a monolithic artistic model, opening a path for Chinese art toward internationalisation. This movement ended abruptly with the incidents around the exhibition ‘China/Avant-Garde’ in 1989 at the National Museum in Beijing and later that year the protests at Tiananmen Square. 

  33. Regi Preiswerk, ‘Letters from Shanghai’, in Wu H. (ed.), Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future, Between East and West, London: Iniva, 2001, p.247. 

  34. Yang F., Xu Z. and Yang Z. in conversation with the author, Shanghai, 30 December 2010. 

  35. Lu Leiping, ‘About Useful Life 2010 — Interview with Three Artists’, exhibition leaflet, Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai, 2010. 

  36. Ibid.