November 11, 2018–March 10, 2019
[En anglais] Titled after E. E. Cummings’s experimental poetry from 1931, Proregress: Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence is a critique of late capitalism and its failures. When Cummings coined the term “proregress”—a playful contraction of the words progress and regress—he was critiquing the promise of the industrial revolution at a time when Europe was on the cusp of another destructive war. Used nearly eighty years later in the context of the Shanghai Biennale, which coincided with the inaugural China International Import Expo (CIIE), Cuauhtémoc Medina’s proposal is timely and significant, but its shortcomings are numerous and the result largely disappointing.
Upon entering the imposing Power Station of Art, the visitor is greeted by three large installations: the first consists of two cars flipped over. This work by the Japanese artist Yuken Teruya is nothing if underwhelming. Nearby is a one-liner by the Spanish artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo: a large bronze sculpture of an eighteenth-century colonial figure, bent backward and turned into a swing on which visitors can sway. The third installation is a piece titled In Hemmed-in Ground (2018) by Enrique Ježik that the visitor rediscovers from the upper levels. It consists of a series of organized bundles of folded cardboard boxes that spell out Chinese characters, translating into “one step forward two steps back; two steps forward one step back.” This mirrors the Chinese title of the exhibition, “禹步” or Yubu, which is a Daoist dance conveying the coming and going of ideas, desires, and concepts1 1 - Curators’ statement by Cuauhtémoc Medina, María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, Yukie Kamiya, and Wang Weiwei, in the exhibition map for the 12th Shanghai Biennale, 3..
Curating an exhibition in China comes with a set of regulations. One requisite is to comply with a quota of thirty percent national participants, forcing Medina to spend time in China researching the local scene and doing studio visits. This could be considered positive, since too often international events such as biennales have been sites where parachuting curators and their entourage of artists descend upon a city to engage in self-glorification ceremonies. China’s policy forces international guest curators to engage with the context in which they are implementing their curatorial vision. The main letdown of this biennale is precisely how it neglects to translate the context of Shanghai into the narrative of Proregress.
Upon first glance, the list of participating artists—which was deliberately not made public prior to the opening despite the fact that the selection was finalized in March 2018—includes a fair number of Latin American artists. When I met with Medina two days before the opening, he told me that he brought his entourage of artists, including Francis Alÿs, Amalia Pica, Alfredo Jaar, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, among others. In that sense, his initiative was predictable, unambitious, and unexciting, failing precisely where he could have succeeded. There are, nevertheless, a number of standout pieces and beautiful moments in this biennale.
Michael Rakowitz’s The Looting (2007–) tackles the looting of artefacts from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003. The artist produced copies in papier-mâché, which are laid out on a long table with detailed labels. These objects have multiple layers: they testify to the rich heritage of the Mesopotamian civilization, they are traces of the cultural trauma that pertains to Iraq in the early twenty-first century and Europe’s fascination with the conservation of cultural goods, even in the face of current crises. The use of cheap materials used to reproduce them complicates the discourse around the disappearance of these artefacts, highlighting the construction of the myth in which certain cultures are unable to care for their treasures. This is a colonial weapon that has been used extensively to move artefacts into the museums of Europe.
Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s video The Great Silence (2014) is another feat of strength. The three-screen projection follows the vocal learning of the highly intelligent but almost extinct Amazona Vittata parrot in contrast to the experiments conducted using the Arecibo radio telescope in Esperenza, Puerto Rico. Narrated from the bird’s perspective, the work addresses interspecies communication, the desire to communicate with the Other, and human beings’ inability to listen.
Meiro Koizumi’s The New Breath Just After the Tempest/Seven Deadly Sins (2018) addresses the militarization of France following the 2015 Paris terrorist attack and specifically, the recruiting of young adults from the impoverished suburbs of Paris. Koizumi collaborated with fifteen participants, asking them to embody their conception of heroism and bravery in the face of fear and terror. This improvised session is projected across several channels, immersing the viewer into an unchoreographed performance. The work is successful because it focuses on the bodies and emotions of the participants rather than employing a traditional documentary mode of presentation.
In contradiction, The Ayotzinapa Case: A Cartography of Violence is a work by Forensic Architecture that is strikingly efficient but fails to tackle the trauma of the event it addresses: the disappearance of forty-three students in Iguala, Mexico in 2014. The statistics and the forensic documents displayed dissect and examine the sequence of events that led to this tragic event, but the piece remains disturbingly cold in the face of the horror that it spells out. The names of the students are mentioned in passing and their faces are never shown. The work fails to treat this delicate and traumatic subject with respect for the Mexican people who desperately try to remember the lives of those who disappeared. Turning the victims into mere numbers shows Forensic Architecture’s lack of ethical responsibility.
But perhaps this apathetic language used by Forensic Architecture is an appropriate aesthetic strategy to deploy in China. In the context of a nation obsessed with financial performance and continual growth—as President Xi Jinping’s speech during the opening address of the inaugural CIIE made evident—should the language we use to speak of horror be adapted? In a society that faces considerable censorship and control, can the tools of capitalism be subverted to advocate against corruption and for a more democratic society? These are the collateral questions that the Shanghai Bienniale raises, not through careful curation, but precisely as a consequence of Medina’s shortcomings.