looking at art: 第二届广州三年展 2nd Guangzhou Triennial

I was going to try and find out if Park19 was still alive but only got as far as 二沙岛Er Sha Dao and the Guangdong Museum of Modern Art for the 第二届广州三年展2nd Triennial (don’t bother going to the English section, it hasn’t been updated since the last triennial). It’s been three years since I was in the same place getting quite impressed at times by some of the art in the first triennial, so I was keen to see what’s changed, particularly as I’d not heard great things about it.

Noticably, the curatorship is alot stronger, the theme of the Pearl River Delta as something of a new city or country as part of the wider theme of “BEYOND” is well-considered and coherently underpins the exhibition at the gallery, but the work itself, besides a few bits that showed intelligence tend to be derivative, mediocre, pointless, impenetrable, or exercises in self-obsession or vanity.

In choosing a theme which is geo-political and sociological, much of the work slips out of the realm of art and becomes either architecture or socio-documentary. In both cases the tools used to create the work, photography, digital video, architectural models and demographic analysis representations are ill-considered within themselves and almost represent a return to the most basic use of the medium as a tool of documentation.

This is particularly the case in a number of large-scale photography works and video projections where the camera is dead and what it captures bizarrely mundane. The problem with such minimalism or anti-art in the context of the Biennial is that it does not appear to be the aesthetic agenda of the artists to produce work like that, rather it is just a mediocre, slack-jawed tourism masquerading as something more.

Against this pervasive laziness there were some works that stood out as clever, intelligently conceived and sophisticated. All of these works shared a common, strongly political but non-polemical foundation emerging from the sociological theme of the biennial. Unexpectedly, many of these works also dealt with the nature of identity and more explicitly gender. There have been many artists whose work revolves around gender politics both in the west and in Asia, but this was the first time I’ve seen these kind of works in China and there was something about it that made me very happy, probably that these were the works with the greatest clusters of people around them, most nonchalantly taking photos and filming with camera and phone.

The exhibition feels more solid in retrospect because of these works, which manage to to be deftly political and sly without falling into the embarrassment of self-conscious irony, and as important, take the conceptual and technical understanding of the medium in which they work to a level where it is as considered as the content. What it does also show, is something I saw in Taiwan, which is a very strong collectively recognisable identity of Chinese and Asian art that is responding to the Asian world now and its future.