HSU CHE-YU, The Unusual Death of a Mallard, 2020, still from video: 16 min 45 sec. Courtesy the artist. 

The Rush to Normalcy

Also available in:  Chinese

My only trip outside of China in 2020 was a visit to Singapore for the Art Week. As the Rockbund Art Museum had temporarily closed for a planned renovation, I was looking to spend time delving more deeply into research-orientated projects in mainland China and Asia. In a normal year, our work is focused primarily on exhibitions, so my hope was to shift to another rhythm of working and to maintain dialogues with artists in the region.

The outbreak happened almost as soon as I returned home. When it started, Shanghai was already quiet and half-empty as everyone had returned home for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Surreal at first, it seemed like an awkward and prolonged extension of the holiday. The situation quickly turned, with a harrowing stream of information on social media and the news—fragmented and confusing with a lack of transparency (it turned out to be a common trait globally), with a mixture of hearsay and conspiracy theories thrown in. The collective fear intensified with the suddenness of the lockdown, and the isolation heightened our emotional sensitivity to news that followed. One’s belief in public-health messages was reliant on also cross-checking information with on-the-ground experiences circulating on the social media platform Weibo. In an unprecedentedly short span of time, our dependence on mobile phone technology for sustenance and safety tightened even further, with a new health code app and an already bourgeoning infrastructure of online delivery apps that became essential for food and PPE supplies.

For the first months, the museum staff operated remotely, caring for one another and staying connected through regular online meetings. Our initial reaction was to look at the inevitable delays we would experience with the reopening of the museum, though we were hopeful that things would eventually subside, similar to how SARS panned out. Yet without knowing the pandemic’s endpoint, the constant deferral of plans and changing dates, and the proposal of contingencies in response, has been a mental challenge.

Our response has been to seek ways of working that enable us to continue activities and exchanges without being too reliant on external factors outside of our control. We began working with the designer Geoff Han on an entirely new experiential framework for our online content—to not only offer documentation but a fluid dialogue with practitioners beyond a fixed exhibition schedule—which will be launched in 2021. We also adopted a flexible commissioning model, which is essentially a grant for art and research projects stalled due to the pandemic. We managed to support around 17 artists and practitioners with this model. We are all in unknown territory, and this requires proactive thinking to bridge the gaps and to increase the possibilities for more in-depth conversations.

Installation view of MIRE LEE’s Carriers, horizontal forms, 2020, plaster, resin, silicone, pic hoses, fabric, electronic motors, motor circuit, 140.5 × 100.5 × 4.5 cm, at “Breathing Through Skin,” Antenna Space, Shanghai, 2020–21. Photo by Zhang Hong. Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space.

Shanghai has been relatively stable since the first lockdown was lifted at the end of February. Yet, in the rush to recover and return to normalcy, one of the biggest dangers is that we will forget too quickly some of the serious issues, highlighted by the pandemic, related to how we were living before. The lockdown experience in Shanghai shifted our thinking in many contradictory ways. For instance, it can be argued that the use of personal data led to a highly efficient infrastructure of containment and protection from the virus­—but at what cost and consequence? In some surprising ways, we had a certain measure of freedom compared to the lockdowns in other cities. For example, there was never an enforced citywide rule to determine how to socially-distance from one person to another. Many rules were interpreted in an ad-hoc way from place to place, causing unexpected tensions. I remember the improvised barricades to public roads and suburban enclaves closing themselves off to “outsiders.” Suddenly there were condos or housing blocks that functioned with their own set of rules almost like a medieval fiefdom.

The first art event that I attended not long after the initial lockdown eased was a tentatively arranged gathering of young artists, hosted by AM Space, one of the few artist-run spaces still operating in Shanghai, and which re-emerged after its own self-initiated hiatus that predated the outbreak. In the absence of rules, they improvised their own safety measures like taking people’s temperature at the door. Despite initial precautions, it descended into a gathering like any other very quickly; food and drink were served and shared liberally between hands with one another—the human desire to reconnect was stronger than fear of the virus. There was a lesson here: the threshold that determines our vigilance in a given situation is relative to the balance between our immediate experience compared with the wider, macro-picture of how the pandemic is evolving. Yet there is a time lag, as the pandemic impacts us at different levels, which has happened in delayed waves—the effects are not always immediately apparent.

Notable artistic projects that circumnavigated, in their own ways, the challenges of an apocalyptic year included a complex installation by the Taiwanese artist Hsu Che-Yu, featuring the new film, The Unusual Death of a Mallard (2020). In the work, Hsu shifts between different technologies of capturing information, using 3D scanning, reflected mirror images, thermal imaging, and hand-held camera work. With its theme of our impossible desire to return something back to life, the film was especially moving to experience now, as Hsu asks,
even with the technology we have at our disposal, how much is really retained in our attempt to re-animate something lost?

Similarly exploring the boundaries between the living and the dead, the large-scale kinetic sculpture, Carriers, horizontal forms (2020) by South Korean artist Mire Lee, shown in the group show, “Breathing Through Skin” (11/7–1/2/21), curated by Alvin Li at Antenna Space, was my first time seeing the artist’s work in person. With splayed cords and a viscous fluid that embalmed a set of amorphous forms together in a pristine, low-lying cement platform, it was like a post-industrial riff on the kinetic systems of David Medalla and the anti-form principles of Eva Hesse.

Detail of CANDICE LIN and PATRICK STAFF’s Hormonal Fog, 2020, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable, at “Stressed Herms, Sweat, & Period Gas,” Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), NYU Shanghai, 2020. Photo by Hong Xiaole. Courtesy ICA, NYU Shanghai.

“Stressed Herms, Sweat, & Period Gas” (9/24–12/19) was a very timely two-person show by Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, which was organized at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at NYU Shanghai. Their works related to the fear of vulnerability, toxic contagions, and the interdependence between issues of health and identity. They together dispersed a “hormonal fog,” a herbal concoction that affects viewers’ estrogen levels, and displayed a series of seemingly innocuous paintings by Lin—with pigment brimming with materials now considered public health risks—depicting places in Lebanon purported to be clandestine sites of buried waste.

For the art world in Shanghai, the smooth opening of art fairs and exhibitions in November offered a reassuring message that all has returned to normal here. Yet in this moment, to ensure that we have things to put in art fairs and exhibitions in the first place, there is still an urgent need to maintain an even closer sensitivity to issues of health, not just in terms of public and social well-being, but also in terms of the vitality of an arts ecology, a system of interdependence that is the one thing that helps us to thrive together in the first place.

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