Installation view of HU RENYI’s Pandemic (2016) in “Community of Celibates” at Shanghai Gallery of Art, 2016. Photo by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific.

Community of Celibates

Shanghai Gallery of Art

The “community of celibates,” in the current exhibition at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, craves adoration. They are preoccupied with seductive appearances. Each artist demands full concentration, while the others clamor for attention. Dark and noisy, the exhibition is an immersive environment. Visitors are obliged to duck and bend in order to see the work. Entering the show through a narrowing space, they are greeted by three monochrome paintings by Xiamen-born, Paris-based artist, Gao Jie. In one defining work, Wittgenstein’s ‘Pain’ (2015), Gao reinterprets American artist Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic 1961 pop-art painting, I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It! Delineated by only a few black lines, the painting shows a single eye turning back to look out from the canvas at the other works in the space. The attitude of the eye is not of curiosity, but of disinvestment, which is a key theme carried through the show.

The “celibates,” such as artist-duo Ye Funa and Beio, want an exclusive audience. Three videos, each over one hour long, are presented on separate monitors. Clustered together, they can only be properly appreciated from one position. The viewer, therefore, becomes momentarily trapped. The videos tantalize with glimpses of something possibly sexy, but it proves a challenge to work out what is happening. Entitled Peep Stream (2015), the videos are webcasts of informal collaborations composed around the Japanese genres of Kichiku and Otome (homoerotic anime and female-orientated romantic role-play games, respectively), and also address subjects such as fag hag (referring to a heterosexual woman who spends a lot of time with gay men). Nearby, requiring the same level of dedication in its viewers, is Chen Tianzhuo’s video of his bombastic performance ADAHA II (2015), which was presented at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo last year. Insistently sexualized, colorfully dressed, but also topless, the characters in the video strike poses and sing without finesse. They do not interact, but exude an air of narcissism. The effect is repeated in Hu Renyi’s performance work, Pandemic (2016). Here the players writhe and clutch together in zentai-like costumes. They, too, are preoccupied with their own exoticism, but having bodies that are well insulated, it is a platonic orgy of brushing, velvet proboscis.

Restrictions of celibacy suggests the possibility of both voyeuristic interests and isolation. By framing their video Big Spiral (2016) to be seen within a web browser, artists Qianfan and St.Jiu present an infatuation with the virtual interface—a love that stimulates their extended, but misguided, and ultimately frustrating research around Spira, a fictitious island world from the role-playing video game Final Fantasy X.

Elsewhere in the show, there are other obsessions that also fail to lead to fulfillment. Song Bin’s Urinoir (2016) is a painting that uses an image of Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture, Fountain (1917). The readymade has become the fetish of vanguard attitudes toward art on both ends of the world. In Urinoir’s companion performance by Yang Jian, the latter artist wrote out phonetic associations of the Chinese translation of “Urinoir,” which were compulsively jotted down on the wall and across the floor, ending several meters away. Yang’s performance action makes a physical as well as phonetic separation from the iconic urinal, turning the loving homage to Duchamp—who rejected “retinal” art—into a spectacle, in silver and gold pen.

Miao Ying’s installation #mememe (2014) expands on the theme of self-love. Five banners, of the sort that would greet visitors at a corporate event, show images including the Mona Lisa and crowds at the Louvre Museum. Phones poised on selfie sticks, which in turn are held by microphone stands, are positioned close to the banners. The whole arrangement is spiky and takes up a lot of space—one has to pick one’s way around the installation and, ultimately, one can look, but is not invited to be in, the picture.

These “celibates” are fascinated by the effect of relationships, but their love is selfish. It is a love of style and effect. “Community of Celibates” is a relevant exhibition in a dysfunctional world; one where romance can blossom between avatars online, their users alone and far apart, while individuals in real-world communities are separated by exclusive, sectarian and ideological points of view. These “celibates” might be disinvested, the route around the “community” may be demanding, but, because they have no ideology, the exhibition indicates one way forward in a greedy world.

SONG BIN, Urinoir, 2016, acrylic on canvas 200 × 200 cm. Installation view, with text in gold-and-silver marker pen from YANG JIAN’s Performative Writing (2016). Photo by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific.

MIAO YING#mememe, 2014, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific.

“Community of Celibates” is on view at Shanghai Gallery of Art, until March 16, 2016.