ZHANG PEILI, Focal Distance (detail), 1996, eight-channel video installation, video: 15 min. All photos by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific. 


21st Century Minsheng Art Museum

ZHUANG HUI and DAN’ER, Image Library-A91593624, 2011, mosaic collage, 300 × 300 cm.

CAI JINThe Legend of the Red Lantern, 1991, oil on canvas, 190 × 150 cm. 

Visiting the 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai—housed in the former French Pavilion at the city’s World Expo site—is arduous. Within the museum, long galleries slope to a high point in the building. In its current exhibition, “Nonfigurative,” this structural feature of the museum is treated as a dramatic effect. At the peak are Jin Feng’s sweeping assemblage, The Mountain Climbing Buff’s Museum of Images (2014–15), and Zhuang Hui and Dan’er’s mosaic of a figure raising a flag against an open sky, entitled Image Library-A91593624 (2011). Both show the figure as no more than an association of transmitted images. Meanwhile, at the very start of the climb is Tang Nannan’s monumental video projection, Faith Mountain (2015), which features a low view of a dark sea. The scene is of a blurry, inaccessible shoreline across restless waves. The engulfing force of a swell broods in slow motion, appearing as an ominous portent.

This is the first (but not the last) time in the exhibition that we encounter isolation. Xing Xin’s video, A Happy Excursion (2008), sets a figure adrift on a vulnerable raft, Li Shan’s untitled painting from 1997 depicts a half-angel half-donkey beast cast out of society like a mystical asylum seeker, and Liu Ren’s Ode to the Fountainhead of Peach Blossoms (2015) drops minute Chinese letterforms into a wrinkly expanse of ultramarine paint. These pieces set the tone for other works that portray subjects in peril. Cai Jin’s painting, The Legend of the Red Lantern (1991), shows the characters from the eponymous revolutionary opera, distended and twisted like dried roots, as though the red lantern that is hung above them has polluted their soil. The lantern’s beam also seems to touch Gu Liming’s adjacently placed Landscape (1990), which, though made of paper, appears like flayed skin. It becomes apparent that the “non-figuration” referenced in the exhibition’s title is pointing not to abstraction, but to the effacement of the figure, its demise and vaporization.

Wang Jianwei’s video Hostage (2008) marks a pivot in the exhibited works, shifting from those that physically address corporal mutability to technological projects concerned with reproduction, digitization and surveillance. Wang’s video is a piece of Brechtian cinema, forcefully yet obviously staged. Bodies are crushed in a collapsed communal building. Dreams, too, are crushed in the aftermath of the disaster. Chen Zhou’s gently sardonic and yellow-tinted exploration of identity, I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou (2013), further confirms the exhibition’s shift in emphasis. Here in Chen’s film, the figure becomes objectified and reduced to effects and cyphers. In a different work, Qiu Jia’s Faithfulness (2015), a hand-drawn QR code asserts the coldblooded quality inherent in this ubiquitous icon of information exchange.

JIN FENG, The Mountain Climbing Buff’s Museum of Images, 2014–15, acrylic on paper, dimensions variable.

In two very different videos, Zhang Peili shows the pitiless erasure of the figure. In Focal Distance (1996), he makes inventive use of surveillance-type images presented on a sequence of monitors arranged to suggest different perspective. Distant pictures are clear, but analogue distortion overwhelms the images on closer screens. Meanwhile, Zhang’s Last Words (2003) appropriates death scenes from cinematic films, dispersing the sentiment of these decisive moments through the act of duplication and repetition. 

The dilemma of a digital facsimile that forgoes the sentiment of its original is reiterated in Jiang Zhi’s 0.7% Salt (2009). Recalling Andy Warhol’s The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women (1969–70), Jiang’s video holds an unflinching shot of Chinese actress Zhong Xin Tong as she appears to weep. The sharp definition of her image shows that fidelity is not the same as truth, because mimesis is indifferent and lacks integrity.

The work at the end of the exhibition is Shi Yong’s Untitled (2008), a video capturing a series of books. Over the course of nearly 25 minutes, the color and titles of all the volumes are incrementally erased, leaving a hue-less, anonymous ghost without any content or solidity. 

Descending from this point back to the start of the exhibition, the sump-like ocean of Faith Mountain appears in a different light. It is seemingly slowly boiling and is like the primordial matter of the figurative—perhaps even a sea of potential.

LI SHAN, Untitled, 1997, oil on canvas, 149 × 178 cm.

“Nonfigurative” is on view at 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, until February 28, 2016.