WANG LUYANDownward Force on Upward Moving Objects, 2015, laquer paint, stainless steel, plastic, regular steel, 910 × 300 × 370 cm. Courtesy Parkview Arts Action, Beijing. 

“On Sharks & Humanity”

National Museum of China, Parkview Green 798 and Parkview Green FangCaodi
China France

In the heart of Beijing, an exhibition at the National Museum of China (NMC) set out to raise awareness of marine conservation, with particular focus on the protection of sharks. Campaigns against shark finning have become a global hot topic in recent years. International wildlife conservation groups claim that approximately 100 million sharks are poached annually around the world, with 73 percent of them having their fins processed for consumption in shark-fin soup. While the primary market is mainland China, fins are still being sold for extraordinary profits on the streets of Hong Kong. “On Sharks & Humanity” posits itself as more than an art exhibition; according to the show’s Beijing-based curator Huang Du, it attempts to be a platform for education and humanitarianism.

A collaborative project between the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and Parkview Arts Action—an extension of the Chinese real estate and property development company Parkview Group—“On Sharks & Humanity” first exhibited in Monaco in 2014 and then appeared in Moscow earlier this year. The latest leg of this touring exhibition, currently being held in Beijing, presents a selection of nearly 50 artworks by 34 artists working across a range of disciplines and genres. In Beijing, the majority of the artworks are exhibited at the NMC while a select few also appear in Parkview’s art space situated in the city’s 798 art district, as well as at the company’s mall, Parkview Green FangCaoDi.

Within the glorious edifice of the NMC, with its elevated ceilings and oversized architecture, it is easy to lose all sense of proportion and spatial relation as a visitor. For the admirable cause of protecting sharks, the organizers have spared no costs in mounting the exhibition. Spread across several rooms, “On Sharks & Humanity” teems with massive artworks, from gargantuan sculptural pieces to room-scale installations and oversized paintings. Conceptual artist Wang Luyan fills a room with the four-meter-tall installation Downward Force on Upward Moving Objects (2015), which consists of several dozen, bright red, stainless-steel buoys. Each buoy is speared by a vertical metal rod hanging from a rectangular steel weight above, as though they are pushing the buoys down onto an ocean surface. The rods, of varying length, are connected in the middle of the installation by a perpendicular steel frame running parallel to the floor. Suspended at varying heights, the buoys mimic the fluctuating nature of waves in the ocean. In another room, Li Jiwei’s four-meter long shark, Don’t Copy II (2015), shaped from more than 70 large pieces of transparent plastic, hangs from the ceiling, emitting a blue glow formed by X-rays. In Enlightenment (2014), Mongolian-born Yu Yang interwove fishing harpoons with mesh and molded the material to form the shape of a shark. Sculptor Gao Xiaowu, meanwhile, has immortalized the shark in Evolution (2014), a stainless-steel rendering of the marine creature in a state of mid-metamorphosis, as it becomes a polished, shining goldfish.

ZHENG LU, The Tomb of Honour, 2015, stainless steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy Parkview Arts Action, Beijing. 

MARCUS WONG, Don’t Kill Me, 2014, oil on canvas, 40 × 50 cm. Courtesy Parkview Arts Action, Beijing. 

Zheng Lu’s TheTomb of Honour (2015), an introspective work comprising four, colossal human hearts, is crafted from more than 10,000 small fishing hooks. Each presented in its own vitrine, the hearts have a smooth and deceiving surface, for which Zheng has deliberately pointed the hooks inward. Consequently, the hearts’ core becomes jagged and hazardous, metaphorically highlighting the dangerous nature of humankind’s cruelty, greed and thirst for control.

Bringing a refreshing child’s perspective to the exhibition is Marcus Wong, who is the young grandson of Parkview Group chairman George Wong. His two paintings, Don’t Kill Me (2014) and Last Line of the Defense (2015), evoke a genuine empathy and regard for the kings of the ocean. The former work portrays a shark emerging from sea water, with the words “Don’t kill me!” written inside a speech bubble above it, while Last Line of the Defense shows two distressed sharks trapped inside a fish bowl atop a table, as hands holding cutlery are preparing to descend upon the helpless creatures. For Wong, sharks are not the feared killing machines that one is often led to believe by popular media; but rather, they are thinking, feeling and communicative creatures. The simplicity of the child’s touch in these paintings summons the overarching message of the exhibition in a pure, unclouded way.  

A memorable inclusion in the exhibition, and one of few works that were not specifically commissioned for this project, Mark Leong’s The Harvest (2010) addresses a different perspective regarding the global industry of shark-finning. A selection of eight photographs from Leong’s series on Asia’s wildlife trade plasters the wall. The photographs document the process of finning, drying, preparing, weighing and selling shark fins. Shot on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, the project was originally part of a three-year assignment that Leong undertook for National Geographic magazine, which saw him travel to ten countries across Asia to cover the multibillion dollar industry. Leong’s camera lens sheds an honest light on the lives of those who are earning a livelihood through the shark-finning industry. Leong is clear that he does not intend to place guilt nor blame on these people; instead he proposes a reexamination of our own behaviors and how that could effect subsequent chain of decisions. As he says: “You don’t have to be a lover of sea creatures to understand that decimating shark populations is putting our planet out of balance. You don’t have to be an economist to see that when we consumers stop demanding, the suppliers will stop killing.”

MARK LEONG, The Harvest (detail), 2010, documentary photograph, 80 × 100 cm. Courtesy Parkview Arts Action, Beijing. 

“On Sharks & Humanity” aims to raise awareness of a global movement in marine conservation through the communicative voices of various creative disciplines. It is a bold endeavor to open discussions on the manifold concerns of shark-fin consumption, in a country where said practice is revered and sought after, and many of its people have yet to come to an understanding of what it means to drive a species to extinction.

“On Sharks & Humanity” is on view at the National Museum of China, Parkview Green 798 and Parkview Green FangCaodi, Beijing, until September 27, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.