Installation view of COOKING SECTIONSSalmon: A Red Herring, 2020, removal of farmed salmon from the institution, cyclorama, powder-coated steel, silk, ETC ColorSource CYC lights, ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr lights, sound, dimensions variable, at “Bodies of Water,” the 13th Shanghai Biennale, 2021. Photo by Chen Hao. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai.

13th Shanghai Biennale: “Bodies of Water”

Also available in:  Chinese

The role of chief curator for the 13th Shanghai Biennale was, in many respects, an unenviable one: appointed in November 2019, Andrés Jaque barely had time to acquaint himself with Shanghai before the world was upended by Covid-19. It was in this context of disruption that Jaque and his fellow curators Lucia Pietroiusti, Filipa Ramos, Marina Verzier, and You Mi worked remotely to develop “Bodies of Water,” a wide-ranging exhibition exploring the fluid possibilities of humanness, and the ways we relate to one another and the environment. Ultimately, the decision was made to deliver it “in crescendo,” as an eight-month extended program that could be stopped and started as the conditions required. 

So when the final exhibition phase opened at the Power Station of Art in April, almost six months later than intended, it was not altogether unanticipated that what was meant to be a crest ended up being more of a trickle. Featuring 50 international and Chinese artists, the presentation was smaller than previous editions of the biennale, and the decision to expand the festival’s reach through satellite exhibitions around the city left the main site looking sparse.

The Power Station is a challenging building that past biennales have struggled to use to best effect, and this is an area where Jaque, an architect, could have been expected to excel. Yet the massive entrance hall, tailor-made for spectacle, was used instead for a meditative, research-based project which, although fascinating, had the impact of a drop in the ocean. Centered on the social and environmental impacts of the Dujiangyan irrigation project, Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun’s Water System (2018–21) consists of documentary material, site surveys, and maps, as well as interviews with environmentalists, urban planners, anthropologists, and villagers in affected areas—the kind of interdisciplinary social practice that exemplified the ambitious aspirations of the biennale.

Continuing to explore bodies of water in a literal sense, Cooking Sections’ Traces of Escapees (2021) tracks the genetic impact of fish farming in Istanbul through a lush, four-channel video installation that projected aerial images of circular, cerulean blue fisheries onto the gallery floor. Pu Yingwei’s Dam Theater (2020–21)—another entry in the artist’s semi-autobiographical, multimedia Chinafrica series—explores the impacts of infrastructure development and socio-cultural exchange on the African continent through the experiences of his uncle, a hydrologic engineer. Like Water System, however, it was ill-served by the space, with Pu’s mammoth concrete dam sculpture and large freestanding paintings featuring Pan-African flags and Soviet-style slogans arranged awkwardly down a narrow corridor and into an annex, with barely room to view. Grumbles about the layout notwithstanding, it was in these literal interrogations of the theme that the exhibition felt the most focused. When the show attempted to examine fluidity as a metaphor—for identity politics, collectivity, and connectivity—it began to wander.

One of the most visually striking (if thematically tenuous) works in the exhibition was Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s Menstrual Quipa (Shanghai) (2006/21). Symbolizing menstrual blood, Vicuña’s installation of red woolen strands tied in quipu, a complex Pre-Columbian memetic device of knots, stretched from the cavernous ceiling to the gallery floor. It was shown with a video of the original performance conducted at the base of the Andean mountain El Plomo, in which the artist laid the strands of yarn across the rocky terrain until they met at a small altar of stone and condor feathers. The original performance was accompanied by an address imploring Chile’s then-newly elected socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, to cancel the mining projects that endangered the region’s glaciers. Vicuña asks the president to “reconnect water and blood,” equating the health of the environment with that of the people. 

PEPE ESPALIÚ, Carrying, 1992, still from video of recorded performance: 6 min 28 sec. Courtesy the artist’s estate and Pepe Cobo.

Nearby, video documentation of Pepe Espaliú’s action Carrying (1992) played almost unnoticed. The artist, dying of AIDS at the time, is shown transported across San Sebastián in the entwined arms of his friends, his frail body and bare feet never making contact with the earth. Espaliú said the work, conceived to force Spanish authorities to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, related “something impossible: how to be in the world without touching the world.” Devised in a context of patients’ systemic marginalization, Carrying remarks on the unreliability of the social contract for already vulnerable groups. In the midst of the current health crisis, Carrying offered a poignant and rare moment of reflection that sat at odds with the positive thesis of porous and expansive relations, or “commonings,” between “collective hydro-subjects” that the exhibition presupposed. Ironically, the work’s accompanying label commented on the “secrecy and stigmatization surrounding the [AIDS] pandemic,” while omitting any mention of HIV/AIDS, which remains taboo in China, only noting that the artist died as a result of “a contagious disease.” 

Adjacent and entirely hidden behind a purpose-built facade were the Filmworks (1974–81) of Ana Mendieta. Oddly mesmeric and beautiful short films that often feature the physical imprint of her body in the landscape, sometimes erased by fire or eroded by the tide, they frequently speak to issues of exile, displacement, and the immigrant experience. While each work in isolation creates beautiful, if melancholic, moments of contemplation, the proximate nature of these three works together created an unintended yet discomforting association of immigrants, minorities, and menstruation with epidemic disease that was difficult to ignore at a moment when diasporic Asian communities, and particularly Asian women, are targets for violence and hateful rhetoric related to Covid-19. One assumed this awkward installation was the result of ideas working on paper but unable to be experienced in space by a team based overseas.

Installation view of HEATHER PHILLIPSON’s Music for Rats, 2021, paper, card, cardboard, marker pen, expanded cork, audio, dimensions variable, at “Bodies of Water,” the 13th Shanghai Biennale, 2021. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai.

Then there were some inclusions which remain impossible to parse, such as Heather Phillipson’s Music for Rats (2021). Commissioned specially for the biennale, the work consisted of drawings of sleeping rodents, in reference to scientific studies that concluded the animals dream.

Yet what felt most lacking for a biennale that claimed to be “intimately connected to Shanghai” and “developed in collaboration with the city” was any sense of locality—it could have been any exhibition, anywhere. In previous years, the chief curator has been required to ensure that a third of the artists are local, but this stipulation was abandoned this edition. This was probably another casualty of the pandemic, which made it impossible for the curators to conduct local primary research and studio visits. The result is that only a fifth of the artists are Chinese, and only two from or based in Shanghai. While many conversations can be had over the merits and otherwise of the nation-state biennale format, this lack of local representation was highly problematic for an exhibition both geographically and thematically situated in the city on the sea. Moreover, there was no small irony in an exhibition dedicated to exploring the possibilities and implications of the fluid extension of the human body in complex environmental and social systems at a moment in which we face not only unprecedented health-related restrictions on such “wet-togetherness,” as Jaque terms it, but also the catastrophic consequences of our continuing extensions into nature. Joining the sparsely attended opening in our bespoke face masks, lining up for the temperature checks and health code scans, and standing at a distance to watch the curatorial team deliver their welcoming remarks via Zoom, I was struck by a sense that the theme of the exhibition represented a moment passed, that the ideas of such biological and geographical hyperextension were, at best, nostalgic, the age of “wet-togetherness” closed.

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