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Venus Lau on Chinese visual production in the public sphere

Li Bingyan, 2013131-2014927 (detail), 2014

Over at Art-Agenda, Beijing-based writer and curator Venus Lau has reviewed the group exhibition “Unlived by What is Seen,” a group show on social practice in China. Located in several galleries in the 798 district (check out the district’s extremely informative, oddly gripping Wikipedia page) the exhibition amounts to “a vague attack on the image and visual production,” writes Lau, “even as it ends up as a vast pool of images, particularly of the moving sort, with a total viewing time of around 80 hours—made up mostly of interviews with artists.” (Oh, god!) “Here the image is belittled as the residue of life, although the curators emphasize the non-archival dimension of the exhibition.” Honestly, the exhibition sounds a little bit hellish for the viewer.

While you may think this is a garden-variety Marxist curatorial thesis, curators Cui Cancan, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu aren’t interested in formlessness from a (Western) art historical perspective, but rather as a response to the changing nature of the image in a culture newly suffused with social media. “Claiming to show art ‘no longer geared toward production of images and visual objects,’ the exhibition stages a dichotomy between image and action, trying to respond to an urgent appeal to rethink the image and its modus operandi in our current time. The direction is timely and ‘correct,’ yet the contemplation goes little beyond clichéd critique, in which the image is considered a haunting reminder of ‘life’ outside the gallery walls.”

Most compelling is Lau’s read on how the advent of Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat at Weibo have democratized how the public sphere is visually represented after decades of state control and censorship.

The curators mark 2008 as the year of genesis for a form of artistic practice that turned its back on image production and instead embraced the social aspect of art. Beijing’s Olympic year was, and is, undoubtedly crucial to Chinese people—the art world included—in their self-regard as a world power, not to mention as an event that raised the curtain on stricter governmental censorship and biopolitical control. But 2008 also marks the rise of Chinese social media, filling a discursive void with content ignored by China’s mainstream news outlets—that of every person with a camera phone. This change in media culture, where image and event happen simultaneously, means that the image is no longer a referent to an external event—it is an empirical event in itself. It appears when an event externalizes, assembles, and resembles itself to be present. Premised on the impotency of the contemporary image, the exhibition rather paradoxically reiterates how our society is directed towards visual production as the public sphere is replaced by public images in popular media.

Read the full text on Art-Agenda here.