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The Unseen: A formal fourth edition for the Guangzhou Triennial, PIPELINE Magazine Issue 33, Nov/Dec 2012, Review《PIPELINE》

By Cristina Sanchez K

The fourth edition of the Guangzhou Triennial, celebrating its 10th year, is mainly set in the bunker-style Guangdong Museum of Art building, displaying an impeccable spatial occupancy within the dry interiors of the museum, including some odd corridors and bathrooms. It’s a very formal show based around a candid theme: the Unseen. As the subject itself could potentially be quite generic, it is what is unseen that has the power to carry meaning and value both conceptually and aesthetically. Through the works of about 75 artists and their skill at conceptualising the immaterial, the exhibition manages to establish a solid theoritical base with a dash of unpredictability and something of the conventional, but also demonstrates openness to some of the artists’ experimentations.

Curators Jiehong Jiang (from China, director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) and Jonathan Watkins (from the UK, director of the Ikon Gallery, a registered educational charity, in Birmingham) chose works by artists of all ages and levels of recognition, working with sound, painting, video, installation, sculpture, drawing, calligraphy, performance and film. They come with a varied collection of intellectual approaches and standpoints but all have in common practices that have to be approached and perceived at a intellectual and spiritual level. The exhibition spans over the museum, the Guangzhou Opera House and the Grandview Mall, one of the largest shopping centres in Southern China.

The unseen is therefore nested in the materiality of the artistic media such as in paintings or sculptures or installations. The subject of painting as a medium and its limits is formally explored throughout the works of Ron Terada (b.1969) and Amikam Toren (b.1945). The former considers the subject of representation and objects – referencing Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, as Watkins points out – with Who I Think I Am (2011) from the artist’s recent exhibition at Ikon Gallery. The work is made of replicas of boxes delivered for the exhibition at Ikon with the artist’s name and the address of the gallery.

As for the latter, Toren cuts stencilled letters out of landscape paintings cheaply bought in second-hand shops to recreate catchy sentences from songs and commercials; he also cuts out the original signatures out of similarly acquired oil paintings and then frames them on cardboard that he signs with his own name.

But the unseen – and the subjects of originality, copyright and intellectual ownership – resides as much in the immaterial realm as it does within the media, through an offbeat sense of humour or performative actions that borrow from film. Such is the case in the works of Ceal Floyer (b.1968) who screens Untitled Credit Roll (2012), a movie end-credit sequence with out-of-focus, unreadable names; or the works of Graham Gussin (b.1960), who renders reality into science fiction such as in the film Spill (1999, 2006), which draws from feathers, dust, wind and fumes pervasively unfolding as in a extraordinary narrative in an ordinary urban setting. In Sofia Hulten’s (b.1972) video Immovable Object/Unstoppable Force (2005), human characters stand in front of a truck and as in an educational yoga video direct the viewer to do things, such as “visualise that your energy is blending with the object”.

At the end of a hallway, three small windows discreetly display the stunning poetic works of Rikuo Ueda (b.1950), constructed machines that suspend pencils and brushes so that when they’re left in the wind, they create wind-made calligraphy.

Nothingness within an urban context can testify of the passing of time, as an organic body leaves traces of its evolution behind through body fluids, hair and fingernail scrapings. Testimony to this is found in Ignasi Aballi’s (b.1958) works – in the form of footprints on white walls in People (2000-2012), and in comments written in grey dust on the two-cubic-metre glass installation Vitrine (dust-grey) (2012). Curator Jonathan Watkins says that “the exhibition reflected on the ideas of different layers of reality and spirituality, on the hidden and what is invisible”. Of Aballi’s work he says that “people often don’t pay attention to dust, which is a rich substance”, and notes the realism of the work.

The presentation of the art within the museum is particularly worth mentioning, as it enhances the aura of each work within the given constraints of the museum. “The design of the space started right from the beginning when we were formally nominated as curators of the show back in late 2011,” says Jiang. “When we think of a new artist participating, a new piece of work, then we think of the space automatically,” noting that the final decisions were still happening 24 hours before the opening as the team was “trying very hard to work out the best place for each individual work and present them in the architectural context”. He also mentions that they have declined suggestions from the museum such as categorising all the works into different thematic sections for all the different gallery spaces, instead telling the visual story as a whole. “‘The Unseen’, to me, is not necessarily thematic, but methodological.”

Moscow-based Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov (b.1961), who has been collecting, replicating and documenting folk utilitarian handmade tools for more than two decades, spent two weeks prior to the opening of the triennial sourcing material from Chinese farmers, street vendors and merchants, interviewing them in the process and marvelling at the inventiveness of some of the local designs. They add to his ongoing Post Folk Archive collection of DIY tools, comprising hundreds of low-cost models from resourceful Russian and other self-taught inventors.

A little belle-époque perversion is found in the small illustrative drawings of Marcel Dzama (b.1974), while in the paintings of Tim Johnson (b.1947) Buddhas mix with aboriginal dreamtime and flying saucers.

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