Manchester. What a perfect city to host the Asia Triennial. In just two days I saw and absorbed so much and it was almost effortless. To pull off something similar in London would be almost possible but Manchester is compact, dynamic and buzzing on every corner. And it was Sarah Fisher and her team at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) who made the most of it.
Whilst the Asia Triennial’s main presentation was in the Imperial War Museum over at Salford Quays, it was the CFCCA that seemed to use Manchester like a giant exhibition space, presenting over 30 artists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan across 6 different venues.
Their exhibition, ‘Harmonious Societies,’ was virtually an Asia Triennial in its own right, quietly exploring the overall theme ‘Conflict and Compassion’ through the works of Taiwanese, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese artists. Yet it couldn’t speak more loudly. Whilst studying Pak Sheung Chuen’s commentary on colonialism in his ‘Resenting Hong Kong Series’ I was receiving facebook updates from people marching in Hong Kong, protesting against electoral reform. Walking into the main exhibition space I was confronted with a series of powerful and painterly works by one of China’s most important contemporary artists Liu Xiaodong. Exploring the implications of differing religions, political beliefs and cultural diversity between the conflicting states of Israel and Palestine during a 4 week residency there, the artist had arrived at a series of works about people, about humanity. Each work was simply split in two and the tones and colours sizzling in the heat. Meanwhile in the news there were reports of further bomb exchanges and civilians dead in Ghaza.
The artists presented at the National Football Museum were at first glance bold and more light hearted but each carried an astute commentary, from Kan Xuan’s ‘Man with balls’ about society’s ‘mis-use’ of sport to entertain clients and Liu Jianhua’s ‘Boxing Time’ where boxing gloves were countries ready to face off.
However, these seemed rather static and obvious in comparison to the energy of the works in the Artwork, a new artist-led community space that just buzzed with potential. The vast square footage on several floors meant that the works could go big and really breathe. There was lots of film work, all of it worth watching to the end, including TOF Group’s animation ‘Rehearsal’ which had visitors mesmerized and Upstream by Xu Qu, which seemed unremarkable at first but I found wholly absorbing.
Over at the John Rylands Library everyone was dumbfounded by Wang Yuyang’s ‘Breathing Books’ found in the historic reading rooms. It was like being at Hogwarts. But for me, Zhao Yao’s ‘Wonderlands’ held more interest, demonstrating not just how China’s rapid urbanization means they must develop more and more airports, but how producing incredibly complex and high quality carpets in a short time is so easy for such an industrious nation.
There was so much to see but walking away from a knock-out two days of Asian art, I left pondering some works I’d seen on the walls down in the basement of CCFCA by Tehching Hsieh. One of the works described, very simply, a one year performance where he would stay OUTDOORS for one year and never go inside. This he did, from 26 Sept 1981 to 26 Sept 1982, in New York. A Taiwanese performance artist, his last work was the ‘Thirteen Year Plan’ where he withdrew completely from the art world and he has not returned to make new work. I wonder, given the theme of the Triennial, if we as humanity could ever retreat, or stop, pause, reflect, just waste time and think freely, instead of didactically pursuing what we feel is our right and in the process creating only enormous conflict and very little compassion?