HS Award for Art Criticism: Alexandra Lily Mitchell; Relics, Memory and Nostalgia in the Harmonious Society

On 06/01/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

Relics, Memory and Nostalgia in the Harmonious Society 


Alexandra Lily Mitchell, Birmingham City University

Harmonious Society, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art’s (CFCCA) contribution to Asia Triennial Manchester 14 (ATM14) is an ambitious exhibition of works by contemporary Chinese artists, and is one of the largest group exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art to be opened in the UK. With the opening of the exhibition coinciding with the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’ protests in Hong Kong, the exhibition provides insight into the current international practice and ideas of over thirty artists during a time of change and uncertainty. The overarching narrative of Harmonious Society is not an explicit political commentary but a more open discourse of shifting social, cultural and political dynamics of contemporary society both in China and internationally. In this rapidly changing contemporary culture, the theme of the passage of time and collective memory and traumas is present across much of the exhibition.

 The use of site specific works in museums and public spaces around Manchester is key to Harmonious Society’s success both as an exhibition in its own right and as a response to the broader theme of ‘conflict and compassion’ within Asia Triennial Manchester. In addition to the gallery settings of CFCCA and ArtWork, the exhibition displays works at the National Football Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester Cathedral and the John Rylands Library. The works in these locations provide a series of subversive interventions within buildings that can be viewed as symbolically institutional spaces. In this sense a dialogue is created between the established site, the works and the audience.

 An example of this dialogue is Lost in Biliterate and Trilingual by Annie Wan located in the John Rylands Library, a set of 18 ceramic books created by painting thin layers of clay between the pages of various dictionaries in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. As the books are fired the paper and the text it contains disintegrates leaving only the delicate form of the book. The work renders the reading process inaccessible thereby destroying the function of the book. Within the context of a Library, this intervention of restricting access to a text raises questions not only of the limits of language and translation but of the presence of power structures surrounding access to information from banned books to to classified information held by public authorities.

 Similarly this ambiguity of translation is also present in Jin Feng’s Chinese Plates, exhibited in the John Rylands Library and ArtWork. The work consists of a series of wood panels carved with texts from China’s constitution of human rights. The panels are carved in the style of a printing block where the text is shown in reverse which compliments the antique letterpress printing presses on display throughout the building. The obstacle of the backwards text, like Wan’s ceramic books, presents an element of restriction and unintelligibility within the process of reading and access to information.

 Both works also reflect on the transition of time. Chinese Plates refers to the invention of woodblock printing in China estimated to have occurred during the 3rd century A.D., the use of such an ancient technique but where the printed result is not present implies a disassociation between past and present. In Lost in Biliterate and Trilingual the books are charred by the firing process evoking a sense of decay. The languages contained within are transformed from pervasive international languages into ephemeral relics of a lost era. (Ting, 2013) As the John Rylands Library holds an extensive collection of papyrus fragments, parallels can be drawn between the works and permanent collections where the ceramic books and printing plates are displayed as future relics.

 The passage of time and destruction of imagery is also apparent in the Resenting Hong Kong Series: Resenting My Own History by Pak Shueng Chuen displayed at CFCCA. Here the notion of ‘collective memory’ and the denial of that memory is addressed by a literal act of erasure. The Resenting Hong Kong series can be read in a similar context as the work plays on idea of Hong Kong distancing itself from its colonial past. As part of the work, British citizens were invited to deface the Queen’s portrait on a series of HK$1 coins. The gradual degradation of the image is a symbolic act of disassociation between Hong Kong and Britain. Meanwhile the ‘treasonous’ act of scraping of the coins onto the ground and recording the scar-like marks left behind by this process are representative of this disassociation.

 Yang Zhenzhong’s installation at the National Football Museum, Long Live the Great Union, plays with perspective through a fragmented vision of Tianamen Square. The building can only be viewed as complete when observed from one viewpoint. In the present day Tianamen is a popular yet heavily policed tourist destination where information regarding the Tianamen Square protests in 1989 is often restricted. In only allowing a single perspective to view the installation as a whole, Yang Zhenzhong debated the implications of a single historical narrative.

 The theme of memory is revisited in the series of four video installations Realm of Reverberations by Chen Chieh-jen. The video pieces centre around the site of Losheng Sanatorium, Taiwan’s first leprosy hospital and the extended protests surrounding its demolition. The atmospherically lit black and white films show an archival recording of former residents and protestors. The film records and preserves details that would otherwise have been lost, while showing long extended shots of demolished buildings and debri. The installation explores both nostalgia and past traumas as well as uncertainty for the future. The setting of the installation in the Museum of Science and Industry compliments the work as the museum is located on the site the world’s oldest surviving passenger railway showing a parallel between industry, obsolescence and regeneration.

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