HS Award for Art Criticism: Kuang Vivien Sheng; ‘Harmonious Society’—an Artistic Space of Antagonism and Communication

On 06/01/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

‘Harmonious Society’—an Artistic Space of Antagonism and Communication.


Kuang Vivien Sheng, University of York

In an increasingly globalized art market, a variety of international biennales and triennials have become an important and productive public venue for contemporary artists to explore individual identity, demonstrate national pride and engage with intercultural communication. As a major part of the Asian Triennial Manchester 2014, the exhibition ‘Harmonious Society’ reconsiders and redevelops a political ideal—‘constructing a harmonious society’, proposed by Chinese government, in a broader, international context at the level of artistic practice. Artists from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are provided with a creative platform to articulate their experience of local development, transnational communication and cultural exchange, exploring the binary contradiction surrounding ‘harmony’ and ‘conflict’ in contemporary China, as well as in an increasingly globalized world.


Indeed, the particular living situation in China still dominates some of the works in ‘Harmonious Society’. However, exhibited in a western cultural context, these artworks are also infused with broader social and political meanings. He An’s neon signage of Chinese characters ‘stolen’ from advertising signs in China not only demonstrates an incomplete, residual history of urban modernisation and economic transformation of Chinese society over the past decades, but it also recalls a worldwide concern of the growing simulated human life, which is over-saturated with superficial commercial signs and advertising images. Grounded in an unique linguistic background in Hong Kong, where Cantonese, English and Mandarin are all regularly used, Annie Lai Kuen Wan, in Lost in Biliterate and Trilingual (2014), created a number of dysfunctional, fragile, ceramic dictionaries of these three languages respectively, implicating the ambiguous cultural identity and historical struggle of Hong Kong under two completely divergent political regimes in Britain and China. Confronted with pervasive urban construction and social development, Yan Bing, between 2009 and 2013, recreated a series of discarded domestic items with seeds and mud collected from his home town, which recollected a traditional form of rural life, in an attempt to restore an intimate relation between human bodies and the place they inhabit in a rapidly changing China. Exhibited in a new and foreign environment, these used household items, fabricated with the roots and soil from the artist’s home country, also engender an ever-present sense of ‘being at home’ in a situation of international travel and exchange.


By contrast, a number of artists chose to make their commissioned works according to their understanding and experience of the host city, Manchester, through their short-term habitation of it. A Decorative Thing (2014) by Li Wei was constructed as an object of communication with the exhibiting space, Manchester Cathedral. In response to its Gothic architectural style and the function of the religious building as a self-reflective space, Li created a mirror structure in which audiences can see themselves, and adorned its frames with highly decorative carvings of both earthly animals and mythological creatures. By borrowing religious signifiers from the surrounding environment, the artwork is presented as a cultural ‘pastiche’, which, in fact, degrades the social, cultural and historical significance of Manchester Cathedral in the local community. Li’s practice reveals difficulties and contradictions when accessing and representing an unfamiliar cultural milieu. Comparatively, inspired by the plentiful collection of Chinese books at John Rylands Library, Manchester, Wang Yuyang created a range of Breathing Books (2014) and placed them in the Historic Reading Room. Moving in a slow breathing motion, these books challenge our conception of the object world, demonstrating the lively power of human cultural heritage beyond written words and language barriers. A young artists’ group, Luxury Logic, from Taiwan collected over one-hundred reclaimed street lamps from Manchester and fabricated them into an appealing yet threatening artificial sun, hung outside the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Its dazzling light and uncomfortable heat can be associated with the discord and unresolvedness hidden behind the progress of urban industrialization and modern technological innovation.


In recent years, a growing number of Chinese artists started to travel around the world while making artworks for different institutions and events. The frequent experience of inhabiting a foreign context enables them to consider the contemporary social and cultural environment from a more international perspective. For ‘Harmonious Society’, Liu Xiaodong displayed a series of paintings created during his artist’s residency in Tel Aviv in 2013. By juxtaposing the life scenes in two adjacent yet conflicting states, Israel and Palestine, Liu’s artworks disclose irreconcilable cultural differences and political exclusions, in opposition to the promise of free market, egalitarian participation and unrestrained exchange under the notion of globalization. Similarly, in Liu Jianhua’s Boxing Time (2002), fourteen porcelain boxing gloves are hung in pairs through fine strings. On the sleeve of each glove is a country’s name written in its native language. The seemingly fragile balancing condition of every pair of suspended boxing gloves might allude to the tension between competition and harmonisation of nations in the context of the global economy.


After Ai Weiwei, a group of relatively younger Chinese artists in ‘Harmonious Society’ created artworks to articulate life stories not only of the current living situation in China, but of Chinese people, who actively engage with pervasive social advancement and transnational communication. Compared with simply essentializing an either ideological or stereotypical image of a vibrantly developing Chinese society, these artists, through their practices, explore a broader social and cultural context, revealing the unavoidable exclusion and negotiation hidden behind the political utopia of social harmony with creativity and playfulness. In this way, the ‘Harmonious Society’ is constituted as an artistic space of antagonism and communication, where boundaries of different binaries, such as local and global, discord and harmony, are retained unstable and open to challenge and potential change. By sustaining the tension of cultural collisions, their artworks promote mutual understanding between china and the world, yet refuse to fabricate an illusion of harmonious reconciliation.

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