MICRO MICRO REVOLUTION: Post-Relational Art and cross-cultural practice

On 27/08/2015 by Marianna Tsionki

by Lily Mitchell

The summer of 2015 highlights two significant exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in Manchester, The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now at the Whitworth Gallery and Micro Micro Revolution at CFCCA. The M+ Sigg Collection highlighted eighty works by Chinese contemporary artists collected over the course of four decades in a highly informative retrospective of contemporary Chinese as it is currently understood within the global art world. The M+ Sigg Collection, an exhibition drawn from a collection of contemporary Chinese art put together by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg and now acknowledged as the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. The collection will form the backbone of the new M+ museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, due to open to the public in 2019, and the summer exhibition at the Whitworth gallery, put together in collaboration with the Whitworth’s curatorial staff and colleagues from the M+ Sigg Collection. The second exhibition opening within the same week, Micro Micro Revolution at CFCCA and organised by associate curator Lu Peiyi of three ecological and socially focused projects from Taiwan: A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek (2015) by Wu Mali and Bamboo Curtain StudioPlant-Matter Needed The Material World of the Riverbank Amis Tribe (2015) Hsu Su-chen and Lu Chien-ming and 500 Lemon Trees (2105) by Huang Po-chih aimed to highlight the ambition of art practice as a platform for social change. These ongoing process-based and participatory projects use art as a vehicle for addressing environmental issues, as a form of resistance, and as a platform for exchange or “New Ethical Relations of Eco-Art within Social Movements”.


While the Uli Sigg collection is heavily based within the traditional concept of the art object and the commercial element that accompanies a private collection, Micro Micro Revolution takes a resistant approach to the concept of the art object and the gallery space. All three projects are ongoing and exist within specific localities within Taiwan, while the work presented in the gallery space are either ephemeral or non-permanent experiences or recordings of research and events. While the existence of the art object cannot be fully rejected in this instance the emphasis is placed almost entirely on the projects as constantly developing artistic practices that are open ended and have more in common with social developments than traditional concepts of artistic practice. It is possible to view these projects as part of an expansion of Bourriaud’s popular and perhaps over-used theory of Relational Aesthetics that were prevalent to global curatorial practice from the late 1990s. However the ‘relational’ aspects of these works also influenced by the subsequent wake of the information age, and the political implications of grass roots social movements and protests such as the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring have opened the potential for a wider debate surrounding social interaction.


Claire Bishop in her subsequent essay ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’  (2004) states that Bourriaud can no longer support his argument towards the birth of new relational practices, because as she states the ‘microtopian ethos is what Bourriaud perceives to be the core political significance of relational aesthetics.’ Which is potentially problematic, as any socially aware and engaged artist will have to always ask themselves whether the social engagement that is present can exist beyond the work. Bishop identified Bourriaud’s book as an important first step in identifying tendencies in the artistic practices of the 1990s. She continues that “the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness.” This can imply the problematic notion of a universal society or experience that doesn’t account for the pluralistic cultural identities that exist within the global community.


The Plum Tree Creek is located in the margin of the Taipei basin and the mouth of the Danshui River in Taiwan. The water in this area is heavily polluted and in some places has been diverted, drained or covered. The project, which was started a in 2010, aimed to bring together local communities that live along its banks and who rely upon the river as a resource, to reconnect with it, to reclaim ownership of it and to care for it through a variety of sub-projects within the local community working with schools, universities, and community groups in Taipei including markets featuring local artists and artisans, community theatre, and plant and wildlife ecology. Meanwhile in the gallery space the three strategies of action, art, and education taken throughout the project were communicated through video, text, photography and installation creating an immersive presentation of research. The second work in the exhibition, Plant Matter Needed, takes the element of social change even further by recycling the work itself to be used as housing materials within the aboriginal communities in Taiwan. The project began in 2008, when the Sa’owac Village located in the Dahan Creek faced risk of demolition due to a new urban development plan for a riverside cycling route. Artists Hsu Su-chen and Lu Chien-ming worked in collaboration with the local community in the subsequent period of protest and reconstruction. Their project presents the story of the Sa’owac Village and raises the issues of living rights, environmental concern, and the marginal status of aboriginal people within north Taiwan. The ongoing project promoted the rights of aboriginal communities while enacting ‘real’ change by rebuilding their settlement.  The exhibition will explore the project through videos, texts and objects presented within a reconstruction of one the Sa’owac Village dwellings.


In the accompanying symposium surrounding the exhibition opening parallels were drawn between the Plum Tree Creek and Plant Matter projects and the community based projects of Assemble Studios in Liverpool. The Granby Four Streets are a cluster of terraced houses in Toxteth, Liverpool that were built in the 1900s to house artisan workers. Following the Toxteth riots in 1981, the council acquired many of the houses in the area for demolition and redevelopment.  Hundreds of people were bought out or relocated and houses in the area subsequently fell into disrepair. Local residents consistently fought plans for demolition and battled to save the houses leading to a dacade long community and arts movement beginning with residents painting the empty houses and planting in abandoned garden to organizing a thriving monthly market to present a sustainable and incremental vision for the area that builds on the hard work already done by local residents and ‘translates it to the refurbishment of housing, public space and the provision of new work and enterprise opportunities.’ As opposed to the utopian visions of the relational work proposed by Bouriaud these works continue to enact small scale social change once the exhibition has ended.


Five Hundred Lemon Trees also adhered to the exhibition’s theme of social enterprise called for 500 participants to each donate 500 Taiwanese Dollars to buy a wine label. The sale of each label funded the planting of a lemon tree in fallow farmland in north Taiwan that has been neglected for twenty years. Two years later participants received a bottle of Limoncello and were invited to stick the wine label on the bottle themselves. The project re-establishes both enterprise and art production as methodologies for sustainable social change, reigniting the relationship between farmers, their land and business practice. Sharing some aesthetic sensibilities with Rikrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai series throughout the 1990s, on the surface Huang’s work which involved a performance of his written work while serving cocktails made from the Limoncello produced during the project, seems to embody Bourriaud’s image of Reletional Aesthetics. However beyond Tirivanija’s rejection of the art object, 500 Lemon Trees demonstrates a narrative of globalised economies that includes discussion of both the phenomena of social media and crowdfunding in contemporary enterprise, the precariousness of local farming and industry, and the ethics of outsourced labour and the exploitation of illegal migrant workers.


Huang’s enterprise based practice both in 500 Lemon Trees and Production Line can draw thematic parallels with the British interactive theatre project World Factory. Created by Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw in collaboration with Shanghai-based theatre director, Zhao Chuan, World Factory took the form of a real time board game where the audience navigates the ethical dilemmas of running a Chinese textile factory, connecting capitalist global textile production in 19th century Manchester and its impact on socialist thinking with the rapid economic growth underway in contemporary China and its shifting position as a leading centre of industry. 


Huang’s earlier work Production Line – Made in China & Made in Taiwan (2014), a project which involved creating a clothing factory production line was featured in the 2014 Taipei Biennial curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. The continuation of this curatorial theme aimed to expand Relational Aesthetics to include human relationships with machines and the natural world and rethinks it within the framework of a new technological and mental landscape. Relational art, which had been recently criticized for being too anthropocentric. It can be argued that the ‘micro’ social changes in Micro Micro Revolution also retain the utopian optimism of Relational Aesthetics, however the projects within the exhibition also raise discussions of the sustainability of these social changes being able to continue and the comparisons that can be drawn between micro-localities and global trends.



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