Mindfulness in Changing Times

Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art

The Sigg Prize aims to recognise outstanding artistic practices in the Greater China region from the last two years. The works by the six shortlisted artists demonstrate distinctive languages and techniques and explore the complexities of time and space and the diverse political discourses taking place today. The goal of this exhibition is to tease out a clear underlying thread in their approaches that can serve as a starting point for an understanding of contemporary artistic practice.

In the past ten years, we have lived through crises and conflicts, with various obscure forces of change shaking societies to their very core: the rise of right-wing politics, social rifts caused by economic and technological advances, increasingly contested geopolitics, and waves of global unrest that include Occupy Wall Street in the United States, the recent anti–extradition law movement in Hong Kong, and protests in Chile and Indonesia. Although the demands of these demonstrations differ, they ultimately point to one central aspect of contemporary social life: identity politics. Instead of aligning with the great singular nation-state identity constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, individuals today seek a gender-fluid and culturally diverse identity oriented around oneself and one’s social circle.

With a wealth of experience living overseas, both Shen Xin and Lin Yilin focus on the individual exploration of identity politics in daily life. Shen Xin’s four-channel video installation Provocation of the Nightingale attempts to challenge the system of history, religion, and science from a female perspective. The work begins with an intimate discussion of religion and science between two women. The other three videos touch upon the contradictions in faith and reality experienced by women throughout history, as well as the disassociation of genetics from cultural identity. Using a wide range of source material, including video footage, online recordings, and motion-capture animation, the visual narrative is fragmented yet related. It suggests the complicated and interwoven nature of the issue at hand, a subject that has led to heated debates and conflicts. The specially designed installation encourages the audience to walk freely around the monitors and interact with the work.  

While Shen uses a research-based approach to examine questions of politics in female identity through the lens of history and religion, Lin Yilin leans on intuition and explores cultural identity through bodily intervention in a particular space. The Back points to the controversy surrounding China’s constitutional amendment in 2018 and consists of three interconnected performances at the Pantheon in Rome. In one, the artist reads the 2018 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China in broken Italian, while in the other two, he wraps himself with a rope made from paper copies of the constitution and invites the public to play a game of tug of war with the rope. The sequence of performances reveals the forceful yet fragile nature of law; while people cannot escape from its strictures, it can also be challenged and rewritten. In The Second 1/3 Monad, the artist lies on the floor of the spiral ramp of the rotunda in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and rolls up from the bottom to the top. In Typhoon, wearing white pyjamas and standing on metal stilts typically used by plasterers in the United States, he walks through the arcades in the neighbourhood in Guangzhou where he grew up, which have deteriorated over the years due to urban renewal. These two works engage with Lin’s identity as an artist and immigrant and reflect on the discourses of power that pervade the environments in which he works and lives.

Uncertainty and anxiety in the face of what appears to be the unstoppable force of destiny accompany the process of forming an individual identity. In Tao Hui’s nine-channel video work Hello, Finale! a reporter, a monk, a mother, a student, a professor, and others make telephone calls to bid farewell, leave behind instructions, or make confessions. Referencing television melodramas, the work creates a contrast between the sentimental on-screen visuals and the cold installation of the television monitors. This sense of displacement points to the artist’s reading of individual struggle in the context of relentless social progress. Tension between a sense of fate and individual will is also at the heart of Samson Young’s Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E Minor, composed in 1888, expresses the atmosphere of unrest that characterised the later years of the Russian Empire.i  The ‘muting’ in Young’s work renders the performance a grinding, meaningless act, with the suppressed sounds of the musicians’ breath, their facial expressions, and their movements taking the spotlight. It reveals an underlying air of tragedy that speaks to a struggle against forces outside our control. 

Other artists choose to work beyond the dichotomy of free will and fate. Taking a detailed view of processes of material transformation, they explore larger questions of existence and the passage of time, with an Eastern introspective approach. Liang Shuo’s In the Peak uses bamboo scaffolding, a common construction element in Hong Kong, to create a structure on the terrace of the M+ Pavilion that evokes the imagery of a dongtian, a heavenly grotto in a Chinese classical landscape.ii In this enclosed space, one can look at the sky above and view from two small windows Victoria Peak and the M+ building under construction. By introducing allusions to traditional imagery into a contemporary space, Liang creates a transient landscape that belongs to neither the past nor the present, an invitation to contemplate the relationship between reality and self-awareness. Hu Xiaoyuan, on the other hand, uses xiao, an ancient form of raw silk, to cover found material such as broken objects, fruit, and debris from demolished buildings. On the surface of the silk, she traces the texture of the objects. Xiao appears light and airy, but its very existence signifies the death of a silkworm and it therefore carries the burden of life. As the silk and the object it envelops corrode over time and the form slowly disintegrates, the decomposition reveals the often imperceptible, infinitesimal transformations that take place in the cycle of birth and death. This is not an instant result, but a gradual outcome of life’s continual folding and unfolding.

The works by the six artists represent the diversity of artistic practices in the tumultuous era of globalisation, either responding directly to social reality or focusing on the ways an individual can situate themselves. Art in itself cannot resolve historical or political conflict, but it can create differentiation from existing norms. While its imagery might be abstract or subtle, its meaning can transcend the artist’s perspective and generate new discourses as it connects with viewers. This is the potential of art in the new age.

 

i  Occupying a prominent place in the history of Western music, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies no. 4 in F Minor (sometimes known as Fate, 1877), no. 5, and no. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique, 1893) are intensely emotional. The alternately feverish, anguished, and melancholy compositions articulate the questions of providence that were a central concern for Tchaikovsky throughout his career.

ii  In Chinese Taoist belief, dongtian are ethereal, unreachable realms located beneath steep mountain ranges. They recur in zhiguai xiaoshuo—classical Chinese tales of the supernatural— and in traditional landscape paintings.