Xiang Liping on what to expect at the Shanghai Biennale 2014 – interview

From interactive exhibitions to Instagram, the 10th Shanghai Biennale employs various means to reach out to the public.

Xiang Liping, Chief Coordinator of the Shanghai Biennale 2014, tells Art Radar what can be expected from the young biennale bursting with vitality and potential, arriving in Shanghai later this year.

Zhang Enli, 'Bed/Hotel Bed', 2008, oil on canvas, 160 x 300cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Zhang Enli, ‘Bed/Hotel Bed’, 2008, oil on canvas, 160 x 300cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Xiang Liping is the Chief Coordinator of the 10th Shanghai Biennale, to be held in November 2014. Xiang has worked on every manifestation of the Shanghai Biennale since 2006 and is also Head of the Exhibition Department at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art and Chief Curator at ‘Between’ Art Lab, Shanghai.

Xiang has curated many exhibitions, including “The End of the Brush and Ink Era: Chinese Landscape” for True Color Museum, Suzhou, which was designated as one of the Top 10 Exhibitions in 2011 by National Fine Arts magazine, and “Infantization – Group Exhibition of Chinese Young Artists”, which toured Asia and Europe from 2007 until 2010.

In this interview, Xiang discusses the ambitions of this year’s Biennale, entitled “Social Factory”, and talks about the significance of the event in China’s most international city.

Logo for the 2012 Shanghai Biennale.

Logo for the 2012 Shanghai Biennale.

Could you describe what visitors can expect from Shanghai’s upcoming biennale?

Youth and energy: this is a direct consequence of the young curatorial team headed by Anselm Franke. There is a focus on sentiment and creativity, which are inspired by the theme “Social Factory”. This theme is connected to culture, creative and effective work, and there will be one department of the exhibition engaging with reflections on childhood, emotions and their representation.

A realist focus and a spirit of reflection: the Biennial will aim to contrast subjective experience with the logic of modernisation, its rationalisations and standardisations, as well as the technological mediation of subjectivity.

Shanghai is part of the mainland, but it is also global. Under the title, “If the World Changed”, last year’s Singapore Biennale (2013) proposed an Asian – or at least a Southeast Asian – critical territory. Will the Biennale in Shanghai extend Singapore’s proposition to centre contemporary art activity within the region rather than claiming a universal internationalism?

From the first Biennale, with its theme of “Open Space”, through to its successors “Inheritance and Exploration”, “Spirit of Shanghai”, “Urban Creation”, “Techniques of the Visible”, “Hyper Design”, “Translocalmotion” and “Rehearsal” to “Reactivation” in 2012, the biennale has always focused on issues keenly relevant to Shanghai and Chinese social development. The Biennale has strong local roots. The aim is not simple internationalisation for the sake of it, but as a means to satisfy local needs; thus the exhibition seeks to resolve local issues and offer a more detailed, wider approach to them.

Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, 'Artificial Fertility', 2006, installation.

Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, ‘Artificial Fertility’, 2006, installation. Image courtesy Shanghai Biennale.

The ambition of many biennales is to extend access to art to a diverse public. How will the Shanghai Biennale connect with the public? And are there specific groups that the Biennale would like to reach out to?

We want to attract as many people as possible, so that the exhibition can have its intended effect and give more people the chance to observe up close, understand and experience contemporary art. When the Biennale was still held at the old museum, in 2006 and 2008, the exhibition saw a record 10,000 visitors in one day with queuing outside of up to an hour for a ticket.

The Shanghai Biennale brings together exhibition and visitors in several ways. Firstly, the selection of the theme considers what the public is interested in. During planning and preparation, while ensuring the exhibition remains a place of academic enquiry and experimentation, there is a conscious selection of work by well-known artists, as well as the inclusion of interactive, interesting pieces. These all inspire curiosity in visitors and raise the Biennale’s profile.

Secondly, throughout the exhibition there will be a series of lectures, forums, artist workshops and other educational events, including an interactive public exhibition where visitors can display their own work. In 2008, with the “Translocalmotion” theme, blackboards were put up around neighbourhoods and local residents were invited to design their own bulletins which were then displayed outside the former Shanghai Art Museum.

In addition to traditional media, we have employed micro-blogs and WeChat in a dynamic, accessible advertising campaign. For this year’s Biennale we are also using Instagram, allowing visitors to enjoy photos of work at the exhibition.

We welcome people from all walks of life to the Biennale and we make a particular call to those in the creative and cultural industries, those with a love of art, innovation, the open-minded and the intrepid.

Biennales have picked up on the ‘Platforms’ of dOCUMENTA 11 (2002): international situations beyond the core exhibition site. In 2012, the Shanghai Biennale used the motif of the Inter-City Pavilions Project both to connect to its international context and to penetrate the city. How will the forthcoming manifestation position the city?

Since the 2012 Inter-City Pavilions project, art institutions and curators in cities around the world have taken an interest in the development of this Biennale. Owing to budget constraints, this project has not been incorporated into this year’s event, but we have employed other methods. We’ve worked in concert with large art organisations around the world to display the fruits and future direction of the international art scene at this Shanghai Biennale.

The 9th Shanghai Biennale saw the inauguration of the Power Station of Art and last year’s Architecture Biennale shone a spotlight on the new art museum buildings in the West Bund area, but before the new museums were opened and populated. How does this edition of the Biennale intend to include the cultural expansion in this metropolitan area?

This year’s Biennale will continue to display the most recent achievements in culture and technology. Lively visual art will join together global experiences with local resources and serious humanist concerns with popular fashion. The 2014 curatorial team will also conduct a thorough analysis of the historical, current and future development of southern Shanghai, where the Power Station of Art is located.

Concurrently, the Biennale will tap the potential of the opportunities bequeathed to the region in the light of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Development in the Puxi area since the Expo continues to this day; the Expo pavilions are undergoing renovation and venues now open include the Shanghai Heritage Yacht Club, a riverside promenade, a children’s art center, the Grand Theatre and a fashion house. Also planned are a Luxury Heritage centre, an events pavilion, lifestyle showcase, a tower building and international restaurants.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Colourful Lantern at the Shanghai Biennale', installation, 2010. Image courtesy of Rachel Marsden and Richard Warren.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Colourful Lantern at the Shanghai Biennale’, 2010, installation. Image courtesy Rachel Marsden and Richard Warren.

Biennales are often seen as an opportunity to challenge and develop the exhibition format. Will the Shanghai Biennale 2014 be addressing the potential of the exhibition? And in what ways?

Given the previous work of our chief curator Anselm Franke, we can be sure of the academic and visual effect of this year’s Biennale. The exhibition will be innovative in its organisation, promotion and display. The Biennale will engage with diverse forms of cultural production expanding the reach of contemporary art, from popular images via music to documentary film.

There is a wealth of discrete small-scale art enterprises in Shanghai alongside large-scale institutions. Will the Biennale aim to connect the exciting art activity in the city?

The Shanghai Biennale is an important event in the Asian art world. At the inauguration of each exhibition, many other art institutions and museums put on a wealth of artistic events. The Biennale attracts academics from abroad, curators, artists, the media and visitors, and these are a highly prized resource for those institutions. This year, the Biennale has invited these organisations to submit proposals to exhibit in line with the theme and will select those of the highest quality and of greatest academic merit, incorporating them into the satellite exhibitions that are part of this year’s event.

Looking back on Chinese art history, diaspora is important in the formation of contemporary art as well as extraordinary indigenous art, while international contemporary art will sometimes respond to the place it’s at rather than where it has come from. It was not until the third Shanghai Biennale in 2002 that international artists became involved in the event. How has the international perspective of the Biennale developed?

In early modern history, Shanghai was China’s largest city and also the largest metropolis in the Far East. Shanghai has always been a tolerant, accepting city and something of a cultural melting pot. From its inception, the Shanghai Biennale has focused on Shanghai and drawn from its unique history and the memories of its people. The exhibition has reflected on contemporary urban cultural issues from a global angle. The 1996 and 1998 Biennales, while yet to develop a fully global outlook, were nonetheless successful in drawing artists of Chinese descent living and working all over the world, which developed its worldview.

Beginning in the new millennium, the 2000 Shanghai Biennale began to develop into an international event with a curatorial team drawn from both China and abroad, and with 67 artists from eighteen countries and regions. Foreign representation continued to increase steadily after that, climbing to approximately half.

At the same time, the Biennale was reaching out for international partners. In 2006, the Biennale worked with the Gwangju Biennale and the Singapore Biennale in close succession, creating a ‘perfect Biennale tour of Asia’. The seventh Shanghai Biennale, together with the Singapore, Gwangju, Sydney and Yokohama events brought into being the 2008 Art Compass. The 2012 City Pavilion event that drew inspiration from the 2010 Shanghai Expo involved pavilions representing thirty cities, Chinese and international. This year’s Biennale is a more rational exploration of Shanghai’s international vision and concern for local issues.

What kinds of academic events will take place during the Biennale?

Mainly lectures and forums. In addition to the guidebook and the catalogue, we will be experimenting with the publishing format. For instance, in 2008, Annette Balkema and I produced and edited The Shanghai Papers, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, with a view to giving artists a space to explain the theory, development and meaning behind their work in a medium often monopolised by curators and theorists.

The Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Image courtesy Swatch Art Peace Hotel.

The Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Image courtesy Swatch Art Peace Hotel.

Biennales are often defined by the time when they happen. What is it about art, in the present, in Shanghai, that excites you?

Human imagination will always be one step ahead of scientific development. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai wrote that “the heart yearns to fulfill its grand designs, to fly up into the sky and seize the moon,” and in the twentieth century mankind did set foot on the moon. Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would have the opportunity to be famous for fifteen minutes; now, with the internet and We Media, his prophecy has come true. Which dream will be fulfilled next? Imagination fuels ambition: artists think outside the box and their art is the product of their imagination.

Andrew Stooke


Related Topics: Chinese art and artists, events in Shanghai, biennales, interviews

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