Flipping a new calendric page of China’s art history, DRC No.12, a Beijing independent art space, has launched its ninth exhibition, The Boundary, staged by the artist-curator Zhao Liang. ‘Boundary’, from the material extent of physicality to the intellectual limitation of one’s ability and identity that constitute differentiation, is both a physical and metaphysical conception defined by Zhao’s curation. On view for three months till April 9th 2018, the exhibition intends to visualise the notion of boundaries, upon which the artist constantly casts doubts with his multifarious manoeuvres of boundary-crossing agency.

The show takes advantage of DRC No.12’s apartment configuration by occupying three different rooms as its sole exhibiting areas to convey the conceptual theme of boundary. The first two rooms on the left welcome audiences with a fictional narration of smuggling, transporting a torch sculpture onto China’s soil from North Korea. Drifting on a boat in the dark, the smuggler’s journey on Yalu River is captured in documentary footage and repetitively broadcasted on a petite monitor in the leftmost room, which flanks the documentary with a real-time surveillance television monitoring North Korea’s livelihood beyond the river. The second compartment, through another video representation, carries the torch further to the Chinese territory, on which the torch, on a red-clothed riverbank stair, repetitiously dashed by waves. It, moreover, is smuggled to the scene, wrapped in a blue canvas bag and laid in front of the television. Moving on to the last section, at the rightmost side of the apartment, we enter a meeting room space, which is furnished with a long table with chairs and a television playing CNN’s live news program (Fig.3).

The leftmost room with a surveillance television and a petite monitor play a smuggling story.

Boundary Making

The exhibition of The Boundary reveals a highly complex and entangled conceptual background, from which Zhao demonstrates not only his firm grasp of the concept of boundary, but also his acute conceptual incorporation into the locale through his artwork. The conception of boundary is manifoldly interlaced with implicit, explicit, intellectual and physical expressions in the exhibition. The artist firstly attempts to build up a boundary through an explicit portrayal of the territorial border between China and North Korea: Yalu River, Dan Dong. It is the river that differentiates the language, mores, nationality and welfare. That is also the very borderline that destines the wealthy and the destitute. With the live CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) showing North Korea’s neighbourhood only a water course across, their simple and plain lifestyle enormously contrasts to the hustle and bustle of Dan Dong’s urbanites. Zhao, growing up in Dan Dong, has been witnessing what is different beyond the fluvial border from his apartment every day, looking at the borderline that divides the identity and thus the ability of the people nearby. Therefore, to the onlookers, Zhao’s surveillance television, filming from his apartment at the river, functions as a virtual reality that re-visualises the daily scenes in the artist’s sight and, from an urbanite’s perspective, drives some questions towards the discrepant living quality differentiated by merely a stretch of running water.

Boundary Crossing

Physical though the fluvial water is, it is continually flowing and ever-changing, so as the boundary and the border, to Zhao. The transitoriness of the boundary is illustrated through the artist’s incorporation of time and video. Labelled on the CCTV footage, time-flow is envisioned and it as well embodies every dynamic human activity on North Korea’s soil, such as farming, fishing and even paddling into the river, the boundary.[1] Fixated and predetermined as one’s status may be (conditioned by the physical division), it is still the strong will for a better life that drives the North Korean to defy the boundary precondition: some crossing it, while some stepping on it to trade for living goods. Boundary challenging movements are frequent on the waterway every day, and hence the deterrent emblem of the fluvial border is normalised and challenged. Furthermore, Zhao juxtaposes the CCTV with a fictional documentary of a trader smuggling a torch to China at night, so as to continue the boundary-pushing acts on the surveillance. Progressing into the next room, we notice that the torch is moored on the red-clothed riverbank of China as a sign of finishing the boundary-crossing journey, which completely renders the fluvial border fluid and even futile.

The second room shows a footage about a torch being washed by river water and a torch sculpture wrapped by a blue canvas bag.

After crossing the territorial boundary, Zhao went further on addressing the philosophical enigma of reality. Being told the smuggling story as fictional, the physical torch, clothed by a second-handed canvas bag, is unexpectedly laid in front of the television and the lookers, as a continuation of the trade which smuggles it to the scene and engenders a further confusion of the boundary of reality. Director of the space, Peng Xiaoyang adds to the discussion by disclosing that the torch was recast from the scrap iron in North Korea, which symbolises the everyday trading and the material transfer across the boundary. The dual significations are merged on the torch, which semiotically represents not only the reality of daily parallel trading of materials, but also the imagination of artist’s conceptual creation, intersecting the boundary of the real and fictional. The meeting room, through the video representation, also complicates the reality enigma. Televising CNN’s channel in the room, the live news stream travels audiences to America or other countries in the local or overseas news. Although CNN’s live news shares the same mechanism as the live CCTV, which virtually visualises the reality of an exotic region to spectators, as a boundary crossing act within China, they diverge on the extent of actuality. This is because the former is narratively processed or even censored, while the latter comes clean with itself, which, as a result, farther coalesces the boundary of the real and fictive.

Amongst the influx of questions that breaks down the concept of absolute boundaries, it is very cunning that Zhao perplexes the discursive discussion with time and identity. We Look back at the footages of the surveillance and documentary, the time boundary is likewise traversed with their comparison in simultaneously showing both the day and night with respective activities on Yalu River. The actual time itself as well varies fluidly with differences in the time zones of China, Korea and America (CNN’s news time), which emphatically points to the erratic transitoriness of the boundary in the example of time. About the boundary of identity, the exhibits draw a focus on Zhao, who wears hats of an artist and a documentary director. He chooses to straddle between the two and even makes a foray into curatorship this time, exemplifying an intellectual transcendence in the boundaries of identities as well as the detachment of identity from the corporal boundary.[2] Even though the space is complicatedly dissected by borders, Zhao demonstrates his artistic mastery by interweaving his powerful conception of boundary, in relation to nationality, regionality, reality and identity and time, with the apartment space and a few simple video artworks.

Hinging and Unhinging on Site-specificity

The curation of The Boundary displays a high congruity with the space. The integration achieved is unique to DRC No.12 yet no others, hinging itself on the category of site-specific art, which requires the curator and artist a high command of the spatiality.[3] Zhao, working in both roles, presents to the audience his thorough understanding of the concepts and the space in terms of its functions and geopolitics. DRC (Diplomatic Residential Compound) is a government-own building, responsible for providing residential or office space for Chinese diplomats, overseas embassies and news agencies. Surrounded by an international neighbourhood, the exhibition anchors itself to this diplomatic locality with the recurrence of trans-border movements replayed in his exhibits. DRC’s function as a compound hosting foreign occupants is also captured and re-enacted by Zhao who relocates his targeted oversea occupants through the video’s re-visualisation from the surveillance and documentary.

The exhibition also points to institutional critique with the television of CNN’s channel, which is unable to access by other Chinese households as the reception is prohibited by the governmental transmittance boundary, which censored majorly foreign information. Only DRC contains the reception cables traversing this boundary, which not only strengthens the physical site-specificity of the exhibition, but also questions about the problems of the censorial boundary enclosing the urbanites in China. This very critique of censorship engenders the discursive discussion over the enigma of reality in not only China, but other countries as well in the information transmittance through media agencies, such as CNN, whose office locates one floor above the meeting room. Whether news itself conveys a reality is arguable. In addition to the reality, the discourse over identity’s transcendence is also opened up after Zhao applied himself to the exhibition, as an active agency transgressing the role boundary defined by the art industry, which can be attributed to the artistic philosophy subscribed by pioneers in DRC No.12.

The meeting room is furnished with a long table with chairs and a television on CNN’s live news channel. Peng Xiaoyang, director of DRC No.12, is pointing out the specificity about the exhibition curation.

DRC No.12 runs in a lane entirely different than other commercial galleries. They conjoin the roles of artist and curator – artist-curator – who will be responsible for artistic and curatorial creation for the show. After a voting panel of the space’s academic group, the candidates will be chosen based on their project-on-paper (fang’an 方案), submitted by the artists with prior exhibiting experience. The proposal will be admitted upon the criteria of its site-uniqueness to the art space as well as artist’s artistic uniqueness and experimentalism illustrated.

Sharing similarity with the site-specific art booming in the western canon since the late 1960s, the approach of DRC No.12 diverges with their progressive practice and rather traces its lineage from the Beijing apartment art and fang’an art back from the late 1980s to early 1990s. [4] Site-specific and site-oriented art, since the 1990s, evolves with a nomadic nature that can as well be duplicated and transferred, which profoundly reduced its attachment to the site and more revolved around its discursive focus.[5] The exhibitions in DRC No.12, however, re-emphasise its locality as a fixated nature. It, thus, discounts the nomadic fashion of recent site-specific art, requiring the artist-curators to investigate thoroughly and personally on the geographical, historical and spatial characteristics of the apartment and developing a set of artistic language that is not only site-unique to DRC No.12, but also experimental to the art world.[6] Zhao Liang, as one of the artist-curator from DRC No.12, draws on the boundary topic and debunks its thematic flaws through his unique and experimental art expressions.


MORE
DRC No.12
Zhao Liang – The Boundary

ADDRESS
DRC No.12 Gate 4, Building 12, Floor 8, Suite 082 Jianguomenwai Diplomatic Residence Compound No. 1, Xiushui Street. Chaoyang District, Beijing100, Beijing, China


 

[1] Borderline will usually be established in the middle of a river, yet Yalu River, between China and North Korea, is a shared borderline due to the historical agreement, which enables both citizens in two countries to enter.

[2] Philosophers in 1990s started to investigate the concept of identity not being confined by physicality, location and bodies, rather they emphasised the social, intellectual and political identity by transcending the corporeal bodies related to merely labor identity. See Rosi Braidotti. Nomadic subjects: Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 94-95.

[3] In Miwon Kwon’s book One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity, she expounds the definition of site-specific art in the manner of its relation to the site actuality, institutional critique and discursive formation. See Miwon Kwon, One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity (London: MIT Press, 2004), 12, 13, 26.

[4] Artists in 1980s China retreats to apartments to organise exhibitions in response to the government clampdown on controversial experimental art. It was the same reason, in 1994, artists Wang Luyan and Wang Youshen, members of the academic group in DRC No.12, initiated fang’an art, that exhibited artwork in only catalogues but never actualised them in exhibitions. See Minglu Gao, Total modernity and the avant-garde in twentieth-century Chinese art (London: MIT Press, 2011),  270, 287. The mechanism in DRC No.12 learns from the approaches of the two and develops its site-unique idea with a hope to stimulate artist ability in making more experimental conceptual exhibitions that otherwise cannot be achieved in commercial art galleries or museums.

[5] Site-specific artworks in the 1990s were being reproduced and transferred after its commercialisation and commodification. See Miwon Kwon, One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity (London: MIT Press, 2004), 38.

[6] Peng Xiaoyang added that it is the special interior of apartment space which poses difficulty to the artist-curator in actualising their fang’an. And this problem will not be encountered by artists in a normal gallery space. It is such a condition that can probe the artists to ponder over their artmaking and thus rouses the experimentalism in art.


Bibliography

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic subjects: Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Gao, Minglu. Total modernity and the avant-garde in twentieth-century Chinese art. London: MIT Press, 2011.

Kwon, Miwon. One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity. London: MIT Press, 2004.