A silver lining in a global crisis

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The third and major phase of the 13th Shanghai Biennale that opened on April 17 is one of the world's most significant global art shows to take place since the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exhibition entitled Bodies of Water features 76 artworks from 64 artists or groups from 18 countries and regions. Among the exhibits are 33 new projects commissioned by the Shanghai Biennale, more than ever since the event was founded in 1996, according to Power Station of Art, a leading museum of contemporary art in the city and host of the biennale.

Since its opening, the main exhibition space at PSA is receiving about 3,500 visitors every day. This is "quite impressive, and a massive number of people", says chief curator Andres Jaque, a Spanish architect, writer and curator now based in New York.

Most of the biennale events around the world have been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic, but "we don't allow the pandemic to silence artists. In fact artists are working extensively during the pandemic, making insightful reflections on the situation and the human existence", Jaque told China Daily on April 19 in a video call from Beijing, where the curator was under quarantine.

In his written interpretation of the theme, Jaque wrote that the 13th Shanghai Biennale "looks into the liquid nature of human, more than-human, and post-human bodies, and into the fluid ways in which they infiltrate, constitute, and relate to one another".

Although the pandemic made the preparation work complicated and difficult, Jaque said that the biennale and its discussion of the pandemic has turned out more relevant than ever. "Bodies of water", its fluidity and interconnections, has been the center of the pandemic, "so we decided not to cancel the biennale", he said. Instead, the first phase of the biennale kicked off right on time as planned, in November, taking an unprecedented "in crescendo" form that will go on for eight months.

According to Gong Yan, director of PSA, when the academic committee of the institution decided after many proposals and extensive discussions, upon the theme of the 13th Shanghai Biennale, "the world was still peaceful, but soon the pandemic broke out", she recalls. At first Gong and other Chinese workers received lots of supporting and concerned messages from overseas colleagues, and gradually it became a global crisis, and the curatorial team, rising from the emotional distress, believed that "we needed to connect and come together more than ever", Gong says. More ideas emerged from this new solidarity."Water is more than just the basic ecological environment, it symbolizes the way people connect heart to heart," she says.

As a result, the pandemic enriched the content of the Shanghai Biennale and strengthened its emotional impact. "We could see at that time that it was impossible to put up an actual showcase in 2020, but still we didn't want to just call it quits." Eventually they decided to extend the event to include two long phases of "idea exchange and clashes of the mind", Gong says.

From Nov 10 to 14, A Wet-run Rehearsal, the first phase of the Shanghai Biennale took place, when artists presented their work in the forms of a performative assembly in the PSA, which was shared by networks of art spaces as well as online platforms.

From mid-November to April 16, the second phase, An Ecosystem of Alliances, was held via livestreaming, social media exposures and university programs.

The third-phase climax of the biennale, covering eight months in total, will see the exhibition run at the PSA and expand throughout the city of Shanghai from April 17 to July 25.

The long duration and unique form will help the biennale "radically infiltrate into the city", as there has been huge need for creation and imagination to be placed, Jaque says.

Aside from the PSA, a series of branch exhibitions for Bodies of Water are going on in the city, such as Sunke Villa on Yan'an Road West, Vanke Center Xinmin Library in the suburban Xinzhuang area and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Among the events related to the main exhibition, Bodies of Water, at Biblioteca Miguel de Cervantes, the cultural branch of the Spanish consulate in Shanghai, a branch exhibition is being held. This features a new interactive video creation by Hu Jieming, and the video record of a concert for plants at Teatro del Liceo de Barcelona in August when the country was under lockdown. This was designed by Spanish artist Eugenio Ampudia.

The chief curator Jaque, being an architect, has different visions, and in his selection of artists for the Shanghai Biennale, he intentionally avoided the usual gallery system, Gong says. "This made it possible for us to see new artists, some from areas that we rarely paid attention to." Among the 68 artists featured at Bodies of Water, one-third are Chinese artists, while artists from France and Japan, usually widely represented at the contemporary art scene, are not found this time. Also a lot of interdisciplinary artists have emerged in this biennale, who built their creations on the wide and in-depth research in the subject they had chosen, according to Gong.

Gong also says that almost half of the artists are women. Actually the biennale's theme, Bodies of Water, was influenced by a book of the same title of Australian philosopher Astrida Neimanis. Neimanis brought to the Shanghai Biennale A River Ends as the Ocean, a performance project she created together with visual artist Clare Britton and Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, an activist and artist.

The performance is presented at PSA in the form of video projection and pictures on cardboard walls. A group of walkers, led by the three, followed the tide 16 kilometers out of Sydney's Cooks River to its ending at Botany Bay. In Shanghai the biennale will also host a group walk along the city's disappearing water channels, to "help people rediscover the city", Gong says.

Shanghai has lots of locations named after water, but "when you actually go there, you realize there is no longer any water", Gong says."We have built a mini program on the mobile mapping service to lead people on a journey through Shanghai, where lots of romantic cultural connections were achieved through the lost waterways."

The theme Bodies of Water is also rooted in the unique historical and geological characters of Shanghai, Gong says. In the grand hall at PSA, a wood boat that used to serve as a ferry from the Dujiangyan area in Chengdu, Sichuan province, hangs from midair. It is the main part of an installation named Water System Museum created by Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun. The duo, both in their early 40s, have been working together since 2010. For this project they used tents and discarded building materials of the Qiang ethnic people, to reveal the impacts of local policies and post-disaster reconstruction after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

New York and Amsterdam-based artist Carlos Irijalba drilled 105 meters underground in Shanghai, and presented the earth and rocks that he dug up in an artwork named Amphibian. While soil excavated from areas near the ocean are wet and soft, the more inland excavations are rocky and dry.

The Shanghai metropolitan area is based on the Yangtze River Delta, "an ever-changing, evolving territory, liquid in some sense", says the artist.

By presenting the ecological strata of Shanghai, the artwork "brings to surface the millennia of natural history and how perpetual these transformations are," Irijalba says in a written introduction of his work.

A few historical objects loaned from other museums in the city are among the exhibits of contemporary art, reflecting the close connection between Shanghai and its waterways.

A sedimentary rock, unearthed from the Gangshen Ruins in suburban Shanghai's Maqiao town, is borrowed from the collection of Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Dated from 60,000 years ago, it illustrates how the ocean and waves pushed sand and remains of shellfish together to form the ancient coastline of Shanghai.

Also on exhibition at PSA is the replica of a sand boat, one of the most commonly used boat forms in the city. The flat bottom of the boat made it unlikely to be grounded near the sandy bank of Shanghai, and it sailed steadily on the complex waterways of the Yangtze River Delta. The boat witnessed Shanghai's urban development through the past century. In 1990, the city introduced a new insignia consisting of the sand boat, magnolia blossom and turbo propeller.

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