East Contemporary

basis Frankfurt “Structural stowaway”

basis, Frankfurt am Main, September 14 to December 10, 2023, https://basis-frankfurt.de

A group show that combined a number of China-related artworks by Chinese and China-related artists. Overall it seemed that there was an interest in geopolitical topics. Curated by Antonie Angerer & Anna-Viktoria Eschbach. Artists: Musquiqui Chihying, Elom 20ce, Gregor Kasper, Peng Ke, Xiaoshi Qin, Hu Wei, Geocinema (Asia Bazdyrieva, Solveig Qu Suess).

The largest and most complete environment was the creation of Qin Xiaoshi. It was a room full of crude semi-finished wall-like concrete elements obscuring large TV screens built into them. The video images were of landscapes and urban features, if I remember correctly. The larger elements were complemented by smaller, furniture-sized objects from similar construction materials in combination with artifacts like shells, fabric, etc.. The whole thing was supposed to be something about a female pirate from the Pearl River Delta (the artists is from Guangzhou), but it could have been about anything else too. I enjoyed the material, sculptural presence. The videos were for me rather decorative elements that could be replaced by a couple of rainbow LEDs too.

A video by Geocinema Collective (Asia Bazdyrieva, Solveig Qu Suess) was tracing the effects of China’s Digital Belt and Road Initiative that supplements the original Belt and Road Initiative with a data-layer. While I find research of the DBAR quite fascinating (for example Shaoling Ma’s presentation at this years – 2023 – transmediale), in this case the video itself was rather boring and not readable without background information. Basically a composition of video shots from the geographic scope of the Belt and Road countries, documenting old and new architectural elements of built technical infrastructure. Simply speaking, the artist got a grant, rented a camera and made a road trip across Thailand, China and Russia. Nice for them. Not bad, but could be better.

Musquiqui Chihying was displaying a brightly lit round table covered by round elements that alternatively showed logos of major Chinese companies, Google Maps screenshots of locations of cultural institutions in third world countries (mainly Africa) built & sponsored by the People’s Republic of China and QR codes with links to these institution’s websites. The aim was clear, to highlight the geopolitical influence of the PRC beyond its borders and beyond the more directly perceivable trade and infrastructure projects. Even though it was kind of obvious what the artist thought of this, I liked that the artwork itself did not make any too clear-cut conclusions and rather presented “data” and let the viewer complete the artwork with his own reading. Yes, sure, the PRC is a large country with a growing influence in the world and it is trying to extend its influence. And yes, this created certain faux pas in the recent past, e.g. the now out-of-favor Confucius Institutes. But in the end, the methods and effects look very similar to George Soros Open Society Foundations, Coca Cola and the dominance of the U.S. dollar.

Peng Ke’s presence in the exhibition was limited to two photographs located on opposing walls. Both somehow dealt with the soft vs. hard theme. One in contrasting the “soft” form of a cute dolphin-shaped hedge in a Shanghai park with hard and strict tower blocks in the background, the whole thing overlaid by a kind of uniting hard-soft stained-glass lead layer. Another showing a detail of a woman’s back leaning against a cross-like wooden structure, probably a fitness instrument. Both works were observations from real life. After thinking about it, it seems to me that this hard-soft combination might be something typical for China and maybe generally life in numerous countries in East Asia today, where a kind of ruthless technocratic superstructure is smoothed out an overlay of cuteness and care.

Hu Wei’s “The Affair” was a video installation spanning from the lower to the upper floor of the exhibition space. On the lower floor there were artifacts – a suitcase and a coat with custom embroidery. On the top floor a large red-lit room with two video screens, mimicking an investigation room. The topic was a homoerotic love affair between a french diplomat and a Peking opera performer during the cold war period. I could not make much of it. Maybe I was just not patient enough. The gender-and-theater theme reminded me of Siren Eun Young Jung, now with a political East vs. West layer on top, maybe too much layers, too much James Bond spy movie like?

The last work I’d like to mention was a collaboration of Musiquiqui Chihying with Elom 20ce and Gregor Kasper. A rap song in Chinese, French and German allegedly loosely referencing everyday situations where digital payments are used. As a lot of mainstream rap deals with cash and hoes anyway, it did not appear that special in fact. The musical quality of the song was also rather “mainstream” and run of the mill. It was something I’d rather not have to listen to. The music was presented in a dark room, with the lyrics beamed in white letters onto the floor. No video image. In the middle of the room was a record player on a classic plinth with a vinyl record of the song, but the song that played in the speakers did not play from the vinyl, but from some hidden mp3/mp4 player somewhere. An unnecessary doubling. Not sure what to think about the whole thing. What does vinyl have to do with digital payments?

Overall, a lot of things seem to have been jumbled together in this show. Even though the overarching curatorial concept of the show was China within a global context, the approaches of the artists varied greatly and it was rather their ethnic background than any similarity in approach that was the common denominator. As you could read above, there were some more and some less interesting moments. The good thing, it was a nice glimpse at China-related topics without the stereotypes, simplifications and vilification of the other that one encounters at every corner in Euro-US media.

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