Do not rush to see the Hugo Boss Asia Art award exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum. While it is an intriguing show presented in a handsome Art Deco building, the exhibition is currently over and Shanghai’s air quality is frightening, the AQI (Air Quality Index) in the “very unhealthy” range. Walking to the museum wearing a 3M particle filtering respirator mask, I felt that I had entered a dystopian future, which was made all the more horrible by the realization that this “future,” for millions of the world’s occupants, is now.
The exhibition Hugo Boss Asia Art: Award for Emerging Asian Artists, which is in its second year, presents work by six artists who live and work in China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Taiwan and Myanmar. Given the longtime globalism of the art world, it comes as no surprise that the artistic practices found in the show are up-to-the minute, largely indistinguishable from what one would find in a group exhibition in New York. Installation, video, performance and works that call for audience participation and engage the Internet are all seen. In theme and content, however, most of the works by the featured artists illuminate aspects of their individual cultures of origin.
This is not true for the artist who won the 2015 Hugo Boss Asia Art prize, Maria Taniguchi, who lives and works in Manila in the Philippines. Her highly accomplished paintings, sculptures and videos could have been made anywhere. Among her works on view were several vast “brickwork” paintings, part of a series of more than 60 works that have been in progress since 2007, which feature monochromatic grids (she evidently produces small sections on a daily basis). Also seen was a gorgeous video Figure Study (2015) in which the camera moves slowly over a di Chirico-like dreamscape of everyday objects. In yet another video, a static image of a notebook overlaps a photograph of an orchid. Scrolling down over these images, changing every few seconds, are colored filters of the sort found on computer photo editing programs. This piece juxtaposes old systems of observation (notebook entries) with new technologies and suggests the distancing of culture from nature, while being highly sensual.
In contrast to the seeming universality of Taniguchi’s work is that of the Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana, who presented a series of what initially appear to be lovely, placid landscape photographs. These are, however, images of “bomb ponds,” craters created by the United States’ carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that have since filled with water. Among the works on view by the Yangon (Myanmar)-based artist Moe Satt was his installation, Like Umbrella, Like King (2015), which consisted of a collection of large, hand-made wood and bamboo umbrellas with brightly colored silk canopies. The traditional handicraft of the umbrellas refers back to a time in Burma when only the monarch and members of the royal family had the prerogative to use silk umbrellas (commoners used umbrellas with oiled paper). Satt fitted his silk umbrellas with zippers as an invitation to us “commoners” to interact with and change the umbrella’s shapes.
Finally, the upper level galleries of the Rockbund were occupied by the installation Production Line (2012-15) by the Taiwanese artist Huang Po-Chich. Here, blue-painted walls enclose an open atrium, which is in turn encircled by a running trail of blue denim fabric. Sewing stations are positioned at either end, as is a rack of finished shirts on hangers made from the same fabric. The work is about lines of production and commerce extending from Shenzhen, China, to Taipei, as well as about the artist’s mother, who once labored with denim in factories (her hands indelibly tinted blue) and who produced the finished shirts in the exhibition. This piece is too aesthetically pleasing for one intended to evoke factory grunt work. At the same time, in the space of the museum, it serves as a reminder of Chinese factories and the poisoned air.