Asking For It

Feature by Rosamund West | 23 Apr 2008

There has become something of a standard in the exhibiting of art made outwith the European tradition whereby the work of a variety of artists of common origin is imported and displayed in the apparently neutral surroundings of the pristine Western art gallery. Such survey shows, while a fascinating introduction to a comparatively unknown group of artists, tend to be rather problematic. In what is ostensibly an international art world, bringing together artists whose only commonality lies in their origin could be seen as a little questionable. By doing so the artwork can be forced into the realm of cultural tourism, with the accompanying round of literature, events, talks necessary for an understanding of the curatorial purpose (which frequently becomes, for example, a sort of This is Modern China) detracting from the artists as individuals, their works as indicative of a unique practice.

What makes Asking For It so interesting is its refusal to do just that. The curators have chosen to select works based on a unifying concern with exploring boredom, neurosis, fantasy; these are explorations of universal concerns rather than this being simply a group of artists who happen to come from China. It also swiftly becomes apparent upon entering the space that the overarching purpose of this show is one of dialogue. The
Mackintosh Gallery offers a surround as far removed from the pseudo-bland of the white cube gallery space as it is possible to be. Its interior architecture is inherently redolent of Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Art Nouveau. Its permanent collection includes an example of Greco-Roman statuary, and the viewer walking up the stairs into the exhibiting space is faced with a cast of a carving from the portico of Chartres cathedral. This is an environment loaded with meaning in terms of both Glasgow and the Western artistic tradition. As a result, the curators’ stated intention to open up a critical dialogue between Glasgow and Beijing is fulfilled within seconds of entering the display.

Above the stairwell hangs a vast patchworked sheet by Hu Xiaoyuan. A delicate, feminine piece of stitched together fragments of embroidery and lace, it could seem a little familiar to an art school graduate (the mature student who decides to make work involving embroidery as some form of feminist statement being quite the hardy perennial). However, in the context of this show, with its concerns of boredom and obsession, the delicate stitching becomes more intriguing, a testament to hours of dedication to the purpose of prettification. Its manner of display, floating above the entrance, allows light from the skylight to suffuse through and cast its loaded glow onto the surrounding works and their Glasgow environs.

This forms an intriguing juxtaposition with the work of Chen Xiaoyuan, whose twin video works Lash and Drag explore a viscerality very much at odds with the overhanging feminine touch. Lash flashes up raw image after raw image, each frame punctuated by the crack of a whip resounding around the whole exhibition. Trees, a white horse, a snake’s head, a car headlight, a lamplit street, a man’s contorted face, apples, butterflies: single frames of apparent mundanity contribute to an evocative yet indefinable narrative ultimately tied together by the crack of the whip.

Another approach to the everyday, and one with a pleasing allusion to the notion of cultural tourism, is Kan Xuan’s Garbage. This film sees a pair of hands rummaging through a rubbish bin, extracting individual pieces and presenting them to the camera as relics, a voice whispering (presumably) the name of each cack-covered treasure. The tone is reminiscent of the excited voiceovers of TV documentaries in archaeology or wildlife, yet the relics themselves are fragments of absolute mundanity- crisp packets, banana skins, a water bottle. Oddly, the very mundanity of these objects creates a certain excitement when viewed in our far-flung world. She presents us with the detritus of daily life, and by extension the brands and labels that punctuate the everyday of another culture. “It’s a sunflower husk,” we echo in hushed tones. “I wonder what that says,” we ask of a noodle packet.

Directly opposite this piece sits the video work Liang Yuan! Liang Yuan! by the same artist, a pleasing complement to excavations of a bin bag. The screen flashes up images of shiny-new bargain store pieces of plastic tat, each item with two Yuan coins (the titular Liang Yuan) taped to it. With each frame a voice repeats “liang Yuan”, a mind-numbing ululation echoing the soundtrack of a bargain store soundsystem. A straw hat! Two Yuan. A porcelain tortoise! Two Yuan. A plastic comb! Two Yuan. Kan echoes the roll-call of mundanity, numbing our minds with the clean bright hope of the acquisition of tat which sits in perfect counterpoint to the detritus of garbage.

This exhibition marks something of a starting point in a fascinating programme of cultural exchange between Glasgow and Beijing, as GSA begin their process of cross-fertilisation by sending students back and forth between the two cities within the structure of a degree course. Despite its relatively small scale, Asking For It subtly opens up a variety of lines of enquiry while maintaining the integrity to treat artists as creative individuals rather than cultural ambassadors.

Mackintosh Gallery, GSA Till 10 May