Geng Dayou’s Playful, Nihilistic Sculpture

Geng Dayou, Shade Tree, 2023, cast aluminium, acrylic, lacquered. Courtesy Shanghart, Shanghai

We are living in a world, Geng suggests in a new show at Shanghart in Shanghai, of eternal melancholia

There is something nihilistic about Geng Dayou’s five sculptural assemblages, each spotlit in an otherwise dimly lit room. There’s also something playful, empty, humorous and melancholic about them. In one corner of the exhibition space is Centipede (all works 2023): a row of cast iron handles (that could also double as steps) twists its way up from the floor, then the wall, to the ceiling, like a giant version of the titular insect. Normally used on emergency exits, and now presented in this winding configuration, the handles also resemble a set of monkey bars. Geng introduces tension into Centipede by casting the handles with indentations shaped like the grip of fingers, offering the unsettling suggestion that someone might previously have desperately clung to the rungs; and at some point let go. That, combined with the fact that these handles are attached to no doors, leaves the work an abiding aura of futility and purposelessness.

Centipede, 2023, cast aluminium, painted, dimensions variable. Courtesy Shanghart, Shanghai

In Continued Recursion six metal bowling balls, each pierced with a more-than-useful amount of finger holes, are scattered in front of a white slope. At the top of the slope sits another ball, looking as though it’s ready to be rolled. If one were to do that, one might in turn find out whether or not its many holes would catch exactly onto the metal pegs arranged like miniature, immobile skittles at the slope’s end. Then again, judging by the ball’s scattered friends, the chances of that seem slim. Like Centipede, Continued Recursion offers action without an actor; games without players; perhaps they gave up and walked away. A pervasive loneliness haunts the objects on show.

You might also see this as a meditation on withdrawal, a method of dealing with trauma. Made in the wake of the pandemic and Shanghai’s stringent lockdown rules, it’s hard not to make this connection with the psychological impact of forced isolation and withdrawal from physical society. And if we don’t resolve a trauma, it persists. We are living in a world, Geng (who studied psychology at university) suggests, of eternal melancholia. In a darkly humorous twist, Gear is a pair of electricity pylons, interlinked as their support poles arch around one another: the graceful dance of the exhibition title. With the work dramatically spotlit, the charge is undeniably erotic as much as it is electric. Like two people leaning out from a tangled kiss, the wires that link them looking like sloppy strands of saliva. But that’s what happens when you’re isolated and lonely; you seek and see intimacy everywhere.

When No One Is Around, Dance Gracefully at Shanghart, Shanghai, 15 July – 2 September

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