Hugo Boss Asia Art 2017 at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

By Kang Kang

Li Ming, Rendering the Mind (still), 2017, multichannel HD video installation, colour, sound. Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai Yu Ji, Diary of Sulfur Mining – Pataauw, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Each of the four nominees for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award – Yu Ji, Tao Hui, Robert Zhao Renhui and Li Ming – has been given an entire floor of Rockbund Art Museum’s narrow, five-storey art deco building. Unlike in previous exhibitions, this enables the artists to create solo exhibitions with minimal interference from the others. However, it also introduces a sense of progression, as the audience is likely to encounter the artists in a prescribed sequence that comes to bear on the artists’ play with linearity, finitude and repetition.

Stepping into Tao Hui’s Hello, Finale! (2017) feels like entering a futuristic matrix with an otherworldly tenor. In a white box gallery lit by fluorescent bulbs and blue-stained windows, nine monitors stand like headstones on an elevated platform, each facing a black armchair: on the screens, solitary characters in familiar atmospheric settings – the mourning mother, the brooding intellectual, the schoolgirl in love, the disillusioned aspiring actress, the videogame-addicted child – perform short, dramatic monologues while speaking into a telephone. Tao Hui transforms well-worn narratives and pictorial tropes into self-reflexive, lyrical vignettes that, viewed collectively, come close to the uncanny. They strike a delicate balance between wistful existential angst, reflection on the nature of performativity and a growing sense of doom. All this is o set by the absurdity of desynchronised looping – stories start over as soon as they end, the sole protagonists alienated even from their own repetition. Two more videos complement the main installation by revealing and collapsing layers of artifice and authenticity: in The Acting Tutorial, a group of women’s exaggerated performance of archetypal emotions precipitates violence, while The Dusk of Tehran (both 2014) stages Hong Kong diva Anita Mui’s intimate final address to her fans with an Iranian actress in a taxi.

Under the framework of the fictional Institute of Critical Zoologists, an online project devoted to understanding human and animal relations that doubles as an artistic persona, Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui’s take on the natural history museum is an encyclopaedic collection of curiosities both found and fabricated. Artefacts, archival photographs and colonial paraphernalia overflow the walls and tables, surrounded by collections of plants, taxidermy animals and insects enclosed in specimen bottles. Throwing the artist’s intervention into relief are works that play deliberately with audience perception, such as Eskimo Wolf Trap Often Quoted in Sermons (2013), where the blade of a bloodstained knife pokes out of a snowscape made of baking soda, accompanied by text describing a wolf licking the blade until it bleeds to death. While the interrogation of humans’ relationship with nature is central to any critique of modernity, the Institute of Critical Zoologists shows little interest in indicting the study of natural history as a fundamentally colonialist and anthropocentric mode of inquiry. Rather, it appropriates the language of natural science to create an imaginary system of knowledge production at the juncture of critique and fiction. Another made-up trap appears as a mysterious blue emanating from the middle of a dark forest in the photograph Bee Trap (2013), where the caption claims faux-earnestly that bees’ favourite colour makes them prey to an easy trompe l’oeil.

Li Ming’s immersive video installations reconfigure the smallest of the four spaces into a circuitous one-way passage. Spread across dozens of different-sized screens in a narrow, darkened corridor, Rendering the Mind (2017) invites the viewer to meditate on the individual’s position in virtual and physical environments, with a heightened awareness of the body’s negotiations of architectural space. Devoid of human figures other than clip-art silhouettes, video snippets shot in and outside the art-deco hotel Broadway Mansions, an old Shanghai landmark built in the 1930s, are arranged into a series of Structural film-inspired montages and digital renderings, set against a charged soundscape of screeching doors, the white noise of rain and a low steady drone. A parody of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Bruce Nauman’s Walk with Contrapposto (1968) – classic works about men in confinement – Li Ming’s own neon-green exit sign looms over the images as an amusing yet alarming cue for a break. The dark passage then opens up to a sunlit U-shaped corridor, where one-sided projections of architectural fragments direct foot traffic into the next gallery. Awaiting the viewer is a set of drone videos of the artist walking languidly but determinedly across mountains. Seen from afar, the body, forever moving from left to right, is so small that it almost disappears into a pool of pixels, never able to reach the edge of the frame; leaving the screen now appears as a Sisyphean gesture, to be viewed alongside the comical pose of the man who cannot escape.

It is rewarding to turn to Yu Ji’s exhibition after Li Ming’s intense orchestration of attention and movement, as the open floorplan and dispersed placement of works provide space in which to roam and reconnect to one’s tactile perception. Her heavy-duty sculptural installations, seemingly from disparate times and geographies, combine materials of various masses, textures and transparencies. Quoting Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1976 Topology of a Phantom City, Yu Ji’s Passage (2017) pairs tracking shots of passages couverts from pre-Haussmann Paris with further footage of workers building support structures for her site-specific sculpture in a two-channel projection on wood. Nearby, clear vinyl sheets with black-and-white prints of Western classical architecture lie flat, folded, overlapped on the ground, or wrapped around columns. The fragility, or literal ruination, of flesh in her figurative sculptures in cement, steel and clay, like the fractured body parts in Rema-Rema (2017), contrasts with Etudes – Lento IV (2017), where colossal, resin-covered iron chains hanging from the ceiling take on organic forms, recalling Eva Hesse’s unsettling rope piece from 1970. The power and subtlety with which Yu Ji sustains such formal and material tension arise from embodied performance. Alluding to indigenous Taiwanese lore and the early history of sulphur mining in Pataauw Stone (2015), she drags a large composite rock sculpture through dense wilderness before deserting it in a valley: myth, nature and industry joined together in the futility of human toil.

This is an exceptional presentation of four young artists. Yet it remains to be seen how this fulfils Hugo Boss Asia Art’s mission to foster more nuanced and diverse geopolitical representations in art: three of the four artists this year are embedded in a decidedly Sino-centric artworld. While past iterations of the award have made efforts to reach beyond Greater China and its immediate neighbours, the observer is left wondering how far this Shanghai-based institution is willing to go.

Hugo Boss Asia Art 2017 at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 27 October – 11 February

From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia