A heavily pregnant woman strolls through a supermarket aisle. Suddenly a tango starts playing in the background and the woman erupts into a balletic worship of the groceries: erotically stroking packets of sauce; on her knees praying to hairbrushes. Cao Fei's film Haze and Fog contains many themes of commodification and middle-class anonymity, but fits into this exhibition, Wastelands, through its depiction of consumption and waste.
Wastelands is a new exhibition on display at the OVADA warehouse, showcasing the work of contemporary Chinese artists Ai Weiwei, Cai Yuan, Cao Fei , Hua Mao First Floor Collective, Anthony Key, Sun Haili, Sun Yi and WESSIELING. The exhibition deliberately describes itself as a display of Chinese contemporary art by Chinese artists. To invoke such national specificity reflects the tensions around the production of new art in China where government restrictions demonstrate a neoliberalism that has retained dictatorial control over artistic expression; the effect of the artistic revolution is still acutely present. Postmodernism offers opportunity for criticism and individual expression, connecting society and art, but in China this is often censored. Many prominent artists like Ai Weiwei respond to the issues by combining art careers with ardent activism, an indication of the struggles and restrictions many Chinese artists face. In Haili Sun's words, 'in China you can create very critical, strong work in the studio, but you cannot exhibit it in the galleries.'
Forming part of a growing UK scene in Chinese contemporary art, the title establishes themes of industrialisation, ecology and neoliberal ideologies of waste and consumption. The installations present varied responses to the issues with surprising consequences, from WESSIELING's satirical self-branding to Hua Mao First Floor Collective's Dream Hotel, a room available for overnight visits in exchange for the sharing of a dream.
My personal highlights of the exhibition were the two installations by Haili Sun, an artist born in China who now lives and works in Milton Keynes. Sun's work explores the relationships between humanity and our environment by reframing natural materials and giving the artificial the impression of being alive, meaning his pieces resonate with global ecological issues and the industrial expansion of China. In Section of Grass, Milton Keynes Sun presents a cutting of grass with its roots dangling in a glass box of water. The grass has been cut, or rescued, from a roadworks site near Milton Keynes and is accompanied by photographic evidence, consciously situating the plant at a geographical origin. The grass represents the juncture between Nature and human expansion, allotted special significance for its relevance to Sun's personal environment. Golden Circle enacts similar motives by invoking notions of boundary; the installation is a rock, part natural, part polished, encircled by a ring of sand. The viewer is separated from the rock by a natural barrier, emphasised by the cleanness of the sand line, demonstrating an artificial separation from Nature.
As always, OVADA has curated a fantastically varied and exciting exhibition. The volume of pieces has been limited by the size of the warehouse, but their presentation has allowed for space between installations and room for contemplation without clutter. The motivation behind the exhibition is clear and makes for a coherent and though-provoking experience, definitely worth a visit.