Contemporary art is hard – yes even us students of art history feel that way sometimes. But it doesn’t always have to be. Most of the time, contemporary art seems difficult because it does not give us straightforward answers. But instead of feeling frustrated, we should feel liberated! Because we can now ask all sorts of questions about the work. There is no single “right” question to ask.

Questioning is indeed the point of this year’s Shanghai Biennale. Now in its 11th edition and curated by Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, the theme of the biennale is Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories. Framed around a rhetorical question (why not ask again), the biennale urges its audience not only to ask questions, but to ask again, perhaps asking the same question from a different perspective or asking a different question altogether.

In this edition of Shanghai Swing, we shall try our hand at “asking again” with five works from the biennale.

Desire Machine Collective, Dewaal

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U walking along the wall

“Erm…this is just a wall. Is this an artwork or just part of the exhibition space?”

Baffling that a wall stands in the middle of the room. The question to ask is why this wall (if it is not an artwork) is in such an odd place. Surely the curators would have hung some works on the wall or removed the wall entirely? As you come closer to the wall, you hear sounds of people protesting. Of course you can be reasonably certain that there is no protest on the other side but this brings a new meaning to the wall. Walls are not just structures to prop up roofs over our heads. In many parts of the world, walls keep people out. Walls are a means of separating people. Walls are territorial markers. Walls also impede our vision. When we hear the sounds of protest without seeing the actual people, what does that say about our perception of these protestors? What would they look like? Where do they come from? Are we worried that they will climb over the low wall? So many questions and even before finding the answers, our reading of this unsightly wall has already changed.

Şener Özmen, How to Tell of Peace to a Living Dove?

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“Why is he talking to a dove? Is he nuts?”

Technically, the artist is not really talking to the dove. The voice in the video belongs to his son Robin. But he does look at the dove very seriously while the dove goes about his own business, oblivious to the attention. One question we can possibly ask is “What is he talking to the dove about?” Well, they are “talking” about peace. The dove should have much to say about peace since he symbolises peace. Or not. It turns out to be a monologue on the precariousness and complexity of peace. At one point, the voice even tells the dove “you mean nothing to me but a symbol, you don’t even fulfill your mission assigned by us idiots!” Now this should make us think twice about the idea of peace. The dove may be a symbol of peace but it does not necessarily refer to the reality of peace. What about other more obvious representations of peace? When we read of “peace” in books or newspapers, are they just empty symbols?

Check out the video here.

Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline

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“It’s just clothes on a plane, what’s the big deal?”

It is a big deal because the artist almost got into trouble with this video work. An official arrived at the scene wanting to question what she was doing with this public monument but she escaped. In looking at this work, we should be asking what this monument is, what it symbolises, and what the clothes mean. This fighter jet is mounted in Pakistan and was used in the 1971 war which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh. Even without the context of the war, the meaning associated with war and fighter jets is enough to provide a strange contrast with the act of clothes-drying, a domestic task. The incongruence of the clothes and the plane raises many other questions: Do the clothes somehow soften the ugly reality of war symbolised by the plane? Is there a vast difference between the public narratives (the grandeur and size of the plane) and personal stories (the flimsy clothes, easily taken away and forgotten) we encounter everyday? What should we believe? How do we understand the past through these narratives?

MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being – Planet Trilogy

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“Woah, how is this art? It looks like some construction work gone wrong.”

Undeniably the most prominent piece in the entire biennale, it’s hard to miss this work. By “connecting the historical points of Red Flag Canal, Samuel Beckett, and William Shakespeare,” this immersive installation contains works from over 40 artists, presented along the long and meandering walk up and into the megastructure. But one has to personally experience the theatricality of the work by walking into it, before asking the questions. In this case, the pictures will not do justice to the sensation of walking through what seems like a Disneyland gone wrong. Bombarded by fluorescent red lights, flashing white lights, scenes of fire and bizarre science labs, one walks out of the installation wondering what just happened. The apocalyptic scene makes us ask why we feel the way we do, and how plausible a future this is for our world, as we pursue technology with unflinching determination and an insatiable appetite.

Khaled Barakeh, The Untitled Images

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“Why have the figures been cut away? Has it been censored?”

Those are not bad questions to start with but we could push it further. In this series of photographs, the artist has cut away the bodies of those who were victims of conflict and refugee crises. We should ask how this erasure makes us feel. Why do we feel the way that we do? Could the erasure of the bodies possibly mean erasures on other levels? What do we expect to see when we think of refugee pictures in media and does this challenge our expectations? The disappearance of the bodies could also allude to the ways in which we have consumed these images, fed to us on a daily basis through news and media, to such an extent that we have become desensitised to it. On the other hand, the artist could have deliberately removed the bodies so that they are no longer the subject of such consumption. Many possible readings can be gleaned, if we continue to ask more questions, not only of the art work, but of our response to it.

Across the three levels of the biennale, there are many other works which prompt endless questions about themselves and the world in general. However, it is not just the Shanghai Biennale with works such as these. When you next come across contemporary art in any museum or gallery, you may still ask the questions “What is this about? You call this art?” But instead of looking for answers to be provided, why not ask again? Maybe you’ll find more exciting answers by asking different questions about the same work. Try it! It’s quite fun.

For practice, here’s an artistic shot of L and U, fooling around as usual. Go on, ask questions about it. We love to hear what your questions are!

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