The Downward Spiral: Pearl River Diary
Dean visits the sixth Guangzhou Triennial, As We May Think: Feedforward, from Angelique Spaninks, Zhang Ga and Philipp Ziegler.
After landing in Guangzhou just before dawn, while I’m waiting in line for immigration, a phone belonging to somebody named “Meme Dealer” airdrops me this sweet picture of Kermit the frog, and that’s that, I have fallen in love with Guangzhou. Days later, another stranger will airdrop me a drawing of a dolphin in the metro.
I think I should stay awake, so I float through the Southern Chinese metropolis like a tropical dream, from megamall under a weeping tree, to Starbucks (“You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee.”), to megamall under an esplanade, approaching the towers of Zhujiang New Town, which sparkle with coloured light shows in the evenings, to Starbucks. Pure ecstasy. The city’s Core Socialist Values (prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, friendship) are posted up on billboards everywhere. I wander around Zaha Hadid’s polygonal raincloud of an opera house, which is sloppily made and falling apart. I can put my hands right through the façade. Round the back of the opera house I find a door for a KFC; and through that door, the most fluid, swooping chicken shop I’ve ever been to.
That evening I’ll tour the gigantic, mazelike wholesale clothes markets by the railway station, and the African markets around Sanyuanli, from which places the worldwide trade in knockoff Balenciaga sneakers and Supreme everything and fake Gucci leather goods is run, and in the following days I’ll go find the grave of Abi Waqqas, who first brought Islam to China, and the Orchid Garden, and Yuexiu Park, which is lit up with white LEDs around dusk, and Xiaogang Park, where I’ll wonder how old Chinese women know so many, and such complicated, dance routines, and get lost many times over in the winding backstreet puzzles of this city from the future, until it’s time to go see some art.
one of the museum’s directors gives a speech about how he’s so happy we could have this “wonderful blossoming together”
The Guangzhou Triennial takes place at the Guangdong Museum of Art on a leafy island close to the New Town. This year’s edition mixes high art from the likes of Pierre Huyghe, Thomas Bayrle, Delia Jürgens and Tabita Rezaire with new media projects such as Charlotte Jarvis’s Music of the Spheres (2013–15), for which the artist worked with a bio-scientist to encode a recording of a song into spirals of DNA, suspend those in soap solution, and blow them into bubbles which float by the cast-iron Socialist Realist sculptures in the museum’s garden and up and away over the Pearl River. Reality’s just a foam of cultural expression now.
Up one flight of stairs from her bubble machines is Wang Yuyang’s animatronic Mouth (2015), which spits at you if you come too close. There’s saliva all over the floor. The windows above the next flight of stairs are covered, for Feng Chen’s The Darker Side of Light (2017), with black blinds that sing open and shut according to a choral soundtrack, darkly shimmering before flashing views of the skyline over the opposite bank and Jarvis’s bubbles flying outside. Up the stairs again, on the top floor, I like Wang Nan’s spinning projections of dust casting phantasmal shadows on the walls, and David O’Reilly’s feature-length algorithmic simulation of the history of the cosmos, from just before the Big Bang to the present, Eye of the Dream (2018), which sets me adrift in a rotating galaxy of life and matter pushing forwards in wave after wave of gothic psychedelic flux, vaulting towards the digital sublime.
After that morning’s private view, everybody involved goes out for a long and indulgent Cantonese banquet, and one of the museum’s directors gets up and gives a speech about how he’s so happy we could have this “wonderful blossoming together”. My friend smiles.
“You don’t get that at New Museum,” he says.
As We May Think is a show about technology and where it might take us; a hopeful show which offers a bright transhumanist vision of a world of cyborgs and AIs; a world, one introductory text suggests, “of visions by humans and nonhumans alike, machines and flesh with equal footing, organic and inorganic hand in hand”. The educational worksheets on the top floor, between Wang Nan’s and Simon Denny’s installations, ask children to consider questions like, “Will machines surpass us or even replace us one day? How shall we coexist with things we created?” (Theme Activity 1) noting that, “humans and machines may become one. Envision the future form of mankind, design ‘the future you’”
A single person cannot change world events, but a powerful new technology will sweep history and society before it
(Theme Activity 2). Good questions for anybody to think about, but particularly so here, in the Pearl River Delta, half an hour’s train ride from the Capital of the Metaverse, Shenzhen, where more of the world’s electronics are designed and manufactured than anywhere else, and where, last November, scientist He Jiankui caused uproar by genetically editing the world’s first Crispr babies, Lulu and Nana; and particularly so here in China, where technology is treated with reverence. This, as I understand it, is an important part of the leadership’s interpretation of Marxism: that a single person cannot change world events, but a powerful new technology will sweep history and society before it.
Going by the worksheets I saw, the local children’s visions of their future selves tend towards either mystical chimeric goddess beings, or floating minds with redundant, atrophying bodies; so really, in China, in America, in the minds of the young, our dreams of our final forms are not so different after all. We want the same things!
Last year, in response to a rash of memes likening him to President Xi Jinping, Chinese censors also banned Winnie the Pooh from the Middle Kingdom. So I was rather surprised while strolling through downtown Guangzhou, enjoying a flaky lotus paste and salted duck yolk pastry, to spot this fluffy lapdog bouncing around me dressed as the forbidden bear.
As We May Think’s sunny outlook also has to do with censorship of course. In the weeks leading up to the opening, artists Lawrence Lek, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Floris Kaayk, and Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman were all taken out of the triennial, as were parts III and IV of Harun Farocki’s series of films exploring the imaginary landscapes of video games, Parallel I–IV (2014). Some of these artists touched on dark visions of, and ethical questions regarding, what we’re doing with technology: like hacking DNA, hacking AIs, and printing new organs for ourselves. But for others it’s far harder to imagine why they were redacted.
An artist who’d made it past the censors told me that she doubted they’d watched the videos they’d cancelled all the way through; that they’re not looking for subversive messages so much as their contexts, and the kinds of unstable tones that make critical readings possible. They might have not have been looking for anything really. In the days right before the opening, she recalls, they would go upstairs and remove random objects from Yang Jian’s sprawling installation of found objects, Forest of Sensors (2008 onwards).
What kinds of objects, I asked?
“I don’t know,” she says, “they were censored.”
Yang Jian’s installation is made of things like a dismembered mannequin with a windshield wiper in place of its arm. It’s hard to tell what’s seditious and what’s not, when it comes to formal Dadaist sculpture. The life of a Chinese art censor must be a difficult one, I think. My friend suggests they like to make choices that are hard to explain, or understand, because such unpredictability helps keep everybody on edge. A few years ago, men like Peter Pomerantsev and Adam Curtis began talking about how Russian political technologists had taken ideas from avant-garde art and theatre and used them to create a political landscape in which nobody knows what’s going on anymore; now we have Guangdong Provincial authorities using similarly oblique strategies of confusion to fuck with artists and curators. The détourners have become the détourned; such is the modern way.
A great sadness has enveloped all the world’s people
I went to a talk at the Armory last year in which Constant Dullart described how, during the installation of a show in another Chinese museum, his work was taken down and he was locked up in a sort of prison cell in the basement.
“I don’t know why a museum would have a prison cell in the basement,” he said, “but they did.”
There’s so much censorship in the Western art world these days, mostly driven by artists themselves, that I’d forgotten that authoritarian governmental censorship was still taking place. Simpler times! At least in China they’ll go and look at some of the art before condemning it.
I’m not sure who the new Chinese artists are, or where I might find them. A local critic I meet outside a dull exhibition of painting and sculpture in an old sugar factory tells me that the country’s most interesting young artists will be completely different, that they won’t have any interest in our tired old Western system of galleries and objects and exhibitions and so forth, and would rather build a whole new art world of their own; which sounds great, but I can’t imagine how that might look?
He says he went to a wedding recently, and halfway through the speeches the groom stood up (the groom’s a punk) and started screaming about fuck capitalism, fuck consumerism. Everybody’s surprised, he says, because it’s a wedding after all. But everybody understands.
On my last evening in Guangzhou I ride the metro all the way out to Banqiao, in the suburbs, to see Yuyin Garden, which I’ve read somewhere is dreamy. But when I get there it’s walled around in the darkness, with nothing to see but the tips of some Qing Dynasty pagodas. In this old and derelict neighbourhood, women are working into the night in brightly illuminated garment workhouses opening onto narrow alleyways. Some men have clocked off and are drinking and smoking in the factories. Children play below the machines. The streets smell of raw sewage but the mood’s relaxed. There’s a young girl practicing some dance moves on the pavement and a feeling of joyful bounding forwards in this city.
Along the highway to the airport everything throbs with rainbow waves of light. It feels good to be somewhere that’s not so despairing, even under a genuinely oppressive regime, in a city whose inhabitants have confidence in the future, rather than a moribund longing for what’s past.
I read something recently that went, more or less: A great sadness has enveloped all the world’s people, except the Chinese.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York and a contributing editor for Spike. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he wrote about what he has learnt from the greatest city in the world.