Heichi Magazine Presents
Future Perfect: Questionnaire at the End of 2021


In the past decade, an unwritten convention seems to have taken hold in Shanghai: every few years, whenever there is occasionally a major self-organized exhibition is followed by comments expressing its rarity in years would ensue. 1See Yao Mengxi’s review, “The Sun – Part 1”, Artforum, 2013, link. Elsewhere, the title of a group exhibition curated by Biljana Ciric is a straightforward yearning:  See the press release for You Won’t Be Young Forever, Ran Dian, November 2016, link​ This past year, such a rarity in years––USB Multi-Port Linking Exhibition, a self-organized exhibition of young artists––was presented across multiple venues in Shanghai, including nightclubs, pop art fairs, galleries, and fashion boutiques. On the press release, each of the 17 participating artists’ names is preceded by the name of a curator with whom the artist is paired, together establishing 17 almost mutually independent contexts that seem to contradict the very concept of a group exhibition. Older local audience members could not help but recall the 2006 exhibition entitled 38 Solo Exhibitions, which also took place in Shanghai and was similarly co-hosted by many art spaces. According to Alexander Brandt, the organizer of 38 Solo Exhibitions, back in 2006, the self-organization of Shanghai-based artists had progressed to a turning point where “the desire for individualized expression became greater than anything else… that it turned into a playful wordplay: a group exhibition composed of solo exhibitions.” 2link

During the opening at the boutique store, I overheard remarks from a nearby audience, the gist of which was: China is changing fast; every five years it remakes itself; nowadays the trend of self-organization is really a desire to embed art into consumer spaces. Most works on view did have a sense of aggregator aesthetics, as if they were defined by a plethora of sensory stimuli, as well as the conditions of artwork production in urban China.

I keep thinking about that overheard remark. Is it true that China is constantly changing, pushing aside what’s old and bringing forth what’s new? The rapid transformation of China doesn’t appear entirely alien, though: the aggregator aesthetic reminds me of the artist collective Guest (2010-2011), comprised of Lu Pingyuan, Xu Qu, Li Ming, Zhao Yao, and Lin Ke. Guest, whose name was inspired by the anonymous BBS guest user, was the first to respond to the zeitgeist of an era defined by surfing the Internet and governed by image editing. Incorporating the styles of individual members into their collective work, they once even arranged for a performer to act like an exhibitionist at a show who, from time to time, would pull open their jacket and flash the audience with the installation hung on their body. 3For discussions on the methodologies of the Guest Collective, see Hu Yun, Lu Pingyuan, “Conversation (I)”, PDF no. 3, May 2012, link. For discussions on the methodologies of the PDF collective, see PDF 6, August 2012, link.

Let me take the opportunity of this end-of-year review to briefly recap the days of glory, the last time when self-organized projects by emerging artists were blossoming! Back then, Small Productions (2008-2010) and Arrow Factory (2008-2019) were among the first to react to the massive ecocide. Arrow Factory first landed a measly 15 square-meter space in the old neighborhood of Beijing in early 2008. Cofounder Pauline J. Yao was completely unprepared for the overwhelming excitement of the art community, especially from artists born in the 1960s. As Yao recalls, Beijing in 2008 was so bare that it afforded no possibilities to run exhibitions outside the standard white cubes. For those who lived through the ‘90s, the impact of the newly founded Arrow Factory in 2008 transcended its tiny physical space, precisely because it evoked the vibrancy of underground art in the past. The older generation of artists had witnessed the Apartment Art movement at the beginning of their careers in the 1990s utilizing makeshift spaces. 4Pauline J. Yao speaks of the 60s artists’ support for Arrow Factory, as she later recalls: “[O​nce Arrow Factory came along, it was as though they said:’Oh, I can go back to that thing I was already doing before.’”. See: “FAQ”, Arrow Factory: The Last Five Years. Beijing: Arrow Factory. 2020. p.206-7.] Arrow Factory had unknowingly summoned a wisp of ghostly spirit from bygone exhibition machines, which metamorphized in 2008 into new possibilities for exhibition productions. Meanwhile, Small Productions, a collaboration between Zhang Liaoyuan, Shao Yi, and a dozen then mainly Hangzhou-based artists, had been organizing monthly projects across spaces in Hangzhou and Shanghai that adhered to its principles: chill, cheap, and fast. In online forums, there emerged other self-organized exhibitions under the name of “Small Productions” that followed similar mottos and extended to many other locations: another consequence of decentralization. 5See Li Ran, “Guerrilla Wars Under Situations of Fraught: Small Productions”, in Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art, edited by Liu Ding, Lu Yinghua, and Su Wei, 2011, pp. 232, link.​ In subsequent years, under the influence of the Small Productions Effect, an unspoken collective action unfurled: emerging artists at the time were inclined to work within and through collectives for economic and organizational efficiency. There were also some hidden rules in this ecosystem, such as peer reviews, collaborations, or mutual revisions by fellow artists. It was a group game that emphasized actionability; after the dinosaurs had gone extinct, small mammals took the stage. 6See Bao Dong, “Self-Organized Contemporary Art in China: Reflections and Practices of Institutionalization”, in ON | OFF: Collective Practice in China, 2002 – 2012, edited by Bao Dong, Sun Dongdong, and Paula Tsai, Beijing: World Books, 2012. link.

Back in the day, a constellation of exhibitions was being produced in a variety of shapes and forms by artist collectives who often aspired to counter the fixed directions of their individual praxis through such group-based projects. 7Angie Baecker, “Paula Tsai Discusses ‘See/Saw: Collective Practice in China Now,’” Artforum, December 2012, link.​ The 2010 exhibition A Project: Incommunicable by the artist collective Company, gathered rather unrefined works by 15 artists in order to defy the inertia of exhibition designs. Abandoning gallery walls, they used  the center of Platform China’s gallery space instead and piled the works into a total assembly. 8ON | OFF: Collective Practice in China, 2002 – 2012, edited by Bao Dong, Sun Dongdong, and Paula Tsai, Beijing: World Books, 2012, pp. 195.​ In one of Nanshan Painting Group’s earliest projects, In The Tree (2011), He Chi, Ning Haoxiang, and Hu Liu guided visitors to an artificial woodland by an art district in Beijing and asked them—these guests who’d expected to look at a painting— to climb up a tree. In the words of the artists: “For actually the tree had no paintings to begin with, but when many come to see one, a painting is made.” 9Ibid. p. 252-255. See also: link.​ What’s more, the Shanghai-based collective Museum of Unknown presented their project Decor (2011) at Arrow Factory, where they pasted a notice regarding artworks on loan by the entrance and stuffed the 15 square-meter space with works made by 20 artists. Next to each work were written unique terms related to money lending: deposit amount, regulations on the loanee’s identity, age and nationality, so on and so forth. 10Ibid. p. 117-122.​ And for almost two years, artists Li Mu, Hu Yun, and Lu Pingyuan had been copublishing a monthly digital magazine, PDF. All contributions, interviews, and edits for the magazine were managed by the three artists, spanning exhibition reviews, biographical research on certain artists, and translations of writings on contemporary trends.

The connotation of the word “research” within the context of contemporary art has undergone quite some shifts as well in the past decade. Artistic “research” in 2010 probably meant to look into the biographies and methodologies of different artists, as well as their approaches for constructing a narrative in an exhibition, rather than investigations of sociality, technology and infrastructure. The most representative case would be Yan Xing, who turned into a self-proclaimed connoisseur of Duan Jianyu’s paintings in his work The Collectress (2012). Approaching the matter from this angle, Xiangqian Art Museum (2010) by Hu Xiangqian is but an alternative version of this type of research. The audience enters the museum following his oral narration, where 15 imaginary works are described as the artist gesticulates with his hands and feet.  Li Ran’s works, meanwhile, directly confront the hermeneutics of art exhibitions, exemplified by the exploitation of textual references and over interpretations. In I Want To Talk To You, But Not All of You (2012), the dramatized lines criticize how these interpretations are like “ghosts” that persistently hover in front of the eyes of insomniac artists.

In these final days of 2021, it is hard to imagine how much space would have needed to be reserved to discuss young artists’ self-organized practice in editorial retrospectives a decade ago. This time, Heichi Magazine will embrace hauntology and look back even farther than just at the past year alone. We’ve collected seminal texts and works that touch upon alternative spaces and plans of yesteryear. Even without being fully realized, their questions keep echoing in the present with much relevancy; others directly see the old as a means to innovate, and in doing so they effortlessly roam across different ages and forever evade the butcher’s knife of time.

December 17th
Answer from 2011:
Old readymades can be stories retold

December 20th
Question from 2008:
What comes after the cheap labor? (“If collaboration is the answer, what is the question?”)

December 21st
Question from 2009:
“Maybe money was the answer to the question, but now…”

December 22nd
Question from 2015:
What defines a good institution?

December 23rd
Hexagram from 2018:
The tai hexagram: Above and below intersect, thus their aspirations become one

Translated from the Chinese by Sixing Xu.

Zian Chen is a curator and co-editor of Heichi Magazine

Sixing Xu is an artist working with sculpture and text. She graduated from Vassar College and is currently based in Beijing.

Zhu Jianlin’s Achievement Project at “You Won’t be Young Forever,” 2016.
Courtesy the artist and the curator

Works by Xia Chengan (left) and Tian Yi (right) at “USB Multi-Port Linking Exhibition,” 2021
Courtesy the artists and MadeIn Gallery

Published: 2021.12.16