The 11th Shanghai Biennale: Why not ask again

Why Not Ask Again, Again

Raqs Media Collective


The protagonist in our exhibition finds love hiding in plain sight. She undertakes intensely personal forays into the noise and bleeds of archives, and stares at suspended helicopters. She hangs her washing on a fighter plane, and watches oil slicks stain the earth with her eyes wide shut. She listens to fossils and stumbles onto ghosts in corridors, mulling over stubbornness, cutting short journeys, decoding mishaps, planting rice, cleaning up after explosions. She finds herself investigating a black hole in the back street of a small town and the trough of a panorama hollowed out of a landscape in the wake of a mine. She refuses to accept simple answers.


There is, thus, an insistence on asking. We found a resonance in Ritwik Ghatak’s film ‘Jukti, Takko aar Gappo’ and in the energy of the cosmic imagination of Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel, ‘The Three Body Problem’, both of which, as we have stated elsewhere, were points of reference for us while thinking through the Shanghai Biennale. We believe that a little-known Bengali picaresque film from the 1970s, and a contemporary Chinese  science fiction narrative’s claim to deep time and cosmic relevance can offer a way of rethinking the questions that matter in today’s world.


Where does this place our sense of the centre of the contemporary world-question? As in, what is our sense of the contemporary world that has lost its centre?


In a 12-month cycle between March 2016 to March 2017, there will have been biennales in Sydney, Gwangju, Busan, Singapore, Yinchuan, Taipei, Shanghai, Yokohama, Kochi, and Sharjah. There are other biennales to come. We observe in these a traffic of complex itineraries, fresh intellectual sources and inspirations, along with an intense mingling of a large number of artists, curators, and artworks, and a footfall of millions through these events. It would appear that something unprecedented is in play here. These biennales happen to be located in Asia, and they welcome the participation of artists from both across and outside the region. It is here that one can find the  greatest presence of artists, not just from Asia, but also from Africa, from the greater Middle East, from Latin America, and of course, from Europe and North America. They are also welcoming curatorial adventures by women from diverse locations. If contemporaneity connotes a certain ‘worldliness’, then by virtue of the sheer diversity of presences, these biennales are raising the stakes to what contemporaneity can be (in art). The rest of the world has to catch up.


This shift in emphasis is something that needs consideration in depth. Could it be that the twenty-first century contours of contemporaneity have a greater breadth, and that this in turn lends it a depth, density, inter-connectedness and complexity? Could this be a step towards the asking and revisiting of some very basic questions?


Is it feasible to smuggle in a lineage of ‘communal luxury’ from the brief celebratory moment of the Paris Commune of 1871 into this ferment? We  learn from Kristin Ross’ engaging historical investigation of the actions proposed and enacted by the ‘Artists’ Federation of the Paris Commune’ of the idea of ‘Communal Luxury’—a combative and festive mode that re-appropriates the forces and energies of life, nature, art, beauty, of everything—in and for the commons.


There is a lot of research, and re-imagination, waiting to be done, which could raise the current form of the Biennale, and biennale-like structures, towards a mode of action and imagination that is more in tune with the ‘commons’. We see the ‘commons’ as an emerging  value  of  twenty-first  century  life:  its  signs  are visible in all forms of human activity, from science to politics on city-squares, streets, factories, universities. It is the aspiration and desire of generations to come, and the generation that is coming into its own now, who instinctively know that they can expect a lot more charge and intensity from a plural collective life that is ecological with its algorithms. Their energies, which seem opaque now to older forms of reason and power, can fuel an entirely new conception of what happens when people come together, pay attention to each other, transmit, receive, transform. It is this kind of life force—between generations, between forms of action, between knowledge systems, between ways of telling stories— that the Shanghai Biennale foregrounds.


Questions exist because answers do not end a conversation. The questioning of what it means to simply ‘be’ exists because we can never be satisfied by the mere assertion of being. Every desire is a question and a tussle between what we are, and what we can become. So let us ask again, Why Not Ask Again.