Canton Express: A Profile of Early Art of the Pearl River Delta

Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art, M+

Canton Express
was a project for the landmark exhibition Z.O.U. — Zone of Urgency, curated by Hou Hanru for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. This project was inspired by the temporary construction commonly seen on the side of the road around the Pearl River Delta, to create an exhibition space that presents the art practices of fourteen artists and artist groups active in the region since the 1990s. This was the first time that artists from the Pearl River Delta participated in a large-scale international exhibition. The Project later travelled to Hong Kong, Beijing, and the UK. 

Following the end of the Cold War, the development of high- speed Internet, and industrialisation quickening its pace, Asia became the fastest-growing locus of globalisation. Benefiting from Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies and cheap labour, the Pearl River Delta became the factory of the world and an expansive conurbation with a rapidly advancing economy. These social and economic contexts contributed to the emergence of a new language in art as well as research efforts on global art and culture at the turn of the century. For instance, in 1997, curators Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist initiated the exhibition series Cities on the Move, in which they adopted globalisation and urbanisation as the framework to interpret contemporary Asian art. Architect Rem Koolhaas completed a study of the Pearl River Delta, and in 2002 published Project on the City I: Great Leap Forward.

Throughout the 1990s, the majority of Chinese artists responded to abstract political ideals through realism, and thus became overly dependent on figurative style and political symbolism. Canton Express featured a new language in art that was developing far from the political centre. The Pearl River Delta, situated at the frontline of Deng’s reform, was in the midst of rapid globalisation and urbanisation. Artists there eschewed political and commercial iconography in favor of skeptical, critical attitude toward the society. They instead employed multi- media practices to address the impact of globalisation, with its mixture of city landscapes, daily life, and the mental and emotional complexities of its residents. U-thèque utilised film to focus on life in urban villages; and Liu Heng’s video installation closely followed a small town as it was transformed by urbanisation. Aside from these clear views of the urban landscape, Canton Express also probed the inner world of the inhabitants. Lin Yilin’s performance work 100 Pieces and 1000 Pieces and Jiang Zhi’s installation Sucker both pointed towards the material greed of consumer society. Zheng Guogu’s Sample Room showed the link between Yangjiang as a manufacturing hub and the globalised market. Chen Shaoxiong’s Figure Anti-Terrorism combined international political events with lived experience, and Xu Tan, Jin Jiangbo, and Vitamin Creative Space’s original programmes used live Internet broadcast to connect local art events together with international exhibitions. This was the first time Chinese artists responded to the dynamic relationship between global and local; they were not satisfied with the label ‘Chinese artist’, but instead considered themselves as members of a global network.

Canton Express not only exhibited ‘China’ and its underlying cultural and artistic context under the influence of globalisation, but also prefigured a clear shift in Chinese art away from focus on Chinese identity towards actual interaction with reality. More importantly, Canton Express represented a new kind of exhibition model, where the separation and interconnectedness between each different work was decided in discussion and consultation with the artists. This curatorial approach differed from that of a traditional exhibition as it did not manifest a consensus among different artworks. Instead it encouraged viewers to reflect on the ambiguities within the discussions and served as an improvised strategy for confronting the global network of exhibitions.

Yet within the social network of the Pearl River Delta, artists faced a distressing situation.  They lacked access to a culture and could not rely on the art market to survive. It compelled them to develop their own organisations: Libreria Borges as a bookstore and exhibition space, Vitamin Creative Space, a commercial gallery and non-profit art space; and U-thèque, a filmmaking organisation that organised public screenings.  Even Canton Express itself was self-organised and experienced many twists and turns. The project was not officially supported.  Rather, it was realised through increments of support by Chinese art lovers, which included early on Alisan Fine Arts and Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong.  With further assistance from the Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation and Dr Uli Sigg, it opened on schedule at the 50th Venice Biennale. After the exhibition closed, art collector Guan Yi acquired works from the project and shipped them back to China in order to keep the works together.  In 2014, he donated the works to M+. 

Through research and conservation efforts undertaken by M+, these safeguarded works are on display for the first time after a decade, re-presenting a pivotal moment in the history of contemporary Chinese art and its link with the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong. Although in the past, there was a lack of suitable temporary exhibition spaces and material resources in mainland China, the system of contemporary art has entirely changed. Canton Express embraced forms and concepts in art that were new at the time such as site-specific installation and live broadcast and showed distinct characteristics of ‘anti-art’, which no longer followed the standard pursuit of making art objects that are inherently definitive but emphasized the flexibility and variability of art at different exhibitions. The reinstallation of Canton Express was riddled with challenges. How can the tactile and textural qualities of art practices that rejected canonisation and embraced fluidity and site-specificity be exhibited according to the museum standards of collection, conservation, research, and display? Our responsibility toward the contemporary relies on preserving recent history for tomorrow. People often believe that the contemporary is too recent to require careful maintenance, but the process of reinstalling Canton Express has demonstrated the immediate need for documentation and conservation of a contemporary artwork because the contemporary becomes the past in the blink of an eye. It is our hope that this exhibition not only restages an important moment in the development of contemporary art, but also serves as a means by which to reflect and act upon these concerns.