Environment / Observing / The Personal

五分钟:Five minutes with Bababa International – looking back on the Shanghai Biennale

As the Sydney Pavilion closes its doors and the ambitious Inter-City Pavilions project comes to an end, exhibiting artists Bababa International look back on their experience of the largest international arts event in mainland China. Interview by 4A’s Yu Ye Wu.

What were your first reactions to the Sydney Pavilion space? 

We flew into China and spent our first weekend lost amongst the labyrinth that is Shanghai. The city’s surfaces matched the [Sydney Pavilion] space in many ways with almost no continuity. There had been an exhibition previously in one half of the space and the temporary white gallery walls stuck out like a sore thumb. My first reaction was to tare down the temporary walls and leave the space bare. There were traces of past commercial tenants and any concrete surface had hundreds of rusted bolts protruding. Originally I didn’t want to do anything to the space because it seemed like it was ready for retirement.

What were the challenges of presenting an exhibition offsite and in a non-traditional space?

I think these types of spaces are compelling. Personally I prefer our work to be shown outside of the gallery. For years we have been flirting with the idea of leaving the white box gallery altogether. It is liberating because the audience seem to be more comfortable when things are not so pristine.

Did you have any communication issues working in China?

We were very fortunate to have excellent translators. I don’t think we would have achieved the work without them. When they were not around we mimed everything! Physical humour is a good cross-cultural pillow.

Did you have to adapt the works from your original vision to suit the space? 

We went to Shanghai with quite a loose idea of what the work was going to be. It is good and bad to be this flexible when making an installation of that scale. You run the risk of it being an epic failure. Luckily all the distortions of the space contributed to the works end and made for a successful artwork. It was the residency with Shen Shaomin and the experience of working in China that shaped our work. Specific examples of things that informed the work were hardware markets, Shanghai’s river bustling with boats full of raw materials, never ending construction of the city and a feeling like Shanghai was responding accordingly to each human’s actions.

Huangpu River, Shanghai

Huangpu River, Shanghai. Photography: Bababa International

What was the mood like in the city pavilions building you were in? What works did you manage to see which was interesting? 

The Sydney Pavilion is separate to the other pavilions so it seems like it is its own entity. One commentary I heard and liked was that “Sydney does not really address the Inter-City Pavilions project’s theme so directly or with an Australian identity. Rather, it presents a commentary on the modern global city.” 4A really set a high standard for the Sydney Pavilion and I think it stands out amongst the 31 other cities, but I am biased.

In my opinion the Pittsburgh Pavilion had an interesting effect in Shanghai. The artist bought the entire contents of a catholic Pittsburghian house and shipped it to China to sell in a flea market style sale. This is not so interesting as a base idea but the local Shanghaiese response was fantastic. There were hoarders trying to purchase the whole Pavilion and security guards taking naps on the furniture. The locals were fascinated with the catholic paraphernalia and the artwork lost all value as art to many of the visitors. I liked that the artist expectations no longer controlled the artwork’s outcome.

Did you meet other teams from other city pavilions?

We made some new pals with the artist and crew from Lima, Brooklyn and the Barcelona Pavilion. The most inspiring people we met where the hard working assistants and Biennale staff. They worked relentlessly to help us finish our project.

What have you heard about the rest of the Shanghai Biennale?

This Biennale was apparently quite significant for China and Shanghai. The staff of the Biennale spoke about it being quite ground breaking because the type of work that was being exhibited. Previously this may not have been acceptable.

And gossip of course! whats an international art event without gossip.

Hardware market. Photography: Bababa International

Hardware market. Photography: Bababa International

Shanghai Biennale opening event. Photography: Bababa International

Shanghai Biennale opening event. Photography: Bababa International

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