The very location of the Yinchuan Biennale in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China’s Northwest below the Gobi Desert, in the former capital of the Western Xia Empire of the Tanguts, offers fecund grounds for engagement with the complex and intersecting questions raised by the second iteration of this biennale titled Starting from the Desert-Ecologies on the Edge.
An ambitious curatorial project, this biennale interweaves its presentation of contemporary art with critical philosophical discourses, particularly works of Deleuze and Guattari, about the ecological and social entanglements, expressions, and consequences of centuries-long flows of culture, capital, commerce, and people, along the Silk Road and beyond, offering a metonym for certain processes shaping the Global South, more generally, as well.
Divided into four cross-cutting and interconnected sub-themes, the curatorial team headed by Marco Scotini-including Andris Brinkmanis, Paolo Caffoni, Zasha Colah, and Lu Xinghua-takes on a set of formidable issues in which to situate the flows of visual, aural, conceptual, and performative provocations offered by the artworks selected for the biennale. These themes are Nomadic Space and Rural Space, Labor-in-Nature and Nature-in-Labor, The Voice and the Book, and Minorities and Multiplicities. Each curatorial section of the show is fully trans-regional, showing the flows that routinely spill across geographic and political national boundaries, and join diverse bodies of work into larger, albeit locally specific instantiations, of densely entangled and decentered processes.
Extending the curatorial vision of so-called peripheries displacing tired notions of a hegemonic centre, set forth by the curator of the inaugural 2016 Yinchuan Biennale, Bose Krishnamachari, this edition features works by 90 artists, largely from regions relevant to the geohistorical vectors of inquiry driving the curatorial program. These include China, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, South Asia, and others, with Indian artists comprising a strong contingent, including works by Ravi Agarwal, Sheba Chhachhi, Nikhil Chopra, Shiva Gor, Justin Ponmany, Prabhakar Pachpute, and u-ra-mi-li (Iswar Srikumar and Anushka Meenakshi), and Navjot Altaf with her long-term Adivasi collaborators Rajkumar Korram and Shantibai Vishwakarma.
Indeed the least palpably relevant contributions to the biennale often came from artists hailing from old global centres of power, such as Europe. The curatorial team’s selection of artists and works demonstrated the confluence of interconnections, flows of transnational processes, and the profoundly polyglot and culturally diverse nature of every region represented in the biennale. In this sense, the Nation-State is invoked primarily in order to underscore its erosion, dispersion, and diffusion, rather than to reify its hegemony as the dominant ordering category of membership.
It was refreshing to observe that, in a spirit similar to that of Raqs Media Collective’s trenchant curation of the 2016 Shanghai Biennale, here too, most of the Chinese artists included were not primarily drawn from the stale round up of the same old handful of famous names. Notable works by Chinese artists includes Song Dong’s installation, Center of the World (2018), which kicks off the exhibition. The pyramidal structure made of steps draws on the form of Ming Dynasty site of national harvest ceremonies, the Confucian Altar of Land and Grain located in Beijing’s Zhongshan Park, but the artist has replaced edible grains with 24 different types of desert sand that stand time zones around the world. In his artwork entitled Leasehold (2009), local Yinchuan artist Mao Tongqiang, covers a wall with stamped, framed, defunct landownership deeds. Beijing-based performance artist Li Binyuan continues to extend his corporeal practice to explore the incommensurable and differential power relations between the human and non-human world in his work, The Bridge. In this work, he made his body into a living bridge between rocks in a nearby wetland adjacent to the museum, and held this pose until he collapsed from exhaustion into the water. Xu Bing contributed a set of rural agriculture-inspired woodblock prints made in 1987-1988, drawing on his formative experiences as a “sent-down” educated youth during the mass rural rustification program of the Cultural Revolution. Through a kind of “public laboratory” of social research, conversations and interviews, Xu Tan’s Social Botany installation sought to render visible relations and connections that are often obscured, bring a rural site of agricultural production and life, alongside numerous videos of his research encounters, into the space of the museum.
Under the auspices of The Institute of Critical Zoologists Singaporean artist and founder of the Institute, Robert Zhao Renhui, displays a quartet of probing, insightful works that engage multiple interconnected issues related to critical animal studies, human and multispecies entanglements, post-humanist philosophy of science, natural science discourse and museological practice. His installations Looking for Nature (2017), and All the Insects in a House (2017), are part of the Institute’s The Nature Museum, a research-based project that reflects upon knowledge-making practices and multispecies entanglements through an assemblage of specimens and artefacts, images, documents and implements. His 3rd Christmas Island Conservation Plan (2016), and Memorial to the Last Cat on Christmas Island (2016) are part of the Christmas Island, Naturally project, which explores the human introduction and subsequent violent eradication of an “invasive species” into a fragile island ecosystem, in which the effects of these entanglements are magnified and amplified across compressed time and space.
During the opening, New York, Paris, and Seoul based Korean artist Kimsooja, offered a participatory performance, Porridge Project (2018) that offered visitors three simple, local porridges commonly regarded as comfort food in Chinese culinary culture. She also made a new installation in the vein of her well-known works with textiles and traditional manual laundry women’s labour.
Art from Central Asia is also well represented by an array of works. These include Korpshe-Flags #10 (2011) by Uzbek artist Said Atabekov (based in Kazakhstan), who works, in part, with ethnic, religious and national iconography. Central Asian yurt fabrics are used to craft ironic flags of western nations, such as the US and Italy. Bishkek-based Kyrgyz photographer Alimjan Jorobaev’s photography installation, The Great Silk Road (1994-2016), captures multiplicity of remnants of the traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life ways, livelihoods, and forms of cultural production across Central Asia and the Caucasus. Tashkent-based Kyrgyz artist Vyacheslav Akhunov exhibited a Chinese language rendering of his iconic 1975 text-sculpture that was situated in curatorial section about language-The Voice and the Book. In his native Russian language, the sculpture evokes the imperative to “breathe quietly” within the repressive political milieu of the Former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the Chinese translation, for reasons unknown, completely misses the meaning of the text, and instead renders it to mean “relax [and] breathe” or “relax, breathe,” which means something quite different. Ulaanbaatar-based Mongolian performance artist, Enkhbold Togmidshiirev-whose practice explores nomadology through the material and cultural vicissitudes of the “ger” (yurt) in relation to its human occupants, as their home traverses geographic contexts-offered a ritualized peripatetic performance with the scaffolding of a yurt outside the museum.
One work that stood out for its elegiac power and manifold relevance to themes in the biennale is a film essay by Tashkent and Paris-based artist and filmmaker Saodat Ismailova. The Haunted (2017) is part love letter, part apology, part visual dirge for the Turan (Caspian) tiger of Central Asia that was driven to extinction by Russian colonization of Turkestan, hunting, and anthropogenic ecological encroachment and habitat destruction. The tiger’s status as a sacred symbol of a lost time continues in Central Asian collective memory. The film addresses the tiger in intimate tones, intertwining poetic audio narration in her native Uzbek, with archival footage and scientific information to provide a heterogloss context that deftly invokes multiple histories-natural, linguistic, poetic, and political-that span the onset of the Soviet era and the unfolding of the post-Soviet period, during which the ecologies of the entire Central Asian region experienced repeated and devastating ruptures in relation to political, economic, and cultural change. Here we see clearly the unwitting entanglements between human and non-human worlds that anthropologist and anthropocene theorist Anna Tsing describes as producing landscapes.
Art from South Asia is diverse and well-conceptualized in relation to the broad themes of the biennale, in part, due to curatorial team member Zasha Colah’s sensitive scholarship and wealth of experience curating participatory and collaborative projects, sustained engagement with issues of transfer across cultures, as well as the meaning and predicaments of cultural autonomy and cultural heritage under unstable socio-political conditions, during her years at Clark House in Bombay from 2010.
Works from South Asian artists include a mural by Prabhakar Pachpute, entitled Sea of Fists (2018), Fire Water (2018), a six-hour performance in character by Goa-based Nikhil Chopra, and a mixed media 1995 painting by Delhi-born, Lahore-based painter, scholar and curator and daughter of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Salima Hashmi, entitled A Poem for Zainab, made in outrage at the political indifference towards violence against women. The Pondicherry-based collective, u-ra-mi-li, comprised of Iswar Srikumar and Anshushka Meenakshi, joins their theatre filmmaking practices into a video and sound work of ethnomusicological significance. Ko ko pa lü / Up, Down, and Sideways (2017) documents the songs of labouring rice farmers in the 5000-person village of Phek in Nagaland, whose way of life exhibits both precarity and resilience.
In Antroproscenium (2018), a staged performance, in which participants play genealogical word games across the circular space of the outdoor stage, Justin Ponmany interrogates the dominant colonial optics of the proscenium stage and lens, asking:
Is there something deeply wrong with our collective scope of vision, a deception compounded by lens-based vision? If we are in need of gauging and fathoming a way forward, I can think of the echo, as the primary tool or medium of discernment in the given climate, to probe the future, or what is ahead. Using the echo as a cognitive measure, it becomes a fathoming tool that travels through time and distance, and that works as feedback, to apprehend the Anthropocene?
If the proscenium is a dominant optic-structuring device with implications for how audiences are directed to see, and indeed an instantiation of the colonial gaze, that distorts our view of the natural world, Ponmany disrupts the way this single-point optic reads the landscapes through the echoing language games in his performance and the circular amphitheatre setting.
Sheba Chhachhi, well-known for her early participation in and documentation of the Women’s Movement in India, and her contribution to the Yinchuan Biennale, also examines the fraught politics of seeing, knowing, representing, and being. Record/Resist II (2018) is a second iteration of her photography and video installation, drawn from her acclaimed body of feminist portraits, Seven Lives and a Dream (1990-1991). This iteration of the work focuses on images, collaboratively staged portraits taken over 10-12 years of three individual women from different class and caste backgrounds, who were active in the women’s movement-Satyarani, Shahjahan Apa, and Shanti. Unlike the earlier version of this work, which features many images of the general protests and street action, this rendition focuses on the individuals who emerged out of those protests, both in their form as women protesting, as well as in their images in their staged portraits as women narrativizing and performing themselves. The video is a series of personal reflections by the artist in 2011 on the shifts in the women’s movement across the 80s and 90s in Delhi, and broadly, India, and the politics and power relations inherent in the staging of the self in both documentary and portrait photography. Chhachhi’s self-reflexive practice problematizes this process, seeking to equalize the power dynamics of representational politics by giving her subjects control over the mise-en-scène and staging of the images that Chhachhi recognizes can always only partially and always incompletely represent their subjects.
Shiva Gor also shows how cultural objects can diversely represent communities. He assembles his sculptural installation, Tano-Bano/Traces-Threads (2018) out of fragments of cultural memory and material culture from his own nomadic community-the Banjara-traders who slowly migrated to Rajasthan from Afghanistan, and eventually spread across the Eurasian continent, working as informal, seasonal, manual labourers. Their nomadic living and intermittent settling along with distinctive cultural practices, made them targets for harassment and exclusion in the places where they sojourned. Colonial British authorities classified the Banjaras under the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, and the stigma of this persists. Textiles from his community are displayed as traditionally wrapped for travel, along with his transcripts from a secret oral game played by Banjara children, naming how stars shine, and other elements.
The installation of video and photography works by photographer and ecological activist Ravi Agarwal is comprised of two parts: Room of the Sea and Room of the Sands. The unifying theme is his sustained preoccupation with the question of how ecological spaces are inhabited, and how ways of being and living are intimately connected to the landscapes of our lives and relationships with the natural world. In Room of the Sea, we are presented with images created over the course of Agarwal’s long-term engagement with the Tamil fishing community near Pondicherry, whose lives and livelihoods have been challenged and changed by reverberations of anthropogenic impact through development, climate change, and natural disaster in the region, including the tsunami of 2004, which dramatically impacted local coastal ecologies. A video taken from his moving work shown at the 2016 Kochi Biennale, immerses viewers in a different onto-epistemological way of understanding and experiencing nature embedded in ancient Tamil Sangam poetry, while simultaneously offering a view through a window that takes viewers visually out of the art space and into the living waters of Kochi outside. Room of the Sands situates Agarwal’s ecosophical enquiries in his own family history, focusing on the confluence of ecological changes and transformation of everyday life patterns in the abandoned ancestral home of his grandfather in Rajasthan, where mining is currently underway. He photographs quotidian objects from his mother’s old room, the landscape outside, and the many locks rusting on doors no longer in use, to represent how the changes to the landscape connect with changes to the lives once lived there, making it impossible to return to this space of family memory once the landscapes of those lives are ruptured. Agarwal probes the ways in which loss is manifested through embodied practices in relation to ecological spaces, practices that vanish with the loss of those landscapes, and a video that explores the memory of water in that desert village.
In Navjot Altaf’s three-channel video installation, Soul Breath Wind (2014-2018), we see the culmination of more than twenty years of engagement with Adivasis living in Bastar-a hotbed of Naxalite/Maoist unrest and struggle against rapacious mining corporations, a repressive State apparatus, and divisive legal acts, and coercive government programs designed to circumvent constitutionally protected land and forest rights of Adivasis, and forcibly dispossessing them of their lands in Chhattisgarh. The scenes shown in the film are metonyms for the larger processes of the Anthropocene, or Capitalocene. It touches on the destruction of vulnerable minorities’ traditional ways of life and their attendant ecosystems; the workings of collusive State and capitalist power, the destructiveness of so-called development which transforms them from a self-sufficient into an impoverished people; and the violent erasure of traditional practices of ecological cohabitation with the natural world, and more. Since 1997, when Navjot Altaf began living and working collaboratively with Adivasi artists in the South Bastar town of Kondagaon, a vector of her practice shifted beyond the production of objects, to focus on the politics of collaboration itself. Soul Breath Wind draws on four years of interviewing, and many more years of on-going engagement and slowly accumulated trust with farmers, activists, and villagers whose land has been seized or ecologically wrecked by the mining industry. Interspersing more experimental visual ruptures with her rigorous documentary and interview, overlaid and sometimes juxtaposing haunting scenes of mining sites with shots of the bountiful nature-verdant trees, clean water- the video offers a space for those living with the direct effects of an Anthropocene, characterized by distinctly asymmetrical human responsibility, to speak in their own voices, share their knowledge, and show their keen awareness of the power relations embodied in their lived experiences of these predations. It is an Anthropocene enacted by humans, in which we see the disparities of culpability across the human population. The video implicitly pushes us to reflect upon specifically which categories of humans, which ways of life, which modes of production and relations to the natural world are driving this planetary level ecological destruction. The title is taken from a statement by one of Navjot’s Adivasi interlocutors, who says that the soul of the soil has been taken away by the mining companies.
The greatest strength of this biennale lies in the solid grounding of its sophisticated conceptualization within the artworks shown. The ambitious project of evoking a critical look at the many entangled processes affecting the ecological state of the world today is well realized in a great many of these artworks. The works speak to predicaments of the human and more-than-human through striated local and transregional histories, often from the perspective of minority peoples, multiple, polyglot knowledge systems and heterogeneous ways of life under assault in the Anthropocene.
By showing the multiplicity of ways to be human in, with, and against nature, the biennale also succeeds in tacitly manifesting resistance to the Anthropocene thesis’ flattening of the human into a homogenous, universal “man” who is fallaciously and speciously treated as equally responsible for the mess we are in. Capitalism and colonialism, among other systems, are causally implicated in the critiques offered by many of the works.
The place in which the show, perhaps, falls short lies in the dearth of curatorial didactics in the space of the exhibition, which could have better contextualized and unpacked the many histories folded into this array of works, on site and in the presence of the powerful artworks themselves. For those with access to the well-written and thoughtful catalogue texts, this may not pose a problem. But for visitors beyond the bevy of art world elites who attended the opening, and for whom a catalogue purchase might be out of reach, more textual guidance on site might have been helpful. The overall impression of this biennale, however, is resoundingly positive and the provocations of the artworks will continue to do their work in the mind of the viewer for a long time to come.