A Different Kind of Cooling this Winter

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winter cooling

Scavenging around Nanjing is not unusual in my hunt for contemporary art in this city, but finding something really worthwhile is.

From January until March, G.Art has put on a small show that, while perhaps nothing ground breaking for China, is quite exceptional in Nanjing. The group show exhibits eleven artists from China and Taiwan with everything from shiny to big, brash, matte, noisy and almost invisible. Disparate in media, the pieces tie together in their association with the theme of “cooling” where artists, as the curator explains, are “cooling off” from the clamour of dollar driven art fairs, retreating to their studios to re-examine the fundamentals of their practice as well as themselves.

Self-reflection kick-starts the show with Zhang Guanyu’s painting Observation. A portly topless man leans over a table watching two miniature figures as they walk past him, naked and ashamed. The pair, resembling Adam and Eve, seem unaware they are being observed by the man above them who by contrast is highly focused, his expression neither judgmental nor overtly curious. The impossibility of scale causes us to question: who in the painting is real and who is imagined? Is the man observing the couple, or is it the couple who are in fact observing an imaginary metaphorical figure above them?

A strong light cast from one corner illuminates the man until his skin glows white giving him a god-like appearance. The shadow created by his head hovers above the couple, yet they cast a shadow in the opposite direction, creating something impossible, again playing on the conflict between what is real and what is imagined.

Zhang’s painting is highly pensive, perhaps even more so with the constant drones that resonate from another work in the exhibition. Born in Shanghai and based in the US, Wang Yefeng uses digital animation to reflect on and unpick his experience living as a Chinese in the West. In his dual channel animation [‘penthaus] Wang draws on a quote from the third century poet and scholar Liu Ling who drunkenly claimed “I see the earth and skies as my home, and this room as my pants. What are you, gentlemen, doing in my pants?”

Liu Ling’s absurd comprehension of the universe explains some of the imagery used in the animation, such as an obscure 3D shape that eventually becomes recognisable as a pair of jeans. Floating through the space is a small pig without any hind legs. “The character poses an allegorical question,” the artist tells me, “the notion of both the house and the pants are obscure to this character, yet at the same time he has no choice but to live in these pants that he can never fit into.”

What makes the exhibition a success lies perhaps less in the individual artworks, but the exhibition as a whole, the very fact it happened. “Cooling” also refers to a move away from the concentration of contemporary art in Beijing and Shanghai, with smaller cities such as Nanjing, Chengdu and Wuhan establishing their place in China’s art world.

“There is a clear theme to the exhibition and the artworks chosen are all related to this idea of ‘cooling’,” says local Nanjing artist Gao Lei, “the exhibition is good to the extent that it fulfils what an exhibition should do. Put in Beijing it might seem like any ordinary show, but within the context of Nanjing, I think it’s a success.” Although small in size G.Art’s “Cooling” exhibition could be a sign that Nanjing’s art scene is hotting up.