Guest Writer: Dave Cowshed
It was as I was walking over Battersea Bridge that I was trying to work out exactly how much reverence would be required for an exiled Chinese contemporary artist who had cut off his little finger and buried it in a plant pot in defiance of the events in Tianamen Square in '89. I was also wondering, as a result, about the likely gore level to expect at my destination. I was to be photoing Sheng Qi's Post-Mao exhibition at Hua Gallery in Battersea, a gallery specialising in Chinese contemporary art.
I rarely seem to end up at these things on purpose - I'm embarrassed to say. Even getting one of my own pictures into an exhibition a little while back was a complete accident. As you may have guessed I am tempering you for an article that in no-way-shape-or-form is going to attempt to analyse the works of Sheng Qi. There are more learned individuals far better placed for such lofty subject matter; such types which my aforementioned embarrassment would be felt in front of.
My tacit assumptions with regard to what the gallery would look like were met as we arrived at an unbroken, clean glass frontage close to the water. Further assumptions I had inwardly proposed were proved correct as I was then introduced to the arrestingly beautiful staff of the gallery. Herein lies the kind of analysis I am comfortable with: that of the show and its players.
Not being one for hiding in a corner with a telephoto lens, I tend to immerse myself in an event to get the desired result. But, being behind the lens, I am in a position to purely observe, unimpeded by normal social protocols. Mindful photographers (I feel) may well be in the best position to accurately gauge the success of a show, being so close to the emotional responses of its audience.
(Just as an aside, I would like to air my happiness at arriving at a contemporary art exhibition that didn't involve having to watch a man urinate into a bucket while someone else reads yellow pages aloud, or some such - although this kind of art does grab headlines. This exhibition consists of 13 paintings - acrylic on canvas - and one sculpture - the iconic My Left Hand, Bronze.)
Shanya Koder, founder and director of Hua Gallery, broke the pre-show tension with a short introductory speech. Good: there was going to be some kind of order to this event - I don't think anyone likes to amble around these white spaces without some kind of abstract. I had to quickly re-locate at this juncture as Dr. Katy Hill of Sotheby's Institute moved to centre (in front of a piece titled Yellow Hole). It seemed my expectations of show structure were to be surpassed as this rather animated and excited consultant lecturer in modern and contemporary Chinese art began to guide us round the works, accompanied by Sheng Qi himself. Unfortunately, my concentration being directed toward capturing the moment meant that I was not digesting her insights, but what I can say is that this was no dull academic talk. Guests, artist and speaker merged as we toured the exhibits, and people were asking questions. Rapidly an atmosphere was forming. There were even private discussions going on at the back. Luckily, this not being the class room meant that no one was going to be disciplined.
Much that there was the usual array of free booze, the atmosphere was not being driven in this way, and as the talk concluded - moving into the free-form section of the evening - the space did not empty, quite the reverse in fact. This is the part of an event I enjoy the most, a chance to capture some real candid interactions. The camps reveal themselves at this point: the mustard trouser/chequered shirt brigade, the impossibly chic, working artists, the media (I can't help feeling a little territorial), the high rollers, the eccentrics, etc.
(Another aside: if you haven't done so already I'd like to invite you to look at the accompanying pictures as they tell the story far more eloquently than words can.)
As I circled the room, watching people take in the pieces, share anecdotes and swap business cards (occasionally making a rush to a more formal shot), I noticed that guests were utilising the quieter side of the gallery - a corridor formed between a long white screen and the front window - to handle urgent communications in order that that they might stay longer. Now, I enjoy my work, so I am easily interested by what people get up to in any scenario, but I am also all too aware of when one needs to marry words like dead, horse and flog. This was not one of those occasions. I could have left after the first couple of hours - I had plenty of pictures - but I too found myself utilising the 'quiet-side' and staying for an extra hour to chat and grab some more moments. When I left, the party was still raging as it were. Katy Hill was still there, as was Sheng Qi, even BBC World Service seemed rooted (and I understand that all but one of the pieces sold before I left). Good to leave on a high though, I think.
So, this might be considered rather a strange article. I haven't analysed the art or reviewed it, but I have in effect reviewed the exhibition itself, and very positively too. (But, again look at the pictures, I needn't have highlighted this point at all.)
Art being an obviously subjective matter leads me to wonder how one could ever meaningfully review actual pieces or collections for an audience of more than one. It would be rather like reviewing other people's girl friends: the information wouldn't be pertinent to anyone but the reviewer and they'd be likely to get punched for their opinions. So, visiting Sheng Qi's ongoing exhibition is a matter of taste, but the next time you get invited to an opening night/private viewing of an exhibition, you should just say yes, regardless. Even if the talk is a little dry or the space rather tatty, the collective enthusiasm of other like-minded people who have deviated from their normal routines to play an important role in an event is a powerful thing, bringing meaning and warmth to any artist's collection.
I then, will be going to something on purpose, the very next time I can!