“We have never participated” sets out to revisit Joseph Beuys’s concept of social sculpture — art with the potential to transform society through social engagement — while acknowledging that participation in contemporary art has become expected and even banal. Curator Marko Daniel favors work with subtle levels of involvement in which interactions may be a component but are not the objective. Presenting work by over fifty artists, the biennial emphasizes the everyday, with art as a tool for political change as an undercurrent.
Overtly participatory works succeed aesthetically but are less challenging than those that evoke public engagement. For example, Manuel Saiz’s Public Display of Affection (2007–14), an interactive video installation that invites visitors to reenact the romantic climactic moment of many movies, is entertaining but lacks depth. Two video installations in which mundane circumstances become unsettling are more thought-provoking, reflecting the social isolation of the modern metropolis. In Meiro Koizumi’s Theatre Dreams of a Beautiful Afternoon (2010–11), a man on Tokyo’s metro becomes increasingly agitated until he falls on the floor screaming and sobbing, while fellow passengers remain passive and disengaged. In Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog (2013) city dwellers’ daily routines are interrupted by moments of levity and joy — a woman dancing in a grocery aisle, a bag of watermelon-like balls cascading across a hallway — before the characters morph into blood-splattered zombies.
Several works veer into political territory, focusing on the difficulties facing laborers in China. Huang Po-Chih’s Production Line – Made in China, a temporary shirt factory accompanied by worker testimonials, draws attention to low-wage laborers in Shenzhen and Taiwan. In Li Jinghu’s Sea Breeze (2014), hundreds of stainless-steel vessels filled with water blanket the floor, referencing the yearning for the ocean experienced by migrant workers, who move to coastal areas of China in search of a better life.
From lighthearted videos to sobering installations, the ambitious works in the Shenzhen Biennale prove that a desire to engage with others continues to resonate, and sometimes an understated level of participation is most effective.