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Writing: Art Review Asia – M+ Pavilion, Canton Express

Canton Express
M+ Pavilion, Hong Kong
23 June – 10 September



The original Canton Express was part of curator Hou Hanrou’s Zone of Urgency at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Shedding light on the work of 14 artists and artist groups active in Pearl River Delta, among them are the Big Tail Elephant (Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin, Xu Tan), Jiang Zhi, U Théque (Cao Fei and Ou Ning), and Vitamin Creative Space, the presentation broke the conventional notion of Chinese contemporary art of that time to the world. Apart from showing such legacy in Chinese contemporary art history, the subtext of M+ version is a reminder of the important role of museums in conserving contemporary art. At the M+ Pavilion, the majority of the works on display are reiterations of the originals (as a consequence of loss and damage).  However, none of these art pieces would have survived, in the face of financial constraints in 2003, if not Chinese collector Guan Yi stepped in to acquire and ship the exhibition back to China at the end of the Biennale. And the donation of Canton Express to M+ in 2013 was not the the end of its journey, but the beginning of the extensive conservation process.


Today the show neatly occupies the entire M+ pavilion, but even then, the rectangular layout from 2003 has had to be restaged in U-shape as a consequence of the reduced space. Artist Zheng Guogu, who assisted in the original design was involved in this decision and it is a transformation that sharply echoes the quality of adaptability that came alongside the rapid development of Guangdong two decades ago. Zheng’s own work in the show, Sample Room (2003/2017), is a complete reiteration with help from photographic documentation and email correspondence relating to the work. Based on a manufacturing showroom in Yangjiang, where the artist lives and works, Sample Room incorporates his conversation with Hou on the wall of a kitchenware showroom, where the similarities of the export of goods and arts through telecommunication between manufacturer (factory or artist) and the distributor (exporter or curator) can be found. Lin Yilin’s Hotbed (2003/2017) in the M+ Pavilion is instead not an exact replica of the Venice presentation. The video installation, which follows the artist’s original proposal, is completed by a bunk bed layered with grey bricks, alluding to those that appear in his performance, as well as six monitors showing documented performances. They individually discuss Lin’s socio-political perspectives while collectively deliver his complex sentiments towards the growth of southern China. The surviving 40 fiberglass sculptures of Artistic Chicken (2003/2017) out of original 100 pieces by Duan Jianyu are now clustered near the entrance of the exhibition rather being spread around the show (like free range chickens) as intended. This positioning not only reflects the decision to value the authenticity of the original artist-painted artefacts, but the loss also embed the previous journey of Canton Express into it. Each exhibit in the show has their own account for the precise and meticulous way in conservation. While M+ team is trying to recreate an authentic experience of Canton Express at the pavilion, the picture would only be completed next time when the main museum is ready (with the presence of Sha Yeya’s Yangjiang – Venice, Liang Juhui’s City in full bloom, if not more adjustments).


M+’s Canton Express is like an allegory in a summer read: the apparent story of alternative practice in southern China at the turn of 21st century is obvious and epic; but because of that it’s easy to overlook the underlying message – that concerning the necessity of collecting and conserving contemporary art. M+ Sigg Senior Curator Pi Li stated, ‘people often believe that contemporary art is too recent to require careful maintenance’; M+’s restaging of Canton Express demonstrates why such beliefs are misguided.  Morgan Wong