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by Melody Du Jingyi* & Wilson Yeung Chun Wai*

Curatorial ‘Tactic’: Reflections on the Dialogues of the 12th Shanghai Biennale

*Joint First Authors

Founded in 1996, Shanghai Biennale is the first contemporary art exhibition officially recognized and supported by the government of China.[1] As a large-scale art exhibition, the inauguration and development of the Shanghai Biennale is one of the reflections of contemporary Chinese era and society, and has witnessed the vigorous development of China's economy and culture.

Since the mid-1990s, increasingly biennales around the world have triggered ‘cultural phenomena’, which are closely related to cross-cultural discussions between art and society.[2] Similarly, in the past two decades, Shanghai Biennale has gradually legalized contemporary art and expanded the acceptance by audiences in China. However, the production of contemporary art exhibitions in China still lacks a mature system that takes curatorial practices into consideration. Shanghai Biennale as a large-scale art project led by the official organization must first consider how to ensure the ‘safe production of the exhibition’ and to attract more audiences after the opening of the exhibition. This is because this curation system not only constitutes a part of the implementation of the exhibition, but also represents the blurred boundary between art and society, which also makes contemporary art curation full of experiments and challenges.

In 2018, the 12th Shanghai Biennale Proregress (禹步or ‘Yubu’) with innovative significance was held at the Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai. [3] The exhibition respected complex cultures and strove to push the limits of ‘artistic possibility’ in China.[4] Prior to the opening of the Biennale, young curators of the Shanghai Curators Lab (SCL)[5] including ourselves had dialogues with the curatorial team of the Biennale, including Cuauhtémoc Medina (Chief Curator of the 12th Shanghai Biennale) and Hantao Shi (Chief Coordinator of the 12th Shanghai Biennale). We discussed curatorial methods and strategies of curators, exhibition organizers and staffs of art biennales in China, as well as the impacts of the institutions on the local art ecology. This article attempts to explore the influence of the Biennale on the legal construction of contemporary art through the development and complexity of Shanghai Biennale in the past 20 years, as well as the dialogues and reflection of art and curatorial responsibility under the ‘tactic’ of exhibition curating.

A Brief History of Shanghai Biennale and Curation

fig. 1: Shanghai Art Museum, 2000-2010.

Shanghai Biennale began as the first large-scale modern art exhibition after the Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989.[6] Its purpose was to “establish a state-level pattern for fine arts shows’ based on ‘the prestige of government conduct”.[7] In 1996, the first Biennale theme was Open Space (开放的空间) and included sculptures, paintings and installation works. The exhibition was planned by the Shanghai Art Museum (SAM) and sponsored by the Shanghai Municipal Government.[8] SAM was a one of the national museums, and it was the initial place to display artworks in the center of Shanghai [Fig.1]. The original Shanghai Biennale was composed of an organization committee and artistic committee, and most members came from the Shanghai Artist Association (上海市美协) and the China Artists Association (中国美术家协会).[9] The first and second sessions (1996 and 1998) of Shanghai Biennale were mandated on the formal National Fine Arts Exhibition[10] and they kept ‘Fine Art’ (美术 or Meishu) in the middle-name of Shanghai Biennale, like ’96 Shanghai Meishu Shuangnianzhan (96 上海美术双年展)’ [Exhibition of the 1996 Shanghai Biennale]. [11] The previous two Shanghai Biennials has official promoted the Chinese modern art to the world, and in order to easily understood by the audiences, the first biennale focused on exhibiting the traditional oil paintings and later presented Chinese ink paintings respectively.[12]

With the accumulated efforts and experience of the organizers of the exhibitions from 1996 to 1998, the 3rd Shanghai Biennale in 2000, Shanghai Spirit (海上·上海), transitioned its national art exhibition into “a large-scale international event”,[13] and the organizers modeled it as a “Venice of the East” for the city.[14] As one of the national exhibitions, Shanghai Biennale gradually involved the curatorial mechanism to create the exhibition and served as propaganda to advocate art and culture, accompanying the development of the city of Shanghai into a metropolis in the past few decades.[15] The theme of the 7th Shanghai Biennale (2008) was Translocalmotion (快城快客),[16] which addressed urban patterns and local cultures. It represented the supplement to the Better City — Better Life (城市,让生活更美好) proposed by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.[17] In addition, the 7th Shanghai Biennale brought contemporary art to a wide range of audiences by distributing artworks in People's Squares, train stations, airports and other places.[18] Thus, the Shanghai Biennale as a new image of the soft power of China's modern society and culture, with its multicultural and artistic openness, has become a recurring exhibition that has been displayed to the world every two years, and has gradually brought Chinese contemporary art to the international arena.

fig. 2: Shanghai Power Station of Art.

Since the 2000s, an increasing number of large-scale exhibitions have promoted the development of curation in China. Even when Shanghai Biennale Committee in SAM started to appoint curators, it was rarely assigned to individual curators until the Biennale was handed over to PSA. In the opening exhibition of PSA in 2012, the 9th Shanghai Biennale Reactivation (重新发电) was transferred from SAM a reconstructed old power station with an area of more than 1,000 square meters [Fig.2][19] PSA is the first official contemporary art institution established in new era of China.[20] When Shanghai Biennale was moved to PSA, the biggest adjustment for them was to introduce the selected foreign ‘chief curators’ into the 10th Shanghai Biennale Social Factory (社会工厂).[21] This was the first time that Shanghai Biennale allowed foreign guest curators to decide the biennale theme and choose their own curatorial team and artists. Since then, PSA has provided more space for the public to view contemporary art and opportunities for curators to improve exhibition autonomy.

However, despite the audience's recognition of the legitimacy of contemporary art in China, the exhibition is still an ‘ideology’ for the public,[22] so the organizers still cautiously handle activities and behaviors in the art field. This can be traced back to the beginning of the 3rd Shanghai Biennale in 2000. The director of the SAM has emphasized that artworks contain radical issues and military facts, and that even performance arts cannot be selected in the early stage of the exhibition.[23] As a national art event, Shanghai Biennale has already represented the image of the country. The initial concern of the organizers is how to ensure the safe conduct of the exhibition. Therefore, selecting eligible contemporary art works to the public is a crucial procedure for the production of exhibitions in China, but may cause a challenge for the curatorial team.

‘Tactic’ of the 12th Shanghai Biennale
Based on the understanding of the history of Shanghai Biennale, it may be a challenge for the curatorial team to display works of art with sociopolitical and martial elements. In 2018, the 12th Shanghai Biennale used an alternative curatorial method, breaking the rules established by SAM in previous exhibitions and thereby reducing the sensitive issues of displaying artworks. Initially, the curatorial team conducted in-depth research on the local art ecology and enhanced the practical value of curatorial practice. The term ‘tactic’ was introduced by Cuauhtémoc Medina, Chief Curator of the 12th Shanghai Biennale.[24] “Sometimes, as an individual working here, you have to resort to some tactical ways. I consider my role as an assistant to the curators and the artists - what I can do is to realize the artist’s and curator’s original ideas,” Medina said in the SCL conversation[25]. Since all imported artworks exhibited in China are subject to strict legal review by the department, international curators may encounter difficulties in solving the problems of contemporary art diversity and communication in domestic exhibitions.

In exhibition production, the tactic “may either be a compensatory device, a politicized attempt to consider works of art as interrelated rather than as individual entities, or a textual response to changes in the art world itself”.[26] Through this compensation method, artworks with discussible themes could be displayed in a new form at the 12th Shanghai Biennale.

fig. 3: Enrique Ježik, In Hemmed-in Ground, 2018, Steel structure, recycled cardboard, 77 × 1150 × 1150 cm, photo from Power Station of Art.

For instance, the work of an Argentinian-born artist Enrique Ježik’s In Hemmed-in Ground (2018) [Fig.3 in the great hall of PSA incorporated the slogan of “one step forward, two steps back”, which refers to the title of a text quoted by Vladimir Lenin in 1904.[27]  Based on cardboard collected by beggars, Ježik’s work attempted to explore contradictions and opposition using the historical perspective. Medina expressed concerns about this work because these sentences used ironic poverty and declared the failure of the Russian Socialist Communist Revolution of 1905.[28]  But this work of art had a distinct historical atmosphere, which seemed to remind people of the era of socialist. In the PSA exhibition space, Ježik’s work was tactfully presented in Chinese, which not only corresponded to the theme of ‘proregress’, but also penetrated the uncertainty and contradictions contained in the words ‘progress’ and ‘regress’ in the theme of this exhibition.[29] The slogans in Chinese characters created a new facet for the public, and the audience could understand the artwork without having access to the story behind it. This work used an ingenious textual response or metaphors to let audiences easily access to the concept of the work.

The invited international curators have to respect Chinese society, and formulate their own strategies through adjustments and compromises through the local administration system. The review process can be regarded as a necessary process for the exhibition. Medina said, “the censorship is localized and is a condition of culture product; the censorship is not localized, but a cultural product”.[30] In order to create the exhibition successfully, curators, institutions, and artists need to collaborate and adopt effective tactics to ensure the reposeful display of the artworks.

fig. 4: C&G, Not as Trivial as You Think: Shanghai Art Quiz, 2018, Video Installation, 120’00”, dimensions variable, photo from Power Station of Art.

Another exhibition work, from the art group C&G Artpartment formed by Clara Cheung & Cheng Yee-Man (Gum), has paid attention to the local art ecology and created art in a mocking way to deal with social and cultural problems. Most of the art activities planned by C&G had the characteristics of collective participation and discussed the art ecology and social current affairs.[31] In the 12th Shanghai Biennale, the curatorial team invited C&G to come to Shanghai to create a commissioned work, Not as Trivial as You Think: Shanghai Art Quiz[32] [Fig.4] In the early version of the Shanghai video, the artists and the curatorial team repeatedly communicated and adjusted the exhibition tactic and displayment mode. There were some contents not desirable for the exhibition, but in order to maintain the integrity of the video, they changed some video clips to ‘white noise’ and ‘TV static sound’ for the exhibition.[33]

Public art institutions are the main place to educate the citizens, and they more likely to attract the attention of the audience, thereby bringing more opportunities to the exhibition. “Art museums are the only public places where the government invests to gather contemporary art,” said Hantao Shi, Chief Coordinator of the 12th Shanghai Biennale.[34] The biennale with a subjective sense had posed a new challenge to the implementation of contemporary art exhibitions in China. Shi also stated that “everything that artists and curators do is subject to various institutional rules”. He needed to properly coordinate the curatorial activities and the placement of artists and their works.[35] Therefore, the curatorial team of the Biennale had to include PSA staffs and curators from abroad in order to achieve a balance of implementation.

fig. 5: Fernando Sanchez Castillo, Swing, 2018, Bronze, 425 x 400 x 120 cm, photo from Power Station of Art.

According to Medina in the SCL dialogue, censorship is not defined by arbitrary science analogies because of a stronger reason, but it more likely a tradition of the exhibition.[36] there is a need to make sure the exhibition artwork is structurally safe enough to display. For example, the work of a Spanish film director, Fernando Sanchez Castillo, Swing (2018) [Fig.5] was placed at the entrance of PSA.[37] Castillo brought a large 18th-century public bronze sculpture that was bent backwards and turned into a swing. He reversed the logic of public monuments and invited the audience to wave on the shoulders of enlightening heroes. This artwork provided a metaphor for our unstable concept of the times and using the disordered or reverse installations of sculpture to indicate the rapid development of social uncertainty and contradiction. The inverted public art statue has a certain social reflection effect. The artist invited audiences to engage with the activity of using the swing and the audience participated in the discussion of "the conceptual instability of our era" by shaking the swing.[38] This participation reflects the assumption about 'Progress' in the exhibition; “if you don't move with the time, then you will get carried to the past.”[39] Since Shanghai Biennale attracts an increasing number of audiences to PSA, the primary concern by the organization is the security of the public. Even though use of the unstable swing obeyed the concept of the artwork by providing an interaction with the audiences, the safe use of the swing was overseen by the authorities on the opening day of the exhibition. [40] 

Shanghai Biennale has transformed China's domestic fine art exhibitions into international contemporary art exhibitions by expanding its openness and diversity by adding more art forms. It not only companied the development of urbanization in Shanghai, but also formed an official display platform for contemporary art. The rise of global curatorial practice is also reflected in the path of the Shanghai Biennale moving to PSA. The international curators invited by the Biennale committee have brought more opportunities for curation, implementations and collaboration between the East and West, thus gradually forming a new look for the Shanghai Biennale and contemporary art exhibitions in China. Despite the complexity of the Shanghai Biennale inserted by the complex environment of different eras, the experimental tactics created by the Biennale team has enabled the scalability and feasibility of contemporary art in China to be recognized.

We place this article under the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis as economic stimulus measures conducted by governments may exclude the art and biennale sectors that create our future. Through continuous research that combines biennale exhibition research with curatorial practice, we look forward to the revival and transformation of biennale culture after the pandemic, as well as the challenges and possibilities facing us all. We hope that the 13th Shanghai Biennale will proceed smoothly as scheduled.

We are grateful for the recordings and information from Shanghai Curators Lab, Shanghai Academy of Fine Art (Shanghai University) and Cheng Yee-Man (Gum). We would also like to thank Bethany Hucks’s editorial assistance.


Du Jingyi (Melody), a writer and art theory researcher, graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Master of Arts and Culture Management. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Art Theory at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts (SAFA), Shanghai University. Melody is interested in researching the synergy between contemporary art and curatorial practices, and the development of biennales under globalization. She previously worked as the project coordinator for the 1st and 2nd Shanghai Curators Lab at SAFA.

Yeung Chun Wai (Wilson), is an artist-curator, researcher and creative producer. Wilson holds a Master’s degree in art curating from the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) with distinction awarded by RMIT University. He is a collaborator of Independent Curators International (ICI), an alumnus of Shanghai Curators Lab at Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts (SAFA) Shanghai University and a researcher at RMIT University’s CAST (Contemporary Art and Social Transformation) Research Group. Wilson is undertaking a PhD by practice in RMIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Design addressing collective curatorial practices. His works have been presented nationally and internationally, including at Jogja Biennale, Shenzhen Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Pingyao International Photography Festival and the International Multidisciplinary Printmaking Conference.



[1] Shanghai Art Museum. 1996. 1996 Shanghai Biennale: ’96 上海(美术)双年展. Shanghai: Shanghai Art Museum. unpaginated. In the initial pages of the catalogue, the Vice Mayor of Shanghai who is the chairman of the organizing committee of the ’96 Shanghai Biennale provided a congratulatory message. After that, the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Culture also posted a dedicatory message to the exhibition.

[2]  Green, Charles, and Anthony Gardner. 2016. Biennials, Triennials, And Documenta. 1st ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.p.4

[3] Medina, Cuauhtémoc, Power Station of Arts (eds.). 2018. Shanghai Biennale 2018: Proregress, Shanghai: Shanghai Culture Publishing House.p.6.

“The Chinese title of the Biennale we have chosen the concept of Yubu 禹步, the basic mystic dance step which was purportedly invented by in ancient China by Yu the Great.”  

[4] Ibid.3. p.7.

[5] Shanghai Curators Lab (SCL). 2018. Shanghai Curators Lab (SCL), is a dynamic curatorial platform for young curators focusing experimental and critical discussion of the ecology of curatorial practice, hosted by Shanghai Academy of Fina Art, Shanghai University (SAFA)上海大学上海美术学院 and Shanghai International Art City Research Institute 上海吴淞国际艺术城发展研究院, in collaboration with Shanghai Biennale.

Accessed April 2, 2020, http://www.curatorslab.cn/2019/en/

[6] China / Avant-Garde held in February 1989 is a landmark exhibition designed to represent a comprehensive review of various experimental art practices that had emerged in mainland China from 1985 to 1988. The result was a large-scale exhibition with more than 180 artists and 290 artworks.

[7] Shanghai Art Museum (1996), 1996 Shanghai Biennale: ’96 上海(美术)双年展, Shanghai: Shanghai Art Museum. preface. unpaginated.

“’96 Shanghai Biennial is to be presented for the purpose of establishing a State-level pattern for fine arts shows, that is, to have a standard system and well-defined academic norms and to possess the nature of periodic continuity, with the State art gallery as the operating centre and on the strength of the prestige of government conduct.”

[8] Ibid.7. preface. unpaginated.

In the initial pages of the catalogue, the Vice Mayor of Shanghai who was the chairman of the organizing committee of the ’96 Shanghai Biennale provided a congratulatory message. After that, the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Culture also posted a dedicatory message to the exhibition.

[9] The China Artists Association 中国美术家协会. 1949. is the official national association of Chinese artists, with its headquarters in Beijing. It was established in July 1949. Accessed April 2, 2020, https://www.caanet.org.cn/about.mx.

[10] National Fine Arts Exhibition全国美展 is a national exhibition hosted by the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles, and the Chinese Artists Association. Accessed April 2, 2020, http://12qgmz.artron.net/index.html?hcs=1&clg=2

[11] Wang Lin王林. 2016. 20 Years | Witnessed the Shanghai Biennale, Contemporary Art, Issue 15, No.08, p.35

[12] Ibid 11. p.35.

[13] Shanghai Art Museum. 2000. 2000 Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai: Shanghai Book and Painting Press, preface. unpaginated.
Shanghai Spirit demonstrated the changes in Shanghai, which are typical of changes undergone by China in the past century. It is embodied in the eager readiness of this city to assimilate various cultural elements and renovate its own cultural tradition.

[14] Roces, Marian Pastor. 2005. "Crystal Palace Exhibitions in Filipovic", in Elena, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig Ovstebo (eds.). 2010. The Biennial Reader: The Bergen Biennial Conference. 1st ed. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz. p.50-65, esp. p.55.

[15] Wang Lin王林. 2005. Art, Exhibition and Institutionalization, Contemporary Art, Issue 16, No.06, p.18

[16] Fang Zengxian方增先, Xu Jiang许江 (eds.). 2008. Shanghai Biennale 2008: Translocalmotion 快城快客, Shanghai: Shanghai Book and Painting Press. unpaginated.

[17] Expo 2010 was held on both banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China, from 1 May to 31 October 2010, Accessed April 2, 2020, http://www.expo.cn/.

[18] Ibid. 15. unpaginated.

In the first part of the Shanghai Biennale, PROJECT, the curatorial team invited 25 emerging artists to use The People’s Square to present their works.

[19] Li Xiangyang李向阳, Xu Jiang许江 (eds.). 2012. Shanghai Biennale 2012: Reactivation 重新发电, Shanghai: Power Station of Art. unpaginated.

[20]  Ibid.18. unpaginated.

The Director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV, as the Director of the Organization Committee of the 10th Shanghai Biennale, provided a foreword on the first page of the catalogue.

[21] Franke, Anselm, and Power Station of Art. 2014. 10th Shanghai Biennale: Social Factory. 1st ed. Shanghai: Power Station of Art.

[22] Paul O’Neill. 2007. The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse, Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance. p.14.

[23] Zhu Xiaojun朱小钧. 2010. Chinese Rules of Shanghai Biennale, Art Market, No.11, p. 31-37. esp.p.33.

[24] Shanghai Curators Lab (SCL). 2018. Transcript On the Ideas of 12th Shanghai Biennale and Beyond by Cuauhtémoc Medina (7th November 2018)

[25] Ibid 24.

[26] Greenberg, Reesa, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Sandy Nairne. 1996. INTRODUCTION, Thinking About Exhibitions. 1st ed. New York: Routledge. unpaginated.

[27] Medina, Cuauhtémoc, Power Station of Arts (eds.). 2018. Shanghai Biennale 2018: Proregress, Shanghai: Shanghai Culture Publishing House. p.40.

[28] Ibid 27. p.41.

[29] Ibid 24.

[30] Ibid 24.

[31] Ibid 27. p.330.

[32] Ibid 31.

[33] Yeung interviewed Gum by phone on April 20, 2020.

[34] Shanghai Curators Lab (2018), Transcript How to make it happen — On 12th Shanghai Biennale by Hantao Shi, translated by Chinese. (7th November 2018)

[35] Ibid 31.

[36] Ibid 24.

[37] Ibid 27. p.34.

[38] Ibid 34.

[39] From “Swing Theory”, Accessed April 25, 2020, https://www.sohu.com/a/271745743_450640.

[40] Shanghai Curators Lab (2018), Transcript from Conversations in PSA, translated by Chinese. (7th November 2018)

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini