Serpentine Gallery Presents China Power Station Part 1

By Richard Moss | 16 October 2006
photo of a wooden art installation in front of a huge brick power station with two tall white towers showing

China Power Station 1 at Battersea is the Serpentine's first major off-site project. © Serpentine Gallery

Richard Moss goes to Battersea Power Station for look around the Serpentine Gallery's major off-site project, China Power Station 1

For its latest exhibition London's Serpentine Gallery has moved off-site from its home in Kensington Gardens to secure one of the biggest, most atmospheric spaces in the capital – Battersea Power Station.

For the next month until November 5 2006, the great monolithic building is home to an exhibition called China Power Station 1, which has drawn some of the key works by artists working in China today.

In Beijing, Guanghzou and Shanghai, the work of young artists is often to be found displayed like this, in new, partly-finished building projects. Like Battersea Power Station these are spaces that lend themselves very well to group installations and the gentle interplays that can be explored between the gallery space, the objects and meaning.

But as much as the art is fascinating, with its mixture of video, sound and 3D installations, this exhibition is also about having a glimpse into this iconic landmark and a series of viewing frames have been constructed to encourage visitors to look at its interior from different angles.

For now it’s an interior that remains as an imposing and enigmatic shell with a series of concrete caverns that are linked by stairways to offer signs of the building's former life. It’s quite an experience to venture through these long dank spaces that once hummed to the sound of machinery.

photo of the inside of an industrial warehouse with lots of girders

The seldom seen innards of Battersea Power Station. © 24 Hour Museum

On entering the building a sound installation curated by artist Ou Ning attempts to fill the vast and crumbling remains of Turbine Hall B. Awakening Battersea features the work of a varied collection of Chinese sonic artists including Torturing Nurse, Wang Fan, Zafka and Dead J, who have collectively conjured an hour of sounds that range from street market clatter and chatter to ambient field recordings.

The group, who come together under the moniker Institute of Sound are concerned with the study, composition, presentation and dissemination of ‘geo-sonic phenomena’ – with a particular interest in the relationship between sound and physical spaces. They’ve got their work cut out here, as the temptation is to just stumble forward to take in the vast ruin that opens out before you.

But it’s an early statement of intent – that here is an exhibition that unabashedly champions a young, avant-garde strain of artists whose work is cross cultural, sometimes anthropological and often quite difficult to decode.

That said, some identifiable themes do emerge, including contemporary Chinese history, globalisation and the experience of alienated youth in a China undergoing sweeping changes and modernisation that threatens to transform the country.

Amid the network of corridors and post-industrial workshop rooms you will find an array of large screen film installations, sound installations and 3D sculptures that explore these themes. Set within the remains of power station machinery an interesting dialogue emerges between the art and the space it is set within.

photo of a video installation in a warehouse

A range of film and video installations form the core of the exhibition. © 24 Hour Museum

Recent film and video works form the core of the exhibition, which is ranged across three floors and has been given the separate themes of Memory, Future and Sublime.

Climbing the stairs to 'Memory', on Level 2, a long dark space has been transformed into a gallery that houses several large film screens, each carefully arranged between the girders and the puddles of water, to make an impressive collision of image and sound.

A film by Zhang Pei Li blares from the far end of the room and blends scenes from old patriotic films of the Maoist period. Jump cutting between close ups of workers making speeches and eagerly applauding crowds, it seems to be the most overtly political of the works on show.

Nearby an installation by Huang Yong Ping brings a Dada slant to proceedings with a group of stuffed wolves and goats arranged before a film of an abattoir.

This first gallery also features Wang Jein Wei’s theatrical critique of old samurai films – a visual feast of battling men on a windswept sound stage, whilst Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals In A Bamboo Forest is a languid black and white film that imparts a poetic and nostalgic vision of modern China, while drawing heavily on Chinese films of the 1930s and 1940s.

photo of a wall of thousands of apples in a wire mesh

Gu Dexin's wall of apples, encased in a wire mesh, is on the top floor of the exhibition. © 24 Hour Museum

Many of the films have a cyclical nature and as you make your way out of this gallery and up the stairs to the 'Future' floor, a further group of films is revealed - including Chen Shaoxing’s Ink Diary, which offers an animation that montages images of everyday life that flickers between sex, TV, the urban environment and eventual Armageddon.

Cao Fei combines art with social investigation as she dances around an Osram light bulb factory dressed in a tutu. Fei has built up a reputation for getting ordinary people to dance to soundtracks in strange situations and the star of her film is undoubtedly the Osram Foreman who enjoys body popping past the mass ranks of light bulb workers.

On the top floor, given the theme of 'Sublime', Gu Dexin has installed a vast wall of apples, encased by a steel mesh. Evidently they will decay as the month progresses and, beyond the undulating textures created by this vast wall of fruit, the aroma is the most striking thing to greet you as you enter this top cavernous space.

This is the Serpentine Gallery’s first large-scale, off-site exhibition project and it manages to embrace and celebrate the power of an iconic building while providing a valuable insight into developments in contemporary Chinese art and culture. It’s a bold and intelligent move by the gallery and one that really taps into the way contemporary arts presents itself as a unified entity in China.

But whether it’s the art, the building or both that you’re interested in, if you do go down to Battersea you will be rewarded with one of the most interesting and unusual art shows you are likely to see for some time.

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