Stepping into the vault-like chamber of the exhibition’s basement space is an instantaneously immersive experience as Zhang Pheili’s The Only Access catches the visitor off-guard. Consisting of two sets of iron fences, the visitor is immediately imprisoned in the foyer of the space, the gallery only accessible when the programmed mechanism makes it so. Intended to trigger unease and an anxiety about losing control, the installation is also playful, inviting the visitor to make a dash to see the rest of the exhibition.
Curated in collaboration with Open Eye Gallery, This Is Shanghai explores and celebrates the relationship between Liverpool and its twin city in China (although for me, the most interesting artworks focus mainly on the ever-developing city of Shanghai). Two works by Yang Zhenzhong are immediately arresting, especially Disinfect, a video installation in which 18 people silently hurl fury at the camera, and in this space, battle to be heard against the noise of the mechanical doors. Their anger is directed at the unparalleled economic growth and urban development of their home city, and the curation here is simple and clever, with the characters tangibly competing with other works for your attention.
Similarly engaging is Zhenzhong’s Let’s Puff! a playful 2 screen video installation for which the viewer must stand in between the parallel projections to experience the full effect. On one side, a woman blows air into the camera; on the other, a cityscape moves backwards from the viewer, the pace of the film consistent with the power of her breath. Again, the artist is addressing the unstoppable circus of change occurring in Shanghai, which has created an obvious sense of impermanence for its inhabitants.
One of the most visually pleasing works is Shi Yong’s Three Hundred Characters, a medley of red neon Chinese symbols strewn across the floor. The characters tell the story of a real life crime which took place in Shanghai, and was shortly covered up, and here the artist echoes that mystery by muddling the characters. It’s a piece that makes you want to know more.
Finally, Yang Fudong’s My Heart Was Touched Last Year is a short but powerful video work in which a model stands completely still, as if she were a photograph. Her hair is elegantly pressed and her make up subtle, her look reminiscent of 1930s Shanghai (an era also currently referenced in Isaac Julian’s Ten Thousand Waves at Manchester Whitworth). The video is engaging (more so than any of the photography contained in the exhibition), as the viewer seeks to identify whether the image is moving or not, until a single tear rolls down the model’s cheek, as if she remembers that moment “last year”.
It’s a shame that This Is Shanghai doesn’t enjoy the same length of display as the rest of Liverpool Biennial 2018, being one of the most engaging and aesthetically beautiful shows in Liverpool this summer. Touching on socio-economic problems as well as affairs of the heart, the exhibition strikes a chord.
This is Shanghai is on display at the Cunard Building until Friday 2 September.
Sinéad Nunes is an arts professional based in Liverpool, and regional C8 Editor for Merseyside.