Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence

Contemporary Art in China

On an overcast Monday morning, as I was leaving Chengdu in China southwest Sichuan Province, Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence was already crowded. It was a sign of things to come: a dutiful official group, troops of schoolchildren, young couples. A collaboration between the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Mao Jihong Arts Foundation (MJHAF) from Shanghai, Cosmopolis #1.5, embraced by Chengdu’s administration, was now open to its citizens. Outside in the streets, it was Chengdu as usual: small-scale commerce bustling at ground level in older tree-lined streets, smog around steepling skyscrapers seen through hotel windows. Wenshou Yuan’s great garden, sheltering a Buddhist temple established in the seventh century, was busy with pilgrims; elderly friends engaged in tai chi or disco. The city’s week had begun, as it has for more than two thousand years.

What is Cosmopolis? A platform invented by the Centre Pompidou’s Kathryn Weir, Cosmopolis explores the circulation of ideas and interests through global pathways.1 The first edition, Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence, exploring ‘cosmopolitan forms of interaction and dialogue that go beyond national boundaries’, was staged in Paris from October 2017 to January 2018, the next iteration scheduled for October 2019.2 That contemporary art is dispersed and mobile is arguably its most distinctive characteristic, and Cosmopolis responds to ephemeral and site-specific works across media. Cosmopolis #1.5 in Chengdu provided the first of the extra-European sites that will distinguish Cosmopolis: unlike most large temporary exhibitions which, with the exception of Europe’s roving biennial Manifesta, stay put, Cosmopolis will roam far from Paris, this time with support from its Chinese patron.3 china

Importantly, along with other contemporary projects, Cosmopolis generates new forms of knowledge. Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence brought together fifteen projects by collectives from cities as diverse as Paris itself, Buenos Aires, Bogotá and Medellín, Cape Town, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Karachi, Seoul, and St. Petersburg. Their collected experience of navigating markedly different urban settings is formidable; some groups operated across a number of cities, or nomadically, such as the Foundland Collective, created by artists from Syria and South Africa and based between Amsterdam and Cairo; and Invisible Borders, founded in Lagos in Nigeria in 2009, which undertakes punishing pan-African road trips. Ranging from video to installation and printed documents, these projects were shown in a large street level space, light flooding through its floor to ceiling glass windows, with minimal dividing walls, and all visible at a glance to passers-by outside.

This openness set the tone for Cosmopolis #1’s energetic public programs and its passionate audiences; events, performances and conversations included Music as Knowledge, a superb Friday night program. It is important to remember the vitality of public discourse in France: almost my first epiphany forty years ago, on my first visit, was that serious political discussion ranges across all classes and professions. French citizens take their politics seriously: the Pompidou has a Spoken Word department working with ‘Thought and Debate’, and the egalitarianism that (ostensibly) subtends French society is contested, every day, in seminars and conferences as much as in the streets. Yet France is still resistant to the consequences of its colonial past. One symptom, perhaps: in mid-December the South African-based group Chimurenga presented a series of discussions about Congolese politics off-site, at artist Kader Attia’s splendid club La Colonie in the 10th arrondissement. china

Up close, Cosmopolis #1 was dense, intertextual. Many works traced socially engaged actions: Ana-Maria López-Ortega, from Bogotá’s Arquitectura Expandida, showed me how their five-month long residency in depressed Clichy-sous-Bois, in outer suburban Paris, explored the residents’ struggle to articulate a sense of community; their solution was to collaborate with local children to devise new street furniture.4 Karachi’s The Tentative Collective, on the other hand, presented Shershah and other stories, a beautiful multi-channel video exploring local industries including carpet weaving and scrap metal, underscoring the fragility of hard labour in the struggle for survival in changing economies. Importantly, these projects often embraced multiple disciplines: writers, planner, sociologists, cinematographers, the odd curator. The Parisian group Council presented a newspaper, working with a legal rights NGO; I attended a discussion with the Pompidou team, and can attest to their political nous.5 Cosmopolis #1 was a compelling manifestation of Collective Intelligence, connecting audiences in broad conversations. I have rarely seen a more persuasive account of artists’ engagement in the current global moment. china

Is this cosmopolitan turn, which has been central to cultural debates in recent decades, reminiscent of the Pompidou’s celebrated Magiciens de la terre?6 Staged in 1989, despite well-intentioned (then innovative) pairings of European and non-European artists, it was informed by remnant French romanticism about the cultures of ‘others’. Nearly thirty years later, Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence reframed contemporary art as a collective enterprise. The project is well-served by its titles: harnessing the idea of cosmopolitanism to propose the globe as a (potentially) unified polis; the sharing and negotiation implied in the idea of collectivity; and especially, to my mind, ‘intelligence’, which proposes problem-solving at the socialised heart of art, rather than an individual’s personal interests. Perhaps Cosmopolis brings the now-venerable (sometimes staid) Pompidou closer to its radical beginnings? As Weir suggested, and the French-language brochure claimed, the Pompidou is now working hard to catch up with innovative socially located art practices.7

Back to Chengdu, and late 2018. Why China as a second venue? The official reason is ‘the importance of decentering our vision and encountering other artistic ecosystems in order to reformulate contemporary questions and dynamics’.8 At the Chengdu media preview Weir said Cosmopolis is designed to connect ‘vibrant art scenes across the world with Paris’; that it is ‘rooted in research that explores particular locations, and aims to share ideas and methods with other audiences internationally’.9 And why Chengdu, remote from the key Chinese contemporary art centres and unknown on international circuits, but an important industrial and investment hub? Fashion and bookshop magnate Mao Jihong is a supporter of the Pompidou’s patrons’ circle; suggesting Chengdu for Cosmopolis #1.5 confirms his entrepreneurial flair. At the media preview he noted Shanghai was the first choice, but with so many existing ‘cultural offerings’ there, the final decision was to present Cosmopolis in Chengdu, where, opportunely, there is a branch of his bookshop chain Fang Suo Commune.10 China is a profoundly literary society, and Fang Suo’s enormous enchanted emporium is thronged not only by shoppers but readers; the exhibition’s well-attended opening public programs were held there.

By the time Cosmopolis #1.5 closed two months later, over 100,000 had visited and attended its concerts. This substantial achievement was despite an entry charge (68 yuan for the main venue, around $13 AUD, the price of a rather nice lunch in Chengdu) stipulated by the city sponsor Chengdu Media Group to filter the potentially huge visitor numbers. Even given China’s massive scale, this was a huge hit. An ancient city at the start of the southern Silk Road, mentioned by Marco Polo, Chengdu has a vibrant cultural history, especially in literature and music. Inflected by the long practice of Daoism and Buddhism in the region, with its celebrated teahouse culture intact, Chengdu is a centre for science fiction and rap. (More of that later.) With around eight million people, this is one of the largest cities in the southwest, with manufacturing ranging from celebrated ancient silk brocade to the latest information technology. Yet the nearest significant art academy is four hundred kilometres away in Chongqing. Perhaps Cosmopolis #1.5 was successful because experimental art on this extensive scale is unusual in Chengdu? Far from the capital in intellectually robust but highly regulated China, Chengdu boasts a thriving contemporary art scene, with a brace of galleries and artspaces. It was ready.

If contemporary art travels incessantly, context always inflects cultural encounters. What happens when Cosmopolis relocates from Paris to another situation entirely? This question leads to others: how to calibrate the impact of a single manifestation? Will this splendid leap of faith be repeated? The MJHAF’s Laura Ning claims Cosmopolis is about ‘quality rather than quantity’, that the project has ‘huge benefit for Chengdu’, but, as she also wryly noted later, it’s hard to know how to make a durable project.11 In the meantime, Cosmopolis #1.5: Expanded Intelligence in Chengdu is perhaps the most idiosyncratic manifestation of the current burgeoning of East-West cultural traffic in the visual arts. It is one thing to set up museum franchises abroad—the Pompidou will open a branch in Shanghai later in 2019—but quite another to present a major exhibition in temporary premises, even those as splendid as the obsolete factory used by Cosmopolis #1.5, with a scratch team brought together from Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Chengdu itself.

The main Chengdu exhibition space, in the precisely named Dong Jiao Jiyi (Eastern Suburb Memory), embodied the extraordinary changes in China over the last forty years. A handsome modernist complex in a former industrial area, the entire precinct has been repurposed for leisure and retail, both thriving in China. Cosmopolis #1.5 used a huge electronics factory built in 1958 to Soviet plans, with a rudimentary but attractive fit-out: aircon, new lighting, polished concrete floors, a lovely little teashop. The Chengdu exhibition was, given its far larger scope than in Paris, an ambitious series of conversations around linked thematics: city-mapping, environmental management, the imaginative power of scientific speculation, music and masking, unfolding seamlessly through works by the forty-seven artists/projects. The collectivity expressed in Paris was amplified by the idea of Enlarged Intelligence, intentionally so: Chengdu and its region has an exceptionally long history of urban planning and sophisticated water management, most notably the extensive Dujiangyan irrigation system dating from the third century BCE, still in use today; and the area is known for innovative connections between rural and urban industries. Collaboration, and cooperation, reconfigured, remained the key idea.

This goes to the project’s unusual continuity, through Weir’s steerage. Cosmopolis departs from the transitory snapshot offered by most contemporary art exhibitions, building on its own history, and embracing change. (As an aside, Manifesta, based in Amsterdam, and Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial, are in particular ways exceptions to the rule of changing leadership for major contemporary art exhibitions.) For Cosmopolis #1.5 the project’s axis turned on its location. In a lively challenging mix, nearly half the participating artists, including luminaries Xu Bing, Qiu Zhijie, and Yuan Goang-Ming, were from China, including Chengdu and Taiwan. (Only several works and artists from the Paris edition were presented: Tentative Collective’s video, Arquitectura Expandida, and Gudskul, formed from Jakarta collectives ruangrupa, Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara, with new projects.) Here the opening grouping explored the transformations of post-industrial cities, with fine works by Rasel Chowdhury from Bangladesh and Li Lang. These centred on a mother ship: Filipino-Australians Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s In-Habit: Project Another Country (Here, There, Everywhere) (2018). Evidence of the fecundity of shared social practices, it was a glorious model of the potential of human interaction, and the wealth found in goodwill towards others. A spaceship-disc supported around nine hundred tiny cardboard dwellings, many based on local domestic forms, made by almost as many participants in workshops with kids, schools and communities. It was enchanting, a huge favourite with visitors.

Close by, at Cosmopolis #1.5’s physical and theoretical heart, were lyrical projects suggesting the cosmological beauty sustaining scientific inquiry: Yasmin Jahan Nupur’s exquisite watercolours of the eclipse of the sun suggested the awe inspired by natural phenomena. The lynchpin was the most extensive work I have yet seen by Hobart’s Tricky Walsh, her fantastical The Ana-KataScope (2018). A suite of fabulous Heath Robinson-like wooden mechanical devices, all made in China, suggested the arcane intelligence of technology beyond current imaginings. The title derives from ancient Koine Greek: ‘ana’ (up toward) and ‘kata’ (down from)—Walsh suggests the machine is a way of ‘seeing all sides of the issue’.12 These magical apparatuses accompanied Instructions for the Perceiving of Other Dimensions (2018), exquisite gouaches radiating underlying conceptual schemes, or perhaps insights into the social life explored by the machines. The quasi-mystical underpinnings of Walsh’s project shimmer in ecstatic colour: her achievement is to persuade us to embrace knowledge, and a universe, we cannot fully comprehend.

Science fiction was central. Irishman Sam Keogh’s mobile telephone recharging stations suggested links into unknown universes, and Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind’s whacky video In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2016) was one of several works aligning ceramics with the archeology of the future, as well as the past. Here Ming Wong’s music video, The Bamboo Spaceship (2018), commissioned for Chengdu, shot on site at Dong Jiao Jiyi, and installed in a simulacrum of a village bamboo theatre, was outstanding. I loved it. Drawing on Wong’s long study of Chinese opera and sci-fi, this generous recuperative work sketches enduring love between a dead Sichuan-opera singing father, wearing traditional costumes and the famous Sichuan face-changing masks, and a spunky hip-hopping daughter. Avatars, masks, and multiple personae frolicked through this section: a sci-fi city leads to considerations of sci-fi inhabitants, after all, and connects back to the present. Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018), Liu Chang’s thoughtful three-channel video playing off bitcoin mining and music of ethnic communities, brought the technological present and the cultural past into collision: as Zhang Hanlu, the Chinese associate curator, remarked, ‘If technology had subjectivity, the twists and turns that made up its life story might make a revealing tale’.13

After heady speculation, sober attention to current interfaces between the environment and development: He Xiangyu’s consideration of copper retrieved from North Korea and traded across the Chinese border; Peruvian Ximena Garrido-Lecca’s meditation through reshaped Peruvian copper; and Australian Yasmin Smith’s thoughtful restrained installation of three bodies of ceramic work using bamboo, eucalyptus, and green tea—three plants, three glazes—drawn from the soil of Sichuan Province, poignant in its deceptive simplicity. I also particularly admired the distinguished long-term research project by Chengdu’s Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun, exploring the Dujianyan irrigation project and surrounding water systems.

Nature, ceramics, Sichuan opera, minorities music, sci-fi: Cosmopolis #1.5 in Chengdu was site-specific in several registers. I was struck by how the entire project exemplified Enlarged Intelligence: by convening conversations between works, and their natural, historical, and social settings, the curatorial team of Weir, Ilaria Conti and Zhang Hanlu proposed that ‘enlarged intelligence’ offers a model for contemporary sociality, and potentially for addressing some of the urgent problems that we collectively face on our troubled, threatened planet. I said earlier that Chengdu is important for science fiction, a long-term interest for Weir: ‘The premise of Cosmopolis #1.5 is to explore through the participating artists’ propositions how the human collectivity can draw on both technological and ecological intelligence to generate alternative futures.’14 Reiterating this site-specificity, the theories of Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui, particularly his The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2017), was crucial, rooting the Chengdu exhibition in Chinese intellectual history as well as contemporary global challenges. Similarly, the excellent music program convened by writer and musician Liu Suola, presenting traditional and contemporary Chinese music, including singing in the languages of southwestern minorities peoples, emphasised the local in this globalised age. Music was everywhere in Cosmopolis, in fact—in rock concerts, as the subject or soundtrack of many works, a presence as central as it was ephemeral; as Weir commented, music is ‘untranslatable—a sensory knowledge system that must be experienced’.15 Which neatly captures the poignancy of temporary exhibitions.

The second venue in Chengdu was Jincheng Lake, in High-tech District in the city’s south. Three innovative A-frame buildings by Amsterdam-based architectural firm Kunlé Adeyemi/NLÉ Works floated on the water. Kunlé’s self-supporting demountable structures, light and ethereal, the largest only one hundred square metres, hovered on expanded polystyrene cubes; the scent of fresh bamboo wafted on the humid air, its split lengths based on local architectural forms. This low-tech building solution was born from an urgent problem in Kunlé’s native Nigeria—rapid urbanisation, and the need for affordable housing; he looked to a city fishing community in the poorest parts of Lagos, building over water with scarce resources, a solution he calls ‘Learning from Makoko’.16

Given Chengdu’s water management practices, contemporary climate change, and environmental problems, this venue explored living with local resources. Conflating the actual and imagined, Fernando García-Dory’s hilarious (but semi-tragic) spoof on agriculture in the South Tyrol was grimly engaging; his skewering of ‘euphoric retromania’, being a tourist in one’s own culture, was hilarious. Kunlé’s exemplary project was magical, but also spectacular advocacy: music from concerts in the large hall floated into the humid air; the central plaza connecting the buildings was an observation point for the Jincheng Wetland Park ecosystem. And all this visible from the major peripheral road nearby.

Importantly, Cosmopolis #1.5 sponsored creation; many works were commissioned, several through artists’ residencies with communities. The third site was in the countryside: Shiyan Village in Jiajiang County, an ancient papermaking centre two hours from Chengdu, fringed by enormous bamboo groves. Here Arquitectura Expandida lived for several weeks, again exploring site-specific street furniture: the final outcome was an elegant bench along traditional lines, sturdy, in celebratory red, portable. I admired the Colombians’ light touch, their absence of ego; but I imagine that, in their turn, Arquitectura Expandida learned how in this village furniture migrates with people and events along the several kilometres of its main street, as I saw it do at the rambunctious open day. In the same village Gudskul came to similar conclusions about mobility: one thoughtful response was a portable cinema mounted on a kaki lima, the Indonesian food cart, using an existing mobile generator. Issues common to rural villages are well understood by the Indonesians: depopulation, an ageing population. But, as Gudskul’s Kayu pointed out, ‘Older people have stories—their experiences are beyond our younger imagination’. Gudskul’s mobile cinema will add to existing village activities: Kayu says they can collect not only memories but the future potential of the village; with the cart they can make new memories.17

The innovative drive of Cosmopolis #1.5 seems to have resonated with Chengdu visitors, who, as elsewhere, are hungry for contemporary art: no wonder Shilpa Gupta’s playful (but loaded) interactive Untitled (Shadow 3) (2007) was a great hit. But the guiding philosophies of the French republic are very far from Xi Jinping’s China, where, very recently, foreign customs like Easter and Christmas decorations have been forbidden (admittedly by over-anxious local officials second-guessing Beijing), and where staff from the Publicity Department (that is, Propaganda) are constantly endured by artists and curators. With the exponential growth of art audiences in China, the proliferation of galleries and museums is part of mass entertainment, admittedly at the high end. But in this rigidly controlled centralised society, where state intervention is experienced in every aspect of life, artists venturing onto the delicate field of the symbolic are immediately exposed: some of Song Dong’s works were removed from his 2017 retrospective at Shanghai’s Rockbund Museum, for example, and the blogger Yang Hengjun was detained during January this year. For the interrogative bent of much contemporary art is not consistent with official Chinese emphases on success and social stability, and the banning of several works from the Guangzhou Triennial in December 2018, including by Australian Jemima Wyman, is just one recent example of the Communist Party’s tight hold on culture.18 Artists were questioned about their work in Chengdu by the authorities: Ming Wong about whether costumes in his video were Korean or Japanese—in fact they were historic Chinese styles; Yasmin Smith ventured unaware into difficult territory by including eucalyptus trees in her project, only to discover their planting in China is now seen as an embarrassing environmental error, a loss of face; and Arquitectura Expandida were perturbed by constant monitoring of their interactions with villagers. Even at the Shiyan open day, a translator was castigated for an inopportune word choice. One never forgets the Chinese state reserves the right to license all works of art, and that causes for offence are often unpredictable.

Official speeches at the lavish celebration banquet mentioned Chengdu’s importance in China’s ‘Belt and Road’ project, and the international airport planned for 2020: the embrace of Cosmopolis is clearly part of the region’s upscaling. At the preview Mao Jihong, thanking Chengdu for what he called ‘Mission impossible’ in staging Cosmopolis, said Chengdu could be the ‘third art city in China’. That’s a tall order: Laura Ning, waxing lyrical, called Chengdu ‘a city with soul, so it has the chance of retaining memory’.19 Perhaps. And what does Chengdu bring to the Centre Pompidou, and Paris? Kathryn Weir says that will be discovered through the project’s cumulative process, which drew Paris and Chengdu together as ‘travelling companions’, at least for a while. And brought Chengdu’s knowledge and ideas to Paris, hopefully with long-lasting effects.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, In-Habit: Project Another Country (Here, There, Everywhere), 2018. Installation, dimensions variable. Commissioned for Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence, Chengdu, 2018. Courtesy Mao Jihong Arts Foundation.

Kunlé Adeyemi, NLÉ Works, MFS IIIx3 Minjiang Floating System, 2018. Installation Chengdu, China, 2018. Courtesy Mao Jihong Arts Foundation.

Ming Wong, The Bamboo Spaceship, 2018. HD single channel video, colour, sound, 5'30", architectural structure: approximately 850 x 500 x 410cm; bamboo. Commissioned for Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence with the support of the Mao Jihong Arts Foundation featuring music by Eddie Beatz and Rapper Cent3e. Courtesy of the artist.

Tricky Walsh, The Ana-Kata Scope, 2018. Optic fibres, light engines, plywood, pine timber, balsa wood, basswood, dichroic prisms, modelling styrene, acrylic, maple, 250 x 300cm. Commissioned for Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence with the support of the Mao Jihong Arts Foundation. Courtesy of the artist.

notes: 

1. Disclosure: Kathryn Weir was previously my colleague at QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art), Brisbane, 2003-14
2. See Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence English exhibition brochure, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2017; see also Nikos Papastergiadis, especially his Cosmopolitanism and Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, for a sustained account of contemporary artists exploring the cosmopolitan. Cosmopolis #2: Rethinking the human, runs at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, from 23 October - 23 December 2019.
3. See my ‘The Planetary Garden: Manifesta 12, Palermo’, eyeline, no. 90, 2018, pp.62-69.
4. Personal communication, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 19 October 2018; see also http://arquitecturaexpandida.org/communaute-provocaciones-tacticas-en-cl...
5. Author’s notes, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 27 October 2018.
6. Jean-Hubert Martin, (curator) Magiciens de la terre, Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989. In its embrace of the ephemeral, the Cosmopolis platform also recalls the celebrated 1985 Pompidou exhibition Les Immatériaux, curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and designer/curator Thierry Chaput.
7. Kathryn Weir, Paris October 2018, communication with the author; Cosmopolis #1 exhibition brochure (French text).  
8. Serge Lasvignes, (Centre Pompidou president), Cosmopolis 1:5: Enlarged Intelligence, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Mao Jihong Arts Foundation, Shanghai, 2018, p.3.
9. Kathryn Weir, author’s notes, Chengdu, 2 November 2018; Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence, Centre Pompidou, Paris, exhibition brochure, p.4.
10. Cosmopolis #1 presented a seminar in Shanghai during November 2017 at Fudan University and Ming Contemporary Art Museum: see Cosmopolis #1:5: Enlarged Intelligence, p.13; Mao Jihong, Chengdu media preview, 2 November 2018, author’s notes.
11. Chengdu media preview, 2 November, and interview with Laura Ning, 3 November 2018, both author’s notes.
12. Author’s notes, Chengdu, 2 November 2018.
13. Zhang Hanlu, in Kathryn Weir et al, Cosmopolis #1.5: Expanded Intelligence, Centre Pompidou, Mao Jihong Arts Foundation and Chengdu Media Group, 2018, p.117.
14. Yuk Hui and Kathryn Weir, ‘Enlarged Intelligence: Cosmotechnics and ecological awareness: A Conversation around Cosmopolis #1.5, in Cosmopolis #1.5: Expanded Intelligence, p.47.
15. Author’s notes, Chengdu, 3 November 2018.
6. Kunlé Adeyemi, Chengdu, 2 November 2018, author’s notes.
17. Author’s notes, Shiyan Village, 4 November 2018.
18. See Chris Ip, ‘Prominent artists banned last-minute by Chinese art and tech show’ at https://www.engadget.com/2018/12/14/china-guangzhou-triennial-censorship/, 14 December 2018, last accessed 29 January 2019; and Amy Qin, ‘Their Art Raised Questions About Technology. Chinese Censors Had Their Own Answer at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/arts/china-art-censorship.html, 14 December 2018, last accessed 29 January 2019.
19. Author’s notes, Chengdu, 2 and 3 November, 2018.