Art plays with fit­ness man­dates

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - by Robin Lau­rence

As photo ops go, this has to be one of the most un­usual— and amus­ing. Four Chi­nese artists, all mem­bers of the col­lec­tive known as Polit-sheer-form Of­fice, are demon­strat­ing the uses of their in­stal­la­tion of bright blue, lowend out­door ex­er­cise equip­ment. In the rain. In down­town Van­cou­ver. Across the street from what is al­legedly the most ex­pen­sive fit­ness club in the city. What the priv­i­leged folks are do­ing be­hind the tinted glass over there, well, who knows? But here, legs are swing­ing, hips are gy­rat­ing, arms are row­ing—all for free. Ev­ery­one is wet and ev­ery­one is laugh­ing: artists, jour­nal­ists, pho­tog­ra­phers, and Van­cou­ver Art Gallery staff.

We’re at Off­site, the VAG’S pub­lic art space on West Ge­or­gia Street, hav­ing just walked over from a me­dia pre­view at the gallery. Artists Hong Hao, Xiao Yu, Song Dong, and Liu Jian­hua have been speak­ing through a trans­la­tor about their Off­site work, Fit­ness for All, and the ac­tiv­i­ties of Polit-sheer-form Of­fice (PSFO), which was founded in 2005. (The fifth mem­ber of the col­lec­tive, Leng Lin, was not able to at­tend.) Diana Fre­undl, the VAG’S as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor of Asian art and cu­ra­tor of the Off­site pro­gram, also spoke. “While each mem­ber of PSFO has his own art prac­tice,” she said, “they share a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in China.” They also at­tended univer­sity in the 1980s, when China was just open­ing up to the West. Fraught mem­o­ries of forced col­lec­tivism un­der­lie their work, which sug­gests par­al­lels with western ideas and art move­ments, such as con­cep­tu­al­ism and re­la­tional aes­thet­ics. “While the artists philo­soph­i­cally sup­port lib­er­al­ism,” Fre­undl added, “they also ap­proach it with a sense of cau­tion.” Their art is open and par­tic­i­pa­tory, and rep­re­sents “a vi­sion of a new kind of col­lec­tivism, one that is vol­un­tary and apo­lit­i­cal”.

Song Dong said that be­cause art “is im­pos­si­ble to de­fine, it has of­fered us a vast space in which we can ex­plore”. PSFO ac­tiv­i­ties have in­cluded as­pects of the ev­ery­day—eat­ing, talk­ing, read­ing, even play­ing Ping-pong. “Each of us is quite unique—we’re very dif­fer­ent from each other,” Song con­tin­ued, then added: “The col­lec­tive helps to de­velop the in­di­vid­ual, and, at the same time, the in­di­vid­ual helps to de­velop and grow the col­lec­tive.” Be­cause of the par­tic­i­pa­tory na­ture of their in­stal­la­tions and projects, Fre­undl said, the au­di­ence also be­comes part of the col­lec­tive.

The ti­tle of the Off­site work, Fit­ness for All, is bor­rowed from a Chi­nese slo­gan in­tended to pro­mote phys­i­cal ex­er­cise among Chi­nese cit­i­zens. Fit­ness is en­cour­aged through the place­ment of free work­out equip­ment in pub­lic places through­out the coun­try, and it is this work­out equip­ment that PSFO ref­er­ences in its tongue-in-cheek in­stal­la­tion. (Each of the five pieces is dou­bled, so that par­tic­i­pants can ex­er­cise side by side with a com­pan­ion.) On the south wall of Off­site are the English and Man­darin words “WE is the dis­tinc­tion of I.” And on the west wall is a large por­trait of the fic­tional Mr. Zheng, whose face is a dig­i­tal com­pos­ite of the fea­tures of each PSFO mem­ber. Mr. Zheng’s im­age and his Big Brother–type pres­ence here riff on large pub­lic por­traits of Mao Ze­dong, and the sub­or­di­nat­ing of the in­di­vid­ual to the old idea of the col­lec­tive. Yet the text and the way the im­age is con­structed as­sert in­di­vid­u­al­ism within the new col­lec­tivism.

“In China in the past,” Xiao Yu ob­served, “the col­lec­tive was al­ways con­sid­ered right.…ev­ery in­di­vid­ual was called upon to make con­tri­bu­tions to this great col­lec­tive, maybe even make per­sonal sac­ri­fices to it.” He paused, then added: “Through art and through PSFO, I came to re­al­ize that great­ness re­sides within me.”

The Van­cou­ver Art Gallery presents Off­site: Polit-sheer-form Of­fice's Fit­ness for All to March 31, 2019.

Photo by Mae­gan Hill-car­roll/vag.

Polit-sheer-form Of­fice’s Fit­ness for All is in­ter­ac­tive.

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