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Provocative art to make us think

IT'S always hard to define "real" art, and it's getting harder these days when we are exposed to so many kinds of new art - digital, multimedia, installation and other forms. Now add phenomenon art.

So-called phenomenon art in public spaces is said to address social issues and spiritual needs and look to the future.

Examples were featured at a recent show by four Chinese artists, Ni Weihua, Wang Nanmin, Qu Yan and Liang Yue using photography and other media. The show sponsored by the German Consulate General in Shanghai was titled "Urban Academy - Sino-German Forum for Sustainable Urban Development."

"As we all know, 'development' and 'harmony' are the most popular keywords in China after the reform and opening-up," says Ni who became famous for his large-scale behavioral artworks in the early 1990s.

His works "Keyword" and "Harmony" use a series of photographs with the slogan "Development is the hard truth" (a famous quotation by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping) and explore how slogans influenced and changed the mainstream discourse in urban society.

He uses other buzzwords and slogans that appear in mainstream media, TV broadcasts and along the street.

His first "Keyword" work was made in 1998 after Ni saw elderly people taking pictures in front of a billboard bearing the slogan "Development is the hard truth" in Chen Yi Square, the Bund.

Wang, born in 1962 in Shanghai, says contemporary Chinese art is closely related to current events in China, and phenomenon art is about new possibilities in frontiers of social phenomena. He created his Taihu Lake work in 2007 when an outbreak of blue-green algae focused the world's attention on pollution caused by dumping sewage in the lake.

"I put white silk and white cotton fabric separately in Taihu Lake and both were dyed with blue-green algae. I was shocked and this inspired me to create," says Wang who uses stained objects from the terrible algae affair to sound the alarm about pollution.

He also created a work about Xiliu Lake in Henan Province's Zhengzhou City, which was shrinking because of drought in 2009.

"When I heard about the drought, I went immediately to Xiliu Lake and I put rice paper on the dry, crackled stream bed and spilled Chinese ink on it," says Wang.

Ink and rice paper are emblematic of ancient Chinese art and the crackles symbolize modern destruction of the environment.

Qu Yan's photography work is divided into "Power Space," "Religion Space" and "Life Space." He calls his work part of the China Modern New Thought movement dating from 1985.

"Power Space" includes photos of rural offices in impoverished parts of Shanxi Province where some leaders are forced to live and work in the same space - a far cry from the luxury offices of many officials throughout China.

"Religion Space" features a picture of an old woman praying with beads in a traditional pagoda in front of a picture of Jesus and singing a pop song as a hymn. Qu notes that in rural areas many people don't understand Christianity but assemble the beliefs that give them comfort.

In "Life Space," Qu emphasizes poverty, danger and helplessness. He found the word fang xin (be assured) on many things that were far from safe - they were dirty, harmful, dangerous and insecure. His photographs all juxtapose the word fang xin with the actual conditions that are anything but.

"After appreciating phenomenon art and the public space urban academy I consider it important to think about how to improve public space, and phenomenon art can provide suggestions for the future," says Hartwig Schulthei, vice mayor of Munster, Germany.

Christiane Brosius, a professor of Heidelberg University, says placing phenomenon art in public spaces can provoke thinking about how to create a better city and a better life.


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