Arts director at DKU co-curates Shanghai Biennale

The Shanghai Biennale, one of the most influential art events in Asia which this year is co-curated by Duke Kunshan University professor Dr. Zairong Xiang, is inspiring new thinking around perhaps the biggest question of all: What is our place within the cosmos?

Titled “Cosmos Cinema”, the 14th edition of the biennale provides a multi-visual platform for audiences to reflect on the functioning of the cosmos — which is often defined as the universe in orderly form — and its potential for helping us make sense of ourselves.

Zairong Xiang, Tianyu Zhang, Kidlat Tahimik and Sue Siyu Wang at the installation of Tahimik’s artwork during the Shanghai Biennale

Running until March 31, the exhibition at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai features sculptures, films, installations, performances and paintings created over the last 100 or so years by more than 80 artists from all over the world.

The works deploy various approaches to pose questions speaking to the very core of what it means to be human, including how we fit into the systems that govern time and space, the potential for our understanding of the cosmos to change our behavior, and how we live together and interact with non-humans.

Xiang, who is director of arts and assistant professor of comparative literature at DKU, curated the exhibition together with Anton Vidokle, Hallie Ayres, Lukas Brasiskis and Ben Eastham.

Zairong Xiang with students Tianyu Zhang, Blake Feiyang Zhou, Muqiu Tian and Sue Siyu Wang at the Power Station of Art

The team has been supported by four DKU students from Xiang’s “Curatorial: Theory and Practice” elective course. Muqiu Tian, Sue Siyu Wang, Tianyu Zhang and Blake Feiyang Zhou helped with tasks such as setting up installations, interpreting for international artists and translating curatorial labels, gaining hands-on experience of what curating a major international art event entails. DKU students from different countries also participated as volunteers or tour guides.

Duke Kunshan is further involved in the biennale through a series of post-screening lectures co-hosted by the Humanities Research Center, the Division of Arts and Humanities and dKunst-Art on Campus, an ongoing DKU-centered art project curated by Xiang.

Two artists participating in the biennale, Marina Camargo from Brazil and Ho Rui An from Singapore, were also invited to take up residency at DKU and ran workshops, performances and exhibitions in close collaboration with DKU students and faculty.

Shanghai Biennale artist Marina Camargo (center) speaking with DKU professor Caio Yurgel and student Jade Jen at the Songlines performance at DKU
DKU students CeCi Holden (violin), Liam Athanas (bassist) and Kelvin Huang (percussion) perform at Songlines. Photos: Yueqi Dou and Yile Liu

Working across several languages, Xiang’s research spans the arts, literature, religion, philosophy and gender/sexuality studies.

He was the chief curator of the “minor cosmopolitan weekend” at the HKW Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2018 and co-curated “2021 Guangzhou Image Triennial” at the Guangdong Museum of Art, as well as a special section of the 2022 Seoul Experimental Film Festival. He also co-curated “Ceremony: Burial of An Undead World” at HKW Berlin in 2022.

The author of the widely cited book “Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration” (punctum, 2018), Xiang teaches comparative literature and art at Duke Kunshan and earned his co-tutelle Ph.D. with the prestigious Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate at several European and Latin American universities: Tübingen, Perpignan, Iberoamericana and Bergamo.

DKU teamed up with artist Ho Rui An for the “Drawing Lines, Spinning Time” exhibition, which focuses on the Chinese textile industry

The Shanghai Biennale became the first international biennial of contemporary art in the Chinese mainland when it launched in 1996. It is now widely seen as one of the most important biennales in the Asian and global contemporary art calendar.

“The 14th Shanghai Biennale will reflect on how artists have advanced our understanding of the relationship between life on earth and the cosmos that nourishes and conditions it,” the curatorial team of Cosmos Cinema said.

“Shanghai is uniquely suited for such a project because of China’s rich history of philosophical and artistic engagement with the cosmological, the city’s cosmopolitan history as a connecting point of East Asia to the world, and now — as a city set to become one of the main hubs for the country’s rapidly expanding civil space program — to the cosmos.”

Zairong Xiang. Photo: PSA Power Station of Art
The five-member curation committee of this year’s Shanghai Biennale. Photo: PSA Power Station of Art

The recently published Cosmos Cinema Reader (Zhejiang Photographic Press, 2023), an edited compilation of theoretical texts around a wide range of topics related to cosmology, cosmism and cinema, includes an essay by Xiang on the reception history of the Chinese cosmological concepts of yinyang. A catalogue of the biennale will be released in March. DKU’s library is showcasing publications from previous editions of Shanghai Biennale.

All members of the Duke Kunshan community — students, faculty and staff — can visit the biennale and weekly film program for free by presenting their DKU card.

More details of the event, which opened to the public in November last year, are available on the Shanghai Biennale website and the Cosmos Cinema website. Read more about Xiang and his writing, research and curatorial projects by visiting his website.

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