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All my life, people have told me that science fiction is low culture for spotty saddos who can’t get laid. Well look at me now, suckas: nerdy old sci fi is the basis for one of the best gallery shows of the autumn so far. Screw all of you. ‘Zhongguo 2185’ brings together ten Chinese artists who in some way use science fiction as a framework for examining life in the choppy political waters of contemporary China.
There’s a giant inflated head in the corner, a physical manifestation of artist Lu Yang’s digital avatar – a character flitting between the digital and the real, social media and IRL interaction. Chen Tianzhuo has laid a body in a gold elephant mask on a bed of lilac stalagmites like some future being in a hyperbaric burial chamber. There’s a giant prayer bead made of destroyed police surveillance cameras by Xu Qu, looking worryingly like a noose. Lu Pingyuan presents tiny short stories about beauty on eye-brow flecked canvases. Downstairs, Xu Zhen has created a whole Chinese supermarket, but all the perfectly sealed products are empty.
These are some seriously big topics, tackled allegorically but still with a direct force. I’m not convinced by all of it. Chen Zhe’s images of self-harm and private diary entries are fascinating and harrowing, but ickily voyeuristic. And it can be tricky to make the show’s necessary conceptual leap with the paintings of Tang Dixin and Sun Xun. It’s not that the art is bad, just that the works need more space and context to be properly wrestled with.
But the show still works. What you really get throughout these works is a palpable and uncomfortable sense of anxiety. These artists – all relatively young, all Chinese – are dealing with the oppressive implications of society. And it’s not some alien, faraway thing, they’re dealing with the same shit we are: beauty, mental health, surveillance, freedom, consumerism, crumbling cities. After a while, the show starts to feel suffocating, a mixture of desperation, escapism and veiled criticism. Science fiction’s ability to convey complex political ideas through metaphorical narratives is used to fuel some serious engaging, and all too relatable, contemporary art. Not so nerdy now, huh?