Cuauhtémoc Medina, the head curator of the Shanghai Biennale 2018, announced the exhibition's theme as Proregress—Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence (10 November-10 March 2019). The term draws from ee cummings's 1931 collection W ViVa, updated through the lens of the late Zygmunt Bauman’s 2017 musings on a “retropia”, as a “negation of negation of utopia”.
“Our historical horizon is defined by nostalgia and a constant assessment of our relationship with the past,” Medina writes in a statement. “We have grown used to experiencing historical time as a constant swing between moments of transformation and stagnation, which firmly contradict both optimists and pessimists alike". He posits: “There is no chapter of social transformation that has not raised an antagonistic formation. The advancement of feminism battles new forms of misogyny and gender violence. The geographical relocation of the industrial economy to the east and south has given rise to right-wing movements, xenophobia, and virulent forms of religious and cultural fundamentalism.”
The role of art, he argues, is as a witness of our current ambivalences, “made of fragments of the social debris, encapsulating conflicting forces.” The biennial “provides a framework to explore the role of contemporary art as a means by which the struggles and anxieties of many different latitudes are reflected and turned into subjective experience, training the contemporary subject in the ambivalence the allows us to tolerate the contradictory forces of contemporary life.” The topic will meanwhile remain cognisant of “the centrality that the development of China and Chinese cultural production has in defining the complexity of our current world.” The topic in Chinese is Yubu, the name of a step in Daoist ritual dance which presents the illusion of moving forward while actually moving backward.
Mexico City-based Medina is the third foreigner to be tapped to organise the Shanghai Biennale, which is China’s most respected, following Berlin-based Anselm Franke in 2014 and Dehli-based Raqs Media Collective in 2016. This is also the second time the committee has appointed curators from parts of the non-Western world whose art is rarely exhibited in China. Last month the PSA announced that the biennial will be co-organised by María Belén Sáez de Ibarra from Bogotá, Yukie Kamiya from New York and Wang Weiwei from Shanghai.