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Where Should We Be Looking? Philippe Parreno Remixes the Rockbund

For his first solo show in China, Paris-based artist Parreno brings his particular brand of spatial subversion to the Rockbund. It's probably not what you're used to.
Last updated: 2017-07-18

The best thing about Philippe Parreno’s site-wide installation at the Rockbund Art Museum is: no selfies. There’s not much to latch onto for the spectator who’s more interested in being seen than seeing. In Synchronicity, Parreno’s first solo show in China, the few surfaces that are actually there to be viewed absorb more than they reflect.

Parreno, a Paris-based artist perhaps best known outside of elite critical circles for his collaborative, experimental football documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, has built an oeuvre out of treating “the museum” as medium. For previous exhibitions at the Barbican in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art he functioned more as orchestrator than artist, sampling freely from recorded sound works by past masters of the mundane like Duchamp, Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham, a post-inheritance maestro conducting ghosts. At the Rockbund he’s more squarely in the creative centerline, but Synchronicity’s most distinct flourishes are still heard rather than seen.

Synchronicity is one of those exhibitions you need to read to believe. For better or worse, this genre has come to dominate private-museum culture in China’s major art hubs. At a recent opening in Beijing, for example, I “experienced” two works by Brooklyn artist Sean Raspet: one, a vial of reverse-engineered Coca-Cola, meticulously researched and patented by the artist; the other, a boutique scent inspired by the show’s curator and diffused throughout the space. Conceptually interesting; practically, a jar of brown liquid and an odor indistinguishable from the smell of freshly erected gallery partitions, unless you have someone on hand to explain it to you.

I was reminded of this while walking through Synchronicity. The exhibition is the restructured and remixed venue, a “tune that resonates throughout the whole building,” we’re told in the accompanying pamphlet. But it’s the kind of tune you can’t hear without reading the score.

The experience begins on Rockbund’s second floor with the only artwork that’s directly accessible as an artwork: a short 3D video that repeats regularly, and as such is the only thing in the entire exhibition that you can reliably expect to see. You don some 3D glasses at the entrance and watch an anime character discuss her existence as an empty avatar that exists only as a product whose narrative changes at the leisure of her owner (presumably, Parreno). Fair enough.

The third floor is just a clock. The time is silkscreened onto white paper in phosphorescent ink, and only displays after being exposed to sunlight at various intervals, with otherwise silent docents opening the blinds after the gallery has faded to black. Some of the blinds are motorized and open on their own. Others are slowly, ritually opened and closed by somber, serious staffers.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, or the apex, is a big mirror located on the Rockbund’s roof, sometimes reflecting a circular “sun” across the opened fourth- and fifth-floor gallery rooms, a disk of light that moves around at variable brightness and speed depending on the time of day and the state of the sky. Sometimes it’s not there at all. There was no fake sun on my visit, because it’s Shanghai in summer — you can barely see the actual sun.

Of course, I wouldn’t have known most of this without the explainers. In the sun room a young woman came up to me and showed me an example of how the installation sometimes kinda should look via a video on her iPhone. The rest of the show I could only glean through the elegant silver-text-on-black-paper exhibition pamphlet, which throws down the context in a 1,000 word essay by Larys Frogier, director of the Rockbund Art Museum and curator of this show. This luxe quadripartite brochure is how you learn this is less an art exhibition and more a series of “Temporally Coincident Occurrences of Acausal Events,” that the phosphorescent clock thing is a continuation of a series Parreno started in 1995, that the anime film is a reboot of a piece he did in 1999, that the stolid individual opening and shutting the blinds is an Indonesian puppeteering master, and that the shiny disk on the roof is, in fact, a heliostat.

And then there’s the sound. It’s everywhere and arguably the most impressive feature. Across the four floors given over the to show (including, to a lesser extent, the most crowded level on my visit, the sixth-floor cafe), the sound of Synchronicity follows you and colors an otherwise non-engaging experience. Arrays of hanging speakers emit sounds of rain and industrial metal clanging like lumbering steampunk vessels overhead; chains being dragged around like Marley haunting the show’s very metaphysical conceits; low-frequency drones and glitching electronic textures that evoke heavy machinery moving through a storm in the Matrix.

Back to the essay: “In addition to the sounds made by the blinds opening and closing, an illuminated, glass marquee placed at the entrance of the exhibition will play a tune that resonates throughout the entire building. From the appearance of a film to the disappearance of an image, from the movement of the elevator to a song sung by the dalangs, Parreno will choreograph the Rockbund Art Museum.”

If it’s a dance, it’s an elaborate and chaotic one, which is the point I suppose. Personally I loved the sound aspect of the whole thing, but the net impression of the soundscape is less the tuned creaking of a stately Bund edifice, and more the dense, dank clangs of an art world machine driving the experience forward. The exhibition's lurching sound and mise-en-scène ultimately synchronize to help unwitting viewers answer the question “where should we be looking?”

Frogier’s text describes the fading clock thing as “a durational experience in which [viewers] may or may not see the luminescent works, raising many cultural and philosophical references about representation,” and the same can be said of Synchronicity as a whole. And that’s fine. I certainly got sick of seeing those f*cking James Turrell selfies in my WeChat feed earlier this year, so maybe what we really need to balance that out right now is strictly limited luminescence. Also, Synchronicity’s price of entry is 150 kuai cheaper, so who am I to complain that its climax is literally staring at a sun that never appears?


Philippe Parreno's installation Synchronicity will be at Rockbund Art Museum from July 8th until September 11.