“Art of Change”, at The Hayward Gallery.

The Hayward Gallery’s “Art of Change: New Directions from China” is less an exhibition than a series of provocations. The show opens with Xu Zhen’s monolithic casts, made from a collection of jagged rocks once thrown by political protesters: mute standing stones, made from stones thrown in anger. Next to this stands an interactive installation by the same artist, offering participants the opportunity to galvanise a clanking fitness machine by using a remote control. The non-calorie-burning, non-work-out might be a Chinese dig at the western cult of the body beautiful, slyly suggesting that there are better uses for human energy than a session in the gym. Or it could simply imply that inside every fitness freak there hides a couch potato.

While pondering such conundrums, visitors may suddenly notice a diminutive Chinese woman in a pair of stripy blue pyjamas lurking at the periphery of their vision. Having picked her victims, she pursues them through the rest of the show, freezing like a statue or dodging behind their backs again whenever confronted. It is as if she is playing a game of grandmother’s footsteps, with a slightly sinister point to it: to be made to look at Chinese contemporary art while under surveillance is to be reminded that much of that art itself was created by artists working under the all-seeing eyes of an unpredictable state. At a certain point, she simply melts away. Maybe she just gets bored; or maybe her disappearing act is itself performing the desire for freedom from interference. 

Since the girl in the pyjamas is always moving, she can hardly be identified by a label on the wall, so it remains unclear just whose idea she is enacting. The suspicion hovers that she might be working for performance...

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