May 16, 2014 6:29 pm

Through the shock barrier

‘Every society needs that moment of outrage, that Tate bricks moment’

Sometimes culture needs the most curious of boosts to help embed itself in the public imagination. In Hong Kong, where the second edition of the Art Basel art fair is drawing to a close, that moment may have arrived last year when a playfully sculpted, oversized, inflatable whirl of excrement suddenly appeared in the park of the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Paul McCarthy’s “Complex Pile” may have suddenly deflated because of adverse weather conditions but let us not be seduced into an easy metaphor: the sculpture helped spark a vital conversation among Hong Kong’s population.

“It was our Tate bricks moment,” says Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, West Kowloon’s museum of visual culture, which is due to open in 2017. Nittve was recalling the effect of Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII” when it was displayed in London’s Tate Gallery in the mid-1970s. “What a load of rubbish,” screamed the front page of the Daily Mirror, yet to fall in love, in that crusty time for culture, with the joys of the avant-garde.

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Peter Aspden

“It [McCarthy’s piece] triggered a public discussion among the wider public, on what art was, and what it should be doing,” says Sweden-born Nittve, who was the founding director of Tate Modern. “It was a very good thing. A necessary thing.”

Every society, it seems, needs that moment of outrage. It is like a rite of passage: get over it, and you will slide seamlessly into the contemporary culture club, where the squeamish are swept aside and artistic dissonance reaps head-spinning rewards. The effects can be seen in this year’s fair, palpably bigger and bolder than last year’s.

Michael Lynch, another non-British émigré from the British cultural scene (the Australian headed the South Bank arts centre), is the chief executive of the West Kowloon scheme, and reports enthusiastically that it is “on time, on budget and nothing has been compromised”. That is no small feat: it hasn’t been the easiest of intellectual journeys, to convince this city devoted to the untrammelled movement of private capital that it needed an injection of public money, to the tune of HK$24bn, to support the arts. But West Kowloon is on course to clinch the argument. “We need to kill the cynicism,” says Lynch emphatically.

In a quieter corner of Hong Kong, a small exhibition is a reminder of the extraordinary trip contemporary art has taken since the new century began. Aftermath: Post-Sense Sensibility Fifteen Years On, on show at Duddell’s restaurant, a city centre hotspot, may sound like the title of an unappealing PhD thesis. But it brings together a generation of Chinese artists, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who have been all but forgotten in the frantic writing of the country’s recent art history.

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The show commemorates an exhibition that sprang up at the beginning of 1999, in a basement of a Beijing residential tower not far from where the Olympic stadium would be built. Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion was a visceral experience, a warren of small spaces filled with art works that were sharply confrontational. One of the artists, Zhu Yu, was to find notoriety the following year for allegedly cooking and eating a human foetus. “Post-Sense,” wrote Qiu Zhijie in his preface to the show, was “the trace of blood that flows from your chest when you prick it with a razor: you don’t feel pain but you still feel an urge toward retaliation.”

Not surprisingly, the exhibition was shut down by the police after just a few hours. This was not a Tate Bricks moment: it felt too angry, too uncompromising. Even in the wider art world, reaction was mixed. The exhibition was seen either as a degenerate reflex of an amoral society, or a blatant copy of the Young British Artist movement’s flirtations with the cadaverous. The show’s very title was an oblique reference to 1997’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy but it went further, and hit harder.

The current display, showing recent work from the same artists, has been put together by Philip Tinari, the director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Needless to say, the works show little of the confrontation that marked their 1999 predecessors. In that respect, the artists have been tamed. Tinari says that, within a few years of the original show, some of them were already taking posts in state museums and major academies of art. It is easy, he says, to underestimate China’s ability to absorb even the most radical expressions of cultural disquiet.

In a corner of the restaurant, there is an old-fashioned radiogram, a seemingly appealing piece of retro design from the artist Wang Wang Yuyang. But study the radio carefully, and it seems to be breathing; it is in fact a silicon sculpture with a small pump inside. Art can afford to make subtler statements in today’s more eclectic climate. The urge to shock already seems a little outdated to us. In the post-poop world, we need to look more carefully for what artists are trying to say.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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