Few would be unfamiliar with the term Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in today’s contemporary art context. Artists such as the late Christian Boltanski, Marcel Broodthaers, Anselm Kiefer, Theaster Gates alongside several others, are all vested in transforming the artistic experience in the lived moment through their own idiosyncratic ways. Shanghai-based artist Dayou Geng brings his own interpretation of this concept to his solo debut at ShanghART gallery’s M50 space in Shanghai. The exhibition, When No One is Around, Dance Gracefully, transports us into an immersive game-like environment, where objects familiar yet uncanny are punctuated across the space. Despite their immaculate and polished exteriors, each work insinuates a deeper reading around the notions of absurdity, futility, and meaninglessness—themes that the artist continuously explores and excavates throughout his practice. Curated by Junyao Chen, the exhibition provides overall insight to the artistic impulses of Geng and does little to hide to the ingenuity and ambition of the young artist.
Upon entering, a ladderlike installation captures our gaze. Geng references Greek mythology and wormhole theory for this work Centipede (2023) in his consideration of vanitas. Characterised by a Sisyphean helplessness, it serves as an analogy for the viciousness of social ascendency where one undergoes a repetitive and tiresome cycle of climbing endlessly. Trapped in this doomed eternity, one can only dream of escaping. Though taking the form of a wormhole, where the start and end points could supposedly form an imaginary conduit or shortcut, the perils of sudden collapse remain ever present. The handprints marked indelibly on each step further reinforce this perpetual damnation. On a more light-hearted note, the artist jokes on the play of onomatopoeia as he shares about the work, where the Mandarin Chinese word for centipede phonetically resembles that of ‘emptiness’ or ‘futility’.
With a background in psychology at King’s College London, Geng is very much informed by various philosophers including Carl Jung and his reading of Amfortas’ unhealed wound in play Parsifal. Parsi Fal, meaning ‘pure (or poor) fool’, weaves a nonlinear ambiguous narrative around devotion, salvation, and redemption. When No One is Around, Dance Gracefully is in part grounded by this enduring pursuit for reconciliation or resolution, albeit made seem somewhat pointless. Such wilful persistence is embodied by Continued Recursion (2023), which extends the Sisyphean motif with a ball suspended atop a slope. Continued Recursion harnesses a latent desire to come to a pause, or an end. The multi-holed balls each represent different configurations and attempts that have been tried and tested but alas failed, resonant of the principles of infinite recursion in programming. As deviations from error, however, these balls signify yet another kind of freedom. Geng relates this work to our increasing dependence on what can be calculated and measured to ensure that the future is ‘within control’ or reasonable expectation, reflecting on our diminishing tolerance for the unexpected or unforeseen. By extension, we relinquish our right to choose.
While nihilism rests at the core of Geng’s practice, he often injects hints of humour and romanticism within his works as an endeavour to resist complete resignation to the absurd. Shade Tree (2023) encapsulates this tendency towards sentimentality, capturing the different states of the trees commonly found outside his home through the seasons as reflected by the shadows on the ground. A crystallisation of time and memory, it conveys an ingenuous desire to hold infinity in the palms of our hands. Across from Shade Tree, a multitude of red laser beams burst beyond a black wooden frame. An earlier work, Untitled (2021) epitomises the reluctance to conform to the absurd and fruitless that this exhibition strives to convey. It anchors Albert Camus’ belief that the realisation of the absurd demands resistance, not suicide.
Tucked away in the corner are two telescopic poles held together in a tight embrace. Titled ‘Gear’ (2023), this work alludes to the idea of collectivism and social connectivity in our digital age. Multiple telescopic poles are needed for electrical transmission, akin to the idea of clockwork in society where everyone has a place and function to fulfil. However, the wires of the telescopic poles are caged in by the walls of the gallery and in an exaggerated entanglement, the intertwined pair loses their purpose altogether. Like Marcel Duchamp, Geng reinvents the ready-made, pulling it away from its initial functionality into dramatic installations. In theatrical cadence, he leans on viewers to further activate the work’s intentions. As onlookers, we each form a unit of synapse in the broader global social network. Thinking in terms of the virality of social media and the internet, we are reminded that the individual alone can make no waves. Highly cognisant of social behaviour and his surroundings, Geng deftly translates his observations from daily life and urban experiences into a body of work that can be seen as temporal and spatial nodes united by this mise en scène, revealing how we project emotions onto objects in order to render them meaningful.
When No One is Around, Dance Gracefully carries a deliberate sense of detachment, echoing aspects of our present reality—one that is steeped in the virtual and elusive. We are simultaneously connected and disconnected all at once. The youngest artist to exhibit at the gallery to date, Geng manages to shrewdly decode the subtleties of selfhood and social experiences in highly perceptive ways. Standing within this surreal yet palpable, and somewhat dystopian, scenography that Geng has meticulously constructed, it feels inevitable to recall a line from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”. Unsettling or captivating—perhaps even both—this exhibition speaks for those who would rather dance only when no one is looking.