The Decameron - BMCA Documenting Art
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The Decameron

The word “Decameron” means “ten days.” It is a realist novel written by Giovanni Boccaccio during the Renaissance about ten people hiding from the Black Death in a secluded villa in the mountains. Aside from singing and dancing, each person must tell a story each day to pass the steamy nights. Over ten nights, the ten people tell one hundred stories. The stories come from a broad range of sources and diverse perspectives with widely varying views. They are based on palace rumors, ancient tomes, word on the streets and Eastern folk tales. They contain descriptions of real life, emotional odes, philosophical discussions, and critiques of society, leading some to refer to it as the “Human Comedy.”

This Decameron utilizes the format of this story to tell of four exhibitions taking place in various corners of the city. Scattered among them are a public bath, an internet cafe, several supermarkets, three tents, an ancient river that winds around northeast Beijing, 47 artists and ten past projects. In this story, the information of reality, historical meaning and aesthetic structures encapsulated by these spaces lend the exhibitions and their artworks new form. Space is the object of creation as well as the source of ideas, the goal of artistic work and the field of practice.

An exhibition such as this could only take place in Beijing. It has a thick accent that is interwoven with the fantasy and reality of this land. Beijing is a giant imperceptible stage in the fading light of day, possessing its own inherent order, as well as experiments that resist it. The modernity and cheapness concealed under the smog of day produce dreams in massive quantities, and generate desire and degeneracy as well. On the other end of the day, an ancient, cold eye observes quietly as night attacks the city with the same rapacity.

This incomparably complex yet clumsy northern capital is like a giant magnet that attracts countless artistic changes, people and events. In this center of politics and culture, no one voice can be eternal. It is a scene of constant battle between adventurers and vanquished. It ceaselessly responds to the past created by yesterday, and the contextual relationships of the place where art occurs, from the People's Park of the No Name Painting Society to the rift of the system at the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition, the marginal spirit of Beijing East Village, and on to the barbarian tales of Songzhuang and Heiqiao Village.

“Decameron” is a field of vision, a demarcation of time as well as a fixed gaze on time. Only through a recounting can each story be filled with sentiments and perceptions of the “night.” The night can be a symbol of war and ambush. The night can also be a time for revelry when we lose ourselves. “Decameron” can encompass everything, refracting light and carrying stories, taking us throughout the world, or it can be totally empty, devoid of all occurrences. When the revelry ends, these stories remain as irrefutable evidence of its profound existence.

When the curtain of night descends, things are naturally bound to happen. The stories will never cease, and the ambitions will never end.


 Snowstorm at the Mountain God Temple

“Flurries of snow descended throughout the day. Overnight, the snow piled heavy.” In the tenth chapter of Outlaws of the Marsh, Lin Chong took shelter in a mountain god temple. The description of this scenario foreshadows the story to come. This is the best story in the entire book. It is the first to present the spirit of the marsh. After the burning of the fodder depot, Lin Chong takes his revenge and flees to Liangshan to take up the life of the outlaw. To this day, this story can be seen everywhere. It will always play out, and there will always be a vast marsh for the outlaws.

“Snowstorm at the Mountain God Temple” draws from this tale to select ten landmark projects, whose related documents are laid out within three tents. Bishan Magazine, the Xu Village Project, Shijiezi Art Museum, and the Fly Together Art Practice Project each faced their own circumstances and took different forms of action to present a concentrated expression of contemporary culture towards the public affairs of the countryside. Xia Jianqiang's painting, The Sixth Ring Road is One More than the Fifth, and Village Wash Cut and Dry all intervened in conflicts in society while investigating and participating in the increasingly conflict-ridden outskirts of the cities. The Warm Winter Project engaged in a collective cultural movement of resistance to the sudden predicament facing artist communities. Heiqiao Night Away and One Dream carried out experiments in exhibition models, pathways and spaces directed at the existing art system and ecosystem, while touching off events that brought together the power of organized and autonomous activities. Groups from all walks of life have taken part in these ten projects, raising questions directed at the unique cultural circumstances of China and providing sincere answers. In an intangible way, these practices have rooted out the elitism and pigeonholing of disciplines and found new outlets for the functions, goals and expressive methods of art.

“Snowstorm at the Mountain God Temple” departs from the extant art system and tears it apart from within. At different points in time, they have guided the local practice of Chinese contemporary art to varying degrees, forming their own waves, and making for one night in the Decameron.

Stumbling on a Peach Blossom Grove

 Follow Rainbow Road north, and in a few meters you reach the end. Merge onto the airport access road and cross under the Fifth Ring Road. This will bring you to the entrance to Caochangdi Village. This imperial stable of yore just barely covers one square kilometer, and is now home to over six thousand people. Narrow lanes wind through the village lined with cheap shop signs of various vintage. The village bustles at night, like Victoria Hong Kong in a power outage.

The Dazhong Bath is the largest, oldest and most impressive bathhouse in the village. There is no central pool, but the place does have two lover's suites and five guest rooms. The exhibition “Stumbling on a Peach Blossom Grove” is held here. In the story of this exhibition, each space has different uses, properties and orders, while the dialogues between artworks and spaces lead us into different times, places and meanings. This includes commentary and satire on the history of public baths, as well as extrapolations of the here and now, and aesthetic transformations and constructs that draw from the site. The narrative methods of the 22 artworks form an uninterrupted whole. The emergence of each work picks up from the previous work and foreshadows the next. Like the structure of pipes and shower heads, bathing and massages, they are inseparable, but each has its own reason. There are two entrances to the exhibition, separating men from women, but there is no need to ask, as both can be traversed. The exhibition is like an account of a journey to be viewed, perceived and played with. The journey stretches for thousands of miles, but the peach blossom spring can only be found right here.

 “Stumbling on a Peach Blossom Grove”  will glimmer for only a few days in a bathhouse, rearranging everything to point to an unfamiliar, cheap and sparkling garden at the edge of the city. “He followed the stream until he had forgotten how far he had traveled. Suddenly, he stumbled on a peach blossom grove that lined its banks for hundreds of paces. There was no other type of tree to be found among them. The air was filled with a lovely fragrance and floating blossoms. The fisherman was awestruck. He pressed on to see where this grove would end.” Thus goes the second night.

 The Archer of Autumn Grove Crossing

“The Archer of Autumn Grove Crossing” invited twelve artists to carry out artworks along the Wenyu River, which winds around northeast Beijing. The project lasted for thirty days, encountering smog, light snow, clear skies, and sands carried in on northern winds.

The Wenyu is Beijing's most ancient river. It was first utilized in the Han dynasty. Originating at Mount Jundu in Changping, it stretches for 47.5 kilometers. The first mention of the river is found in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. For thousands of years, this river has witnessed the city’s rises and falls, the changing of political power, and the banners of war, as its water has flown slowly and ceaselessly. There are no civilizations older than rivers, and no more eternal truth than the inevitability of death. The Wenyu River winds past a lonely city, majestic mountains, deserted marshes and an improbable modern horse track. The twelve artists made their way up this long river, crossing forests and settlements and fighting against the current as they drew inspiration from the cold water, shallow embankments, patches of grass, sandbars and thickets. They have no desire for complex twists or flashy monuments. All they have is a will to reach great heights, and to move the masses to action. This is a sentiment unique to the majestic northern lands.

There is a poem that reads, “A chariot travels to the edge of Juyuan. An old man wanders away from his home and into a barbaric land. Smoke drifts from a lone fire in the desert as the round sun sets over the long river. A mountain soldier patrols the pass, protecting the city behind us.” If we have already wandered out into the distance, there is no need to return. The heavens and the earth are our space and time. This is the third night.

A Strong Gale in the Dark Forest

The first supermarket in Beijing opened in the Xidan neighborhood in 1984. It was named the “Jinghua Self-Select Market.” Its previous incarnation was the state-owned Wanfang Market. This supermarket had merely changed its name; the selection was quite sparse, and there was little to report about its management model. In 1994, the first internet service in Beijing was brought to Zhongguancun. Full internet service was provided, and China became internationally recognized as a networked nation.

Today, consumerism and internet culture are found in every corner of the supermarket. The supermarket has grown from one lonely lantern flickering in the night to a ubiquitous presence, so common as to be difficult to track, and yet it is everywhere, right at our fingertips. “A Strong Gale in the Dark Forest” selects twelve video works and independent websites, and scatters them around an internet cafe and three supermarkets in Caochangdi. There are combinations of video art and televised news, parallels of night and rain brought about by the internet dissemination of social events, and new media artworks that employ web games, satirical videos, rock concerts, interactive web pages, desktop wallpapers, fake websites, marginalized cultures, mobile faiths and virtual distances as their subject matter or medium. These works are like river water flowing backwards, undergoing various outbreaks of fervor and gazes as they return to the everyday and their original sources.

When these works are temporarily placed in stalls at 24-hour supermarkets and reinstalled in round-the-clock internet cafes, the people pass by them, goods are still sold, and internet terminals can still be rented for the night. It is just that, in the midst of their ennui, as the people wipe the sleep from their eyes, they will discover subtle shifts in time and space, new novelties unfolding around them, which they may stop to take in for a moment before relegating them to the backs of their minds.

“A strong gale blows in the dark forest. The general draws his bow in the night. As the light of dawn approaches, he searches for the white feathers, only to find his arrow buried in a stone.” Thus ends the fourth night.

The light that keeps us from our adventures is, in our eyes, darkness. It is only after the light of day that the sky truly begins to brighten. There are many bright days ahead. The sun is but a star.


Cui Cancan, Curator

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