A woman sings into Zheng Bo's installation, Sing for Her. Photo: Shanghai Biennale
A woman sings into Zheng Bo's installation, Sing for Her. Photo: Shanghai Biennale

A New Delhi trip back in 2011 set Zheng Bo to thinking. The Beijing-born Hong Kong-based artist had traveled to India to take part in “Artist Dispatch,” a collaborative residency scheme co-organised by West Heavens.

The West Heavens is a cross-cultural exchange program funded by the Hong Kong-based Moonchu foundation and the Raqs Media Collective, an organization based in the Indian capital.

“I was there for three weeks and had in-depth conversations with Raqs. The initial idea of the work was actually conceived right after I came back. I was thinking a lot about the idea of equality,” recalls Zheng.

The result was Sing for Her, a work first shown in Hong Kong in 2013.

Fast forward to October of last year, when Raqs was appointed chief curator for the 11th Shanghai Biennale. The collective, quite naturally, contacted Zheng to pick up on the dialogue they had started four years before.

Just opened under the theme “Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counterarguments, and Stories” the 11th biennale showcases Zheng’s work, alongside that of more than 90 artists from 40 countries, at the Power Station of Art (PSA), the first state-run contemporary art museum in China. Housed in a former power station, it has been home to the biennale since 2012.

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“In Sing for Her, visitors are invited to sing with migrant workers through a huge megaphone,” Zheng explains.

The interactive piece only switches on if you start singing or interacting with it, and stops when you do.

“My work is about workers and their voices,” says Zheng. “It’s a very salient issue in China today. It is updated for the Shanghai Biennale with one new music video recorded with a group in Shanghai, and three songs with the New Worker Art Troupe in Beijing.”

Launched in 1996 by the Shanghai Art Museum, the Shanghai Biennale was the first international biennale dedicated to contemporary art in mainland China, and took advantage of the city’s position as a getaway to the West.

Its latest incarnation, however, opens the connection up to the entire world, and to economic and sociocultural connections within Asia itself – a theme explored in Zheng’s work.

“Because this is a huge public exhibition, I look forward to the public’s response, in particular to the idea of connecting the issue of migrant workers inside mainland China with migrant workers – Filipino, Indonesian, etcetera – in Hong Kong,” says Zheng.

Also on show will be Aki Sasamoto, a Japanese artist based in New York who makes kinetic sculptures and then performs with them.

“I’m presenting a version of Delicate Cycle,” says Sasamoto, whose work involves washing machines. “It’s a new work, only first presented in September in New York, and I am still figuring out the range this piece can adapt to.

“The piece takes the perspectives of dung beetles and birds as a metaphor for one’s experience of life. I myself feel like a dung beetle as a sculptor making and moving stuff all the time.”

Aki Sasamoto’s Washboard Belt installation. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Sasamoto spent a week on-site before the biennale’s opening, sourcing materials and apparently paying attention to floor patterns ahead of her performance.

“I have shown in Japan, South Korea and India, but never in China,” she says. “I’ve never been to China personally either. So I’m very excited about this exposure.”

With much to look forward to on the 11th biennale journey, Raqs’ curatorial statement promises the deployment of multiple perspectives: “Walking the floors of the Power Station of Art will mean undertaking a hundred itineraries through Shanghai, Hanoi, Dakar, Fukushima, Ramallah, Lahore, Guatemala City, Tehran, Dubai, Stockholm, Dhaka, Beijing, and many more unexpected byways, basements and bus-stops of our present.” As the theme of the title suggests, stories – competing, crisscrossing, multilayered – are in no short supply.

The 11th Shanghai Biennale runs from November 11 to March 12, 2017