Photo: Courtesy Shanghai Biennale
Photo: Courtesy Shanghai Biennale

The industrial-looking So Far installation by famed Chinese duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu consists of three pairs of huge containers suspended off the ground by chains.

It appears as though they are being held apart by two forklift trucks while a pipe that links them and runs to a vacuum pump tries to suck them together at the same time.

Situated at the entrance of the 11th Shanghai Biennale, this very literal demonstration of opposing forces and unifying tension braces visitors for an edition of the event that is at times threatening, other times comforting, while also presenting works that are often very personal.

The Biennale’s theme for this edition is Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments and Stories and it will showcase pieces from around 92 artists as it runs until March 12, 2017, inside Shanghai’s Power Station of Art.

Read: Stories, songs and spin cycles

Photo: Courtesy Shanghai Biennale

Not all of the works on show are tempered the same way as Sun and Peng’s. Some are even soothing.

Our Labyrinth by Lee Mingwei sees non-professional dancers sweeping the concrete floor until they collect a neat mound of grain. Watching their almost calligraphic movements is a reassuringly peaceful experience.

Photo: Courtesy Shanghai Biennale

Love Letter by Cantonbon – a nickname for the Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art, founded in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in 2007 – has two performers seated on each side of a wall, reading correspondence between one of the fathers of the Nouveau Roman style of writing, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and his wife Catherine.

These letters reveal a passionate although mainly platonic relationship (he was impotent, she was flighty), without ever divulging anything about the life of the writer who broke the traditional canons of classic literature in France during the 1950s.

There is nothing ostentatious, either, in the appearance of Strange Views by Chinese artist Nabuqi. Her sculpture, a miniature set of street lamps organised as a matrix of 81 (nine by nine) on a high pedestal, appears in different locations throughout the Biennale. The lights blink together, tiny but united, and out of reach. Without a road to illuminate, they are stripped of the purpose we are accustomed to seeing them perform, and yet they are organised, soldier-like and standing, and somehow eerie.

The work by Danish artist collective Superflex – “Exchange of Pigs and Bits” – has bean bags awaiting visitors so they can comfortably watch a circular video projected on a screen above their heads. Said to address the importation of pigs by Denmark from China for breeding, the film is vaguely documentary in style. Its narration that refers to historic and cultural details of the imagined journey of a pig. “Around 150 years ago the Danish pigs were not fat enough,” reads the artists’ statement.

But it is also improbable, mixing close ups of a slice of salami with a circular presentation of hexagrams from the ancient Chinese text I Ching, or from a compass. Disparate though it might be, the articulation of loosely related ideas and images still succeeds in creating a floating impression of a relationship between the two lands.

Photo: Courtesy Shanghai Biennale

For those wanting pure entertainment, there is MouSen+MSG’s The Great Chain of Being-Planet Trilogy – on the first floor of the Power Station of Art venue that is hosting the Biennale. It offers an obstacle course that you enter via a piece of an aircraft, revealing a series of low-lit corridors and chambers.

MouSen set up the first independent theatre in China in 1987 – and the one-time director has an eye for the dramatic. Inside you’ll find live bees trapped in a giant hexagonal glass structure (its tip can be seen from outside), while you’ll walk in the dark among video installations, and red-lit neon.

With three floors of artworks, there is something for everyone to explore in a biennale abounding with tales, and conversations.

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

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