Vancouver Art Gallery installation Fitness for All riffs on Chinese state-run exercise programs

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      As photo ops go, this has to be one of the most unusual—and amusing. Four Chinese artists, all members of the collective known as Polit-Sheer-Form Office, are demonstrating the uses of their installation of bright blue, low-end outdoor exercise equipment. In the rain. In downtown Vancouver. Across the street from what is allegedly the most expensive fitness club in the city. What the privileged folks are doing behind the tinted glass over there, well, who knows? But here, legs are swinging, hips are gyrating, arms are rowing—all for free. Everyone is wet and everyone is laughing: artists, journalists, photographers, and Vancouver Art Gallery staff.

      We’re at Offsite, the VAG’s public art space on West Georgia Street, having just walked over from a media preview at the gallery. Artists Hong Hao, Xiao Yu, Song Dong, and Liu Jianhua have been speaking through a translator about their Offsite work, Fitness for All, and the activities of Polit-Sheer-Form Office (PSFO), which was founded in 2005. (The fifth member of the collective, Leng Lin, was not able to attend.) Diana Freundl, the VAG’s associate curator of Asian art and curator of the Offsite program, also spoke. “While each member of PSFO has his own art practice,” she said, “they share a common experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China.” They also attended university in the 1980s, when China was just opening up to the West. Fraught memories of forced collectivism underlie their work, which suggests parallels with western ideas and art movements, such as conceptualism and relational aesthetics. “While the artists philosophically support liberalism,” Freundl added, “they also approach it with a sense of caution.” Their art is open and participatory, and represents “a vision of a new kind of collectivism, one that is voluntary and apolitical”.

      The installation Fitness for All in use, at the Vancouver Art Gallery's Offsite space.
      Maegan Hill-Carroll/VAG

      Song Dong said that because art “is impossible to define, it has offered us a vast space in which we can explore”. PSFO activities have included aspects of the everyday—eating, talking, reading, even playing Ping-Pong. “Each of us is quite unique—we’re very different from each other,” Song continued, then added: “The collec­tive helps to develop the individual, and, at the same time, the individual helps to develop and grow the collective.” Because of the participatory nature of their installations and projects, Freundl said, the audience also becomes part of the collective.

      The title of the Offsite work, Fitness for All, is borrowed from a Chinese slogan intended to promote physical exercise among Chinese citizens. Fitness is encouraged through the placement of free workout equipment in public places throughout the country, and it is this workout equipment that PSFO references in its tongue-in-cheek installation. (Each of the five pieces is doubled, so that participants can exercise side by side with a companion.) On the south wall of Offsite are the English and Mandarin words “WE is the distinction of I.” And on the west wall is a large portrait of the fictional Mr. Zheng, whose face is a digital composite of the features of each PSFO member. Mr. Zheng’s image and his Big Brother–type presence here riff on large public portraits of Mao Zedong, and the subordinating of the individual to the old idea of the collective. Yet the text and the way the image is constructed assert individualism within the new collectivism.

      “In China in the past,” Xiao Yu observed, “the collective was always considered right.…Every individual was called upon to make contributions to this great collective, maybe even make personal sacrifices to it.” He paused, then added: “Through art and through PSFO, I came to realize that greatness resides within me.”

      The Vancouver Art Gallery presents Offsite: Polit-Sheer-Form Office's Fitness for All to March 31, 2019.