Grey and rainy: two characteristics of autumn in Shanghai that, combined with a stubborn mugginess, can make the city feel like some sort of purgatory (well, purgatory with amazing eating and drinking options). It’s a time where many people in the city are desperate for dry weather and a little bit of brightness in their lives. Without the ability to shape the weather as desired, this leaves most people resigned to their less than illustrious fate – sitting out dreary autumnal days and heading out to pick up toilet roll in between showers and TV marathons.
This autumn however, a small corner of The Bund area has turned into a dazzling, luminous pocket of resistance against the city’s dismal slate colour scheme. Rockbund Art Museum has given over the entirety of its space to Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone who has transformed the gallery using all the colours of the rainbow, 40 living clowns, a neon sign and more than a little paint for his newly-opened exhibition Breathe Walk Die.
Rondinone talks with a gentle Italian lilt and is measured and unhurried while communicating. It’s an impression that would belie his effulgent artistic creation, were it not for the neon-yellow T-shirt he wears giving the game away. It’s a bold statement matched only by the confidence his work at RAM exudes.
The first thing most people will notice as they enter the exhibition is the clowns. There are 40 of them altogether, stationed throughout the gallery, barely moving. All of them are doing the opposite of what clowns are known for. ‘They really don’t do what they are supposed to do and that’s the whole point,’ says Rondinone, ‘but that’s not a valuation: they are not sick – there is no value attached other than they are just passive and they don’t do what they are expected to do.’
It creates a bizarre scene that is surprisingly relaxing. But given that coulrophobia is a common problem, it could easily lead to some people feeling frightened. Rondinone is not convinced: ‘That’s more a cliché of the hysterical clown,’ he says, ‘this [type of] clown is passive and what they’re wearing is a mask of their own face’. Many people might find this frightening in and of itself, but Rondinone is adamant it’s a positive experience for most. ‘I felt when you go in to a room where you see a restful situation people tend to get restful themselves; I feel that people slow down coming in to the room’.
The 40 people who play the roles of clowns for the exhibition are actually film extras who are at home playing bit parts and roles without any script. Movement during the installation is incredibly rare: the majority of the clowns are sitting down, leaning, laying and generally resting. Unless you’re scared of clowns, the effect is has is incredibly calming. So what does the artist do to ensure the clowns perform correctly? ‘I tell them that they have just to be and not to interact,’ he says. ‘They have just to be by themselves in introspection’.
The clown installation is called ‘Vocabulary of Solitude’ and every clown has its own name. ‘Each one of the clowns has a title that goes from “sleep” to “wake” to “work” to “piss” to “shit,”’ says Rondinone. ‘Just like a person does in 24 hours. All 40 clowns represent one person in his solitude and isolation.’ But why clowns? ‘For me, a clown is ageless and has no gender; it’s very neutral.’
This neutrality is key to another of the artist’s goals – accessibility. Throughout our interview, Rondinone is keen to stress that there is no value attached to anything in the exhibition and that it is free to be interpreted by all. The interior walls of RAM have been painted the colours of the rainbow with a gradient that changes as you climb the stairs, imbuing each room with a different hue from the one before. It’s a striking effect and one chosen by Rondinone for its simplicity. When asked why he used the colours of the rainbow, he says ‘It’s the spectrum of colours so it means everything and just encompasses everything. It’s a sign that everybody can recognise [and] I like that there’s no mystery about it.’
It all boils down to making sure that anyone and everyone can get something from the exhibition. ‘I’m for including rather than excluding,’ says Rondinone. ‘I’m just trying to keep the value as open as possible and in this sense the rainbow was a good symbol for that.’ It’s an approach that is honest and refreshing, especially when contrasted against the tendency for obliqueness that so defines modern art’s struggle to attach value through meaning.
Those in the mood to get a bit of chin-scratching done probably ought to avoid this exhibition; this is art with impact, art that leaves a lasting impression, art that won’t be offended if you leave without having ‘figured it out’. It speaks to the personal taste of Rondinone. ‘I like art that stops me in my tracks,’ he says. ‘I change after I see it; I’m not the same after I’ve seen it.’ If you’re not smiling before you go in to this exhibition, you will be as you leave, and that’s a change that few of us would want to deny.