The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) at NYU Shanghai, with its freshly inaugurated exhibit in its new home, We the Singular in Multiple Ghosts. I the Multiple in as parts of whole, offers a new take on the boundaries of human perception and knowledge. The exhibit, which runs from Oct. 12, 2023 to Jan. 6, 2024, invites three artists—Yu Ji, Dong Longyue, and Wang Xiaofu—to present works of art that echo the question: is another knowledge, another perception, another reality conceivable?

Henry Frazier for On Magnolia Square

The ICA’s Founding Director and Curator, Michelle Hyun, tells us that the answer is yes but invites us to see for ourselves. Hyun was partly inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” in which Sontag writes, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Hyun engages with Sontag’s critical philosophy, challenging visitors to abandon the desire to find a singular meaning (or rather any meaning at all) in a work of art.

Hyun handpicked artist Yu Ji, a familiar name in the local contemporary arts scene. Yu, who is a native of Shanghai, is a multi-medium artist who has worked with sculpture, video, print, and performance. Her niche craft is revealed in her dexterity and the diversity of her practice where her innate sensitivity to materials shines clear. Cement, wood, metal, plastic, and organic matter are not just mediums for Yu Ji; they are characters in a larger story, each contributing to a narrative with its own unique texture, temperature, and place. Yu previously showcased her work at various renowned galleries and museums. Some examples include the Chisenhale Gallery and Sadie Coles HQ in London, Basement Roma in Rome, and the collaborative Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum and HOW Art Museum in Shanghai.

Yu’s art is wildly confusing. Yet, that is what made her the prime candidate to continue the ICA’s multi-year initiative Another Knowledge is Possible. First glances at her work might be marked by confusion or even anger. The very few people who are certain that they know exactly what they are looking at are the uncultivated. Because with Yu Ji, you’re not supposed to know. In other words, you can never be certain.

Even Hyun, who is deeply familiar with Yu’s work, finds difficulty in approaching her art. “For years, as a curator, I’ve found it very challenging to ascribe meaning to her work, but always felt an immediacy in the experience of it—the simultaneous weight and ephemerality of cement, mysterious images that allude but don’t signify, the texture of surfaces that feel familiar but still alienating, or movements and gestures of the body that seem received but are reconsidered.”

Henry Frazier for On Magnolia Square

To create the art for the exhibit, Yu collaborated with her two friends, Dong Longyue, a videographer who creates performative works featuring written text as the main subject, and Wang Xiaofu, a painter, writer, and videographer, who explores the boundaries of perception and existence. The trio met at AM Art Space, a Shanghai alternative art space that Yu founded in 2008.

For more than a year, the group regularly gathered in their studios to read books and write their own stories. They ate; they drank; they laughed. They became more than just collaborators. They became true friends and partners. When the time came to will the exhibition into reality, the artists visited the NYU Shanghai campus, which at that time was merely a construction zone, and immersed themselves among the workers, experimenting with the raw materials that would eventually become the gallery space.  

But what is important to know about this exhibit is that it is not the result of three independent visions; rather, it is a singular artistic expression, molded by the hands and hearts of three. For Wang, understanding that this exhibit is a collaboration is critical to looking at the art. “You find the authorship is vague,” Wang said. To achieve such unity in creation, the trio had to perceive art as a singular entity—a task challenging for any artist. “When you decide to be an artist, you feel like your voice is the most important,” commented Yu. “We try to break this rule and try to be unseen behind those works.”   

This sentiment echoes a broader perspective on art, as eloquently expressed by Dong in Chinese, “我会相信艺术是一系列的创造性行为,任何一个人类在做一些事情的时候,他突然想到一些,我这次好像要做得不一样一些,在那个时刻,艺术就会出现 / 存在。” Translated, this means, “I believe art is a series of creative activities. When any human does something, he suddenly thinks of some–, ‘This time I want to do something different.’At that moment, art will appear and come into existence.”

The very essence of their collaborative spirit is not just evident in their visual artistry but also transcends into the literary realm. The three penned a novella encapsulating their shared vision. Within its pages, they elaborate on the title of the show, writing, “As in We the singular in multiple ghosts. I the multiple as parts of whole, the whole is bigger than any part, and the any part belongs to the whole.” This embodies the philosophy that while every part is crucial, it is the collective that carries paramount significance. This collaborative ethos strikes a chord, especially among university students, who themselves are navigating the complexities of teamwork and shared ownership.

The spatial design of the exhibit is marked by contradictions that just make sense. The space is purposefully negative, bland. Here, it becomes a spectral realm where the austerity of white walls and the transparency of the museum welcome prepare you for the art. What looks lacking (or just overtly contemporary and minimalist) primes the senses, preparing them for a vis-à-vis with the art itself.

Zhu Zhenyu. Courtesy of the ICA at NYU Shanghai.

The absence of wall labels is noticeable. In the pursuit of original ideas, Hyun chooses not to display the works of art next to their descriptions, remarking “rather than provide an explanation (and as perhaps the most generous move of all), the artists have instead shared these stories that position the visitor elsewhere—in other times and spaces from which to ‘guide’ and ‘understand’ their project, its parts and as a whole.” While a catalog of the artworks is available, visitors are first encouraged to experience the art on their own.

Henry Frazier for On Magnolia Square

The exhibit debuts during a crucial period in the Fall semester, a time when faculty, students, and others are overwhelmed by packed schedules and the anxiety of midterm preparations. Being affiliated with the university, the ICA stands poised to become a central gathering spot on the NYU Shanghai campus, offering community members a place for significant interactions with one another and their environment.

The gallery is free to visit and is open from Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11:00 to 18:00. Throughout the remainder of the year, the ICA will hold events related to the exhibit including an artist talk on Oct. 21, two live performances on Nov. 11 and Nov. 25, and a study session on Dec. 16. Further details and registration for these events can be found on the ICA’s website.