Among the many language discoveries that emerged from E. E. Cummings’ experiment in poetry, is a word made of the condensation of progress and regress: Proregress[1]. Introduced in the XIXth section of W ViVa (1931), this term may illuminate much about the contemporary conditions of history and time.

As the late Zygmunt Bauman argued, today‘s culture appears as a “negation of negation of utopia”, or what he called “Retropia[2].” Our historical horizon is defined by nostalgia and a constant assessment of our relationship with the past. However, the question of our relationship with progress and regression is not solely related to the way we negotiate our hopes or fears in the line that goes from the future to the past. It also involves the intensification of the experience of historical change in our societies, which is related in turn to the mixture of advancement and regression of all kinds of social agendas.

In fact, we have grown used to experiencing historical time as a constant swing between moments of transformation and stagnation,which firmly contradict both optimists and pessimists alike. Different from what the secular theologies of modernity assumed, we experience the present as a combination of contradictory trends and forces, which can be reduced easily neither to any simple narrative of development, nor to the prophecies of decadence or gloom. We find emancipation and empowerment overtaken by despair, as we witness the return of old forms of discrimination and obscurantism. There is no chapter of social transformation that has not raised an antagonistic formation. The advancement of feminism battles new forms of misogyny and gender violence. The geographical relocation of the industrial economy to the east and south has given rise to right-wing movements, xenophobia, and virulent forms of religious and cultural fundamentalism. The experimentation with bodies and family structures is met by all kinds of cultural wars. The promise of technoscience in shaping our civilization has become inseparable from the dangers posed by climate change in the anthropocene, which now threaten us with the end of times.

Artworks as witnesses of the ambivalence of the present

The constant combination of gain and loss, openness and fear, acceleration and reaction, which defines our era of “proregression”, also exists as a sensibility characterized by profound ambivalence. In this context, contemporary culture appears as a complex site of reflection defined by excess and powerlessness, transgression and repression, social activism and many brands of nihilism. Contemporary art appears as a production of singularity and refinement made of fragments of the social debris, encapsulating conflicting forces. “Proregress” provides a framework to explore the role of contemporary art as a means by which the struggles and anxieties of many different latitudes are reflected and turned into subjective experience, training the contemporary subject in the ambivalence the allows us to tolerate the contradictory forces of contemporary life.

Given the centrality that the development of China and Chinese cultural production has in defining the complexity of our current world, the Shanghai Biennale appears as an ideal place to show both the role of contemporary art as a critical sensibility of the dialectic of emancipation and power. “Proregress” hopes to capture excitement akin to the exhilaration that the discovery of the plasticity of language provoked avant-garde poets like Cummings. In that sense, I propose a biennale that explores art in the present as a poetic attempt to explore the combination of progress and regression in the global arena. It will collect practices and artworks that advance our sensibility to absorb the current instability of the economy, culture, and politics. The Shanghai Biennale will present contemporary artworks that embody an epoch that defies any idealized narrative.

For the Chinese title of the Biennale, we have chosen the concept of 禹步(YUBU), the basic mystic dance step of Daoist ritual in ancient China. This dancing technique makes the dancer look like he or she is moving forward while going backwards at the same time. Beyond translating a concept made of western binary concepts into Chinese, this figure also suggests the importance of the pursuit of a way of thinking and culture that ought to help us thrive despite the ambivalence of our era.

[1] E. E. Cummings, Complete Poems 1904-1962, Ed. by George J. Firmage, New York, Liveright, 1991, p. 331.(E. E.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Retropía, Barcelona, Paidós, 2017, p. 17.

About the Chief Curator of the 12th Shanghai Biennale

Cuauhtémoc Medina

(Mexico City, December 5 1965)

Art critic, curator and historian, holds a Ph.D. in History and Theory of Art from the University of Essex in Britain and a BA in History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Since 1993 he has been a full time researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), lecturer at the Philosophy Faculty and the Postgraduate Department of Art History of the same university, and between 2002 and 2008 was the first Associate Curator of Latin American Art Collections at the Tate Modern.

He has widely published texts in books, catalogues and periodicals, and among other things between 1999 and 2013 he was in charge of the art critical section of the Reforma newspaper in Mexico city, titled “Ojo Breve”.  A recent compilations on his critical interventions on art in Mexico has been published with the title Abuso Mutuo (Mutual Abuse)  by Cubo Blanco and RM in 2017.

Among other projects, he has organized When Faith Moves Mountains (Lima, Peru, 2001) by Francis Alÿs; The Age of Discrepancies, Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968–1997, (in collaboration with Olivier Debroise, Pilar García and Alvaro Vazquez, 2007-2008); Teresa Margolles’s project for the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2009, What Else Could We Talk About?, Dominó Canibal (Cannibal Dominoes) (2010), one year long series for, the Contemporary Art Project (PAC) in Murcia, Spain; and in 2012, he was Head Curator of the Manifesta 9 Biennial in Genk, Belgium, titled The Deep of the Modern,  in association with Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades. Since 2013, he is Chief Curator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico city, where he has curated a number of exhibitions  by artists such as Harun Farocki, Raqs Media Collective, Jeremy Deller, Andrea Fraser, Vicente Rojo, Vincent Meessen, Jorge Macchi, Jill Magid and Hito Steyerl, among others. He has also recently curated Francis Alÿs A Story of Negotation, (2014-)  a travelling show organized for museums in Mexico, Argentina, Cuba, Canada and the USA.

In 2013 he was granted the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement by the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas.

Co-curators of the 12th Shanghai Biennale: María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, Yukie Kamiya, Wang Weiwei
About the Shanghai Biennale

As the first international contemporary art biennial on the Chinese mainland, the Shanghai Biennale was launched in 1996. After 21 years of development, it has grown to become a significant platform for the exhibition of global contemporary art and for discourse. Since its launch, the biennale has maintained high levels of artistic and intellectual standards while consistently analyzing the evolution of urban culture in the international context.

From Open Space in 1996, to Inheritance and Exploration in 1998, Spirit of Shanghai in 2000, Urban Creation in 2002, Techniques of the Visible in 2004, Hyper Design in 2006, Translocalmotion in 2008, Rehearsal in 2010, Reactivation in 2012, Social Factory in 2014, and then to Why Not Ask Again in 2016… Transpiring every two years, the Shanghai Biennale features a gathering of the industry’s most innovative and thought-provoking curators and artists who explore the connection between urban life, contemporary art & the public.

Dates: 2018.11.10-2019.03.10

Venue: Power Station of Art

Courtesy of Power Station of Art, for further information please visit www.powerstationofart.org.

Related posts: