From the collective to the individual

WE is the distinction of I. | hoto courtesy of Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery

The China-based Polit-Sheer-Forum Office (PSFO) art collective is a five-member group mixing an open enjoyment for art and movement with a subtle critique of the world around them. Having been raised during and after China’s Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, these artists have much to say about group mentality and the importance of individuality in a movement.

Displaying from Nov. 10– March 31, PSFO’s offsite installation with the Vancouver Art Gallery focuses on exercise, human interaction and individuals in a community.

The leader that doesn’t exist

PSFO members work, build, travel and eat together as much as possible, which is the most important element of their art. They may not spend all of the year together as they only create the art that connects them when the group is fully assembled.

All members share a keen focus on the daily joys of life but also share an understanding of how much day to day life is impacted by individual actions and group mentality. They share memories of the history of forced collectivism in China, both its influence on common unity and its emphasis on community wellbeing, as well as the unintended consequence of sacrificing individuality for the greater collective.

PSFO encapsulates this complex perspective on what it means to be a collective in the 21st century to Vancouver Art Gallery offsite. With historic lessons pressed into their minds, PSFO chooses to create a non-leader in order to remain fair and true to their collective vision. By fusing pictures of each of the five members together, the collective created a ‘leader’ under the nom de guerre ‘Mr. Zheng.’

By representing themselves with not one individual but with equal parts of their unique selves, they’ve rejected an all too common hierarchy that lends itself to abuse in favour of giving each member an equal voice within the group as well as in the face that represents the group. But the group’s political message is apolitical itself. By not directly critiquing any one country or individual the group allows the interpreter to apply the PSFO perspective to whomever they choose to examine or to completely delete their commentary in favour of enjoying art pieces as works of art.

I exercise, WE experience

Mr. Zheng, a composite portrait of five members of the collective. | Photo courtesy of PFSO

Each member has created a single piece inspired by a campaign in China promoting exercise amongst the public as well as community contact and connection building.

“The equipment at Offsite has the same purpose and benefit of health and fitness, but also provides opportunity for for communal gathering. The project is very focused on making the space into a gathering place,” explains Diana Freundl, associate curator of Asian art at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “People are exercising but some people there are just taking pictures, having conversations, generally hanging out, which is something that happens in parks.”

The artists have also taken care to prevent parallel movements in the use of their equipment.

“One interesting thing about their work is that most of the pieces of equipment are designed in pairs. However when people stand side by side and use the equipment… they have been mechanically designed to never synchronize,” says Freundl.

This was a conscious effort by the artists to subtly remind users that even within shared activity everyone has their own individual and unique

A playful look at the serious world

The PSFO sees the need for a deeper look at communal thinking and living integrated with individual rights and freedom

“[The artists want viewers to see that] there is no ‘I’ without the group; we all have the experience of the collective within us but at the same time the collective is just a group of individuals [and] those individuals
should have a voice within the collective,” says Freundl.

Still, this installation is meant to be seen as playground equipment and should be taken with a similar approach to the art group’s previous works
including ping-pong tables and libraries.

“You can play on it. There is an element of play that exists purely as play and pleasure and that should also be embraced,” she says.

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