The Distant Unknown: Contemporary Art from Britain

This exhibition aimed to cross international boundaries by introducing a Chinese audience to five British artists, who explored the concept of distance between the real and the imaginary.

The distant unknown large


Prof. Jiang Jiehong

  • Isaac Julien
  • Cornelia Parker
  • Katie Paterson
  • Susan Philipsz
  • Ben Rivers

Research background

The ‘Distant Unknown’ intended to introduce contemporary British art to a Shanghai audience via the well-established OCAT Institute of Contemporary Art in the city.  OCAT invited Jiang Jiehong to curate the exhibition in 2014. With the contribution of £3,000 from British Council, OCAT Shanghai offered core funding of £90,000 to realise this ambitious project and the production of the exhibition. Rather than curate a survey exhibition, the ‘Distant Unknown’ thematically built upon Jiang’s former research into the ‘Unseen’ which formed the curatorial framework for the 2012 Guangzhou Triennial.  In particular, the idea of ‘distance’ was reframed in relation to our increasing reliance on technology and how this instigates a sense of distance from each other even if geographical proximity remains. 

Research aims

The aim of this exhibition was to introduce five key British artists to a Shanghai audience via a universal theme that cut across cultural boundaries. Artists explored the distance between the real and the imaginary through their works uniting the two-fold concept of ‘distance’ and the ‘the unknown.’

Research methods

This research project was initiated through an invitation from OCAT (Shanghai) in 2014, to develop a show of the latest development of contemporary art in the UK. The curatorial proposal had been assessed by the international review panel of the museum. All participating artists were carefully selected and confirmed through a series of general research, studio visits, personal meetings and dialogues for the possible contribution to the exhibition.


A bilingual English-Chinese catalogue was produced. This project included five renowned and award-winning British artists, including one Turner Prize winner (Philipsz 2010), two Turner Prize-nominated artists (Parker 1997 and Julien 2001) and two rising stars (Paterson and Rivers) internationally in the field.

In Stones Cast Against Diamonds, Issac Julien focussed upon the beauty of nature, arguing that a stone is inherently more beautiful than a diamond as It is natural whereas a diamond is man-made.

Katie Paterson’s Candle (from earth into a black hole) comprised an active artwork that melted over the course of 12 hours. Different layers of the candle metaphorically signified different strata of the universe from the earth to a black hole. The work emitted different smells to signify each component of the cosmos.

In Prison Wall Abstract, Parker depicted the perimeter wall of Pentonville Prison in London, gesturing towards the urge of freedom from confinement.

In You are not alone, Susan Philipsz created a four-channel radio transmission. Radio transmission from different parts of the world from Cuba to Russia are transmitted throughout the exhibition hall to interrogate the concept of distance.

In There is a Happy Land Further Away, Ben Rivers digitally reconfigures the far-flung archipelago of Vanuatu offset by a Henri Michaux poem.