A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art
by DeWitt Cheng
In 221BC, the self-styled first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259-201BCE) declared his reign the beginning of history, and enforcing the decree by pre-empting dissent: burning the books and burying the scholars possessed of other ideas about antecedents. Jorge Luis Borges, in “The Emperor and the Books,” an essay about this alternate-facts regime, concludes that Qin’s radical rewriting of history was doomed to fail (as it did, with Emperor Two), by the conservative character of “the most traditional of peoples.”
Given the strongly Confucian, hierarchical bent of Chinese culture, that characterization has some truth. However, it ignores the social, political and economic revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (as well as various failed revolutions: the Boxer and Taiping Rebellion, etc.). Cultures do not attain the ripe old age of five thousand by being inflexible and dogmatic—by building mental walls, and forsaking rationality and reality. The historian Will Durant rnoted that China’s foreign conquerors and rulers—the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty—ended up mastered and colonized, themselves. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” observed the sage, Bruce Lee.
The lessons of history, including cultural syncretism are much in evidence in the wide-ranging survey now at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (through February 24), assembled by the Guggenheim Museum. Comprising over a hundred objects—in painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture, installation, and conceptual art—from sixty-odd individual artists and collectives, the show is an ambitious retelling of the development of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, from the quashing of democratic dissent at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to China’s ascent to the world stage as an economic equal with its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle that enlisted the talents of famous artists Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the fireworks extravaganza.
The title of the show is revealing: Art and China. The development of contemporary art is on display, but there’s little or none of the Cynical Realism that first registered with western audiences, a kind of ironic commentary on Chinese culture that seemed made for export: Pop Art (not socialism) with Chinese characteristics, to misquote Deng Xiaoping. With multiple curators, the show is expansive, with much of the work seemingly chosen as much for historical (or art-historical) reasons as for pure aesthetic appeal (which contemporary art mavens sometimes disparage as counterrevolutionary bourgeois hedonism). Can we dub Chinese conceptual art, then Sino Realism?
The show is organized in six topics, each one occupying a gallery or two on the museum’s seventh floor.
1. No U-Turn: 1989 revisits the China/Avant-Garde Art show that opened in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, in February, 1989, containing work made during the previous decade after the liberal reform policies of the late 1970s. Unfortunately, the forward-looking, no-retreat thrust of that show was blunted by the events of June 4, which prompted both an exodus of talent and dampened the \ spirits of those who remained. The most prominent work in this gallery is the large pair of sculpture installations by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” and “The Bridge,” which update traditional Chinese animal symbolism with live snakes, lizards and insects, confined to zoomorphic (snake- and turtle-shaped) cages. Installed at the Guggenheim, the piece aroused the ire of animal rights activists; SFMOMA has chosen to exhibit the work emptied of prisoners, and thus without creaturely carnage. More traditionally palatable is Gu Dexin’s “Plastic Pieces—287,” a swarm of multicolored plastic tangles, melted into organic forms suggesting android viscera, and more interesting to peruse in its bizarre details than to behold in toto as a large wall installation. My favorite piece in the entire show is Qiu Zhije’s panoramic six-panel map of China, “Map of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” a fanciful yet sobering depiction of mountains, river and plains bedecked by historical and cultural inscriptions in English and Chinese: e.g., Valley of Reform Era, No U Turn, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Struggle Against Bourgeois Liberalization, etc. It’s a world contained in an artifact, like the Bronze-Age Greece contained in Achilles’ shield in The Iliad, or Bruegel’s living-folklore painting of Dutch villagers enacting 16th-century Dproverbs. Alas, this encyclopedic masterpiece linking traditional Chinese landscape painting with history, politics and aesthetics, belongs to the Guggenheim, which commissioned it; at least it will be available in New York.
2. New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation follows the development of conceptual art in Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, using “mechanistic processes, documentary sensibilities, and minimalist means that slyly mimic the very systems the artists sought to subvert”—I quote the show’s wall label—by eliminating individuality and embracing absurdity. Wang Guangyi’s oil painting Mao Zedong: Red Grid No.2, is a grisaille rendering of the Great Helmsman, almost official-looking in its neoclassical perfection, but crisscrossed by red stripes suggestive of cages. Geng Gianyi’s Misprinted Books are bound volumes of gibberish Chinese characters, a Borgesian idea, converted to Hanzi. Qiu Zhije’s “Assignment No.1: Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times” both embraces and mocks China’s reverence for tradition and rote learning: the artist copied a famous fourth-century poem until it became an illegible, inscrutable block of ink fashioned and canceled by innumerable repetitions.
3. Five Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism, Realism examines the return to social realism in Beijing and Guangzhou. Hung Liu painted “Avant-Garde,” a shaped-canvas self-portrait as a rifle-bearing soldier in the People’s Army, in 1993-4, after emigrating to California; it’s monumental and dignified, a testimonial to the value of traditional art training, once disparaged by the avant-garde West as Soviet Realism—and a reminder that ‘avant-garde’ was originally a military term. Zeng Fanzhi’s oil painting,”Meat,” shows stoic slaughterhouse workers changing into their work clothes, while surrounded by hanging carcasses that are nearly indistinguishable from the men’s bodies. Liu Zheng’s documentary photos of coal miners and actors and Wang Jianwei’s “Living Elsewhere” video of hardscrabble country life—at the edge of a superhighway, no less—remind us that ‘crazy rich Asians’ are the stuff of global fantasy—mostly. (The film flopped in China, incidentally.)
4. Uncertain Pleasures: Acts of Sensation examines both the accent of Chinese contemporary painting to the international market, and the reaction to that financial success among the artists of Beijing and Hangzhou. Ai Weiwei:”Always distrust authority, be suspicious of centralist theories, doubt your alleged cultural influences.” Yu Youhan’s collage, “Just What Is It That Makes To day’s Homes, So Modern, So Appealing?” pays homage to Pop Art with its title, taken from Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage; but instead of a California bodybuilder with a giant lollipop as protagonist, we have a middle-aged Mao enjoying the midcentury-modern lifestyle. Lin Tianmiao’s sculpture, “Sewing,” looks at the Chinese fashion industry through the lens of surrealism, with its sewing machine wrapped—mummified—in cotton thread, and a ghostly pair of hands busy at work via digital video projection. Chen Zhen’s suspended sculpture, “Lumière Innocente,” a child’s bed bedecked with otherworldly lights, is a magical object even without a social subtext. Song Dong, by finding and throwing stones, and painting on them a record of his interactions, creates faux-archaic artifacts endowed with narratives in “Throwing a Stone—documentation.” Ai Weiwei’s famous photos of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn are here, as is a Han vase decorated with a Coca-Cola logo, and an unpretentious photo of an insouciant young woman (the future Mrs. Ai, I believe) lifting her skirt and flashing her panties for the camera at The Forbidden City.
5. Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between focuses on the increased contact with the international art market as well as the transformations in consciousness wrought by digital media. Song Don’s “Stamping the Water” is a series of color photographs documenting an hour spent stamping the water of the Khasa River with a large carved woodblock bearing the ideogram for water, an exercise in poetic transcendence—or bureaucratic absurdity. Zhan Wang’s video, “Empty Soul / ”The Mao Suit,” documents the mass-grave burial of a number of coffins, each bearing an empty Mao suit, in a parody of the massive Qian burial site of the First Emperor, with his armies of ceramic warriors. Liu Xiaodong’s four full-length oil portraits of soldiers, “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” are painted in a simplified realistic style recalling both commercial illustration and Egon Schiele, a style appropriately ambivalent for warrior-saints.
6. Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives Circa 2008 examines the art produced as the Beijing Olympics (motto: One World, One Dream) drew near, promising renewed international acceptance and enhanced national prestige. Various groups of artists abstained from the official rites and ceremonies, creating utopias of their own outside the object-trading commercial system, and in stark contrast with the dazzling pyrotechnics that highlighted the Olympics opening ceremonies, shown in a video. Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02,” a series of painted ideograms in official fonts and colors, reproduces disturbing text from Lu Xun’s dystopic novel of 1918, Diary of a Madman. Ai Weiwei’s “4851” covers the walls of a small gallery with lists of the names of children killed in (I believe) the Sichuan earthquake, a topic he covered several years ago in a dragon sculpture composed of small backpacks. The dragon, associated with water and benevolence, is also the subject of Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” an 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes, and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims, hanging in SFMOMA’s old main entrance, on Third Street. The hasty birth of a mobile, industrialized nation—with its benefits and costs—is the subject here, and one which resonates through the rest of this mammoth exhibition on which I have barely touched here. It’s a must-see aesthetic spectacle—with sociopolitical characteristics.