Chinese Take Out

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4 Weng Fen On the Wall Guangzhou II.jpg
On the Wall — Guangzhou (II), Wang Fen, 2002. /SIGG COLLECTION

As I mentioned yesterday, over the past month I’ve seen three large survey shows of Chinese contemporary art in London, San Francisco and Berkeley. So what did I learn? This is a long one, so I’ll split it into two posts.

Well, it was hard to learn much from “The Revolution Continues”, the show of 24 artists at the Saatchi Gallery in London, partly because it was not quite fully installed when I toured through last month. But also because the nearly complete installation was supervised by Saatchi himself. Saatchi told the Times of London recently that “I just go by what shapes and colours work together in a room. The poncey way some curators try to demonstrate their ‘vision’ by highlighting connections gives me the collywobbles.”

I tend to like a bit of poncey curator vision, even if I don’t always buy it, and without it the collywobble-free Saatchi show did have a grab bag feel to it. Here was one of Huang Guanyi’s conflations of Red Guard propaganda posters and consumer advertising, there was a giant nude woman by Xiang Jing made of fibreglass. (It immediately brought to mind the big fibreglass nude of Leight Bowery by Ron Mueck, a Saatchi favorite in the ’90s.) And like everyone else who’s seen it, I laughed out loud at Old Person’s Home, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation of 13 waxworks world leaders in their old age, careening around a gallery gloor in motorized wheelchairs and occasionally colliding in slow motion. Obviously somebody’s been looking at Maurizio Cattelan.

Old Person’s Home, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2007 /PHOTO: LACAYO

But I got alot more out of the two American shows that had more of that poncey curatorial thing. “Mahjong” is an exhibition of 141 works now at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It lets you at least begin to put the art into an historical framework. Co-curated by Julia M. White and Lucinda Barnes, both of BAM/PFA, it’s drawn from the collection of Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China who began collecting in the 1990s but who purchased art from as far back as the early ’70s. What that means is that “Mahjong”, which runs through January 9 and then moves to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., can open with the bombastic Socialist Realism of the Maoist period, heroic worker and peasant imagery that’s an obvious point of departure for a lot of new Chinese art.

It’s also comprehensive enough to have examples from the 1979 exhibition of the Stars Group, an unauthorized outdoor show that was an early attempt by Chinese artists to depart from the Stalinist pieties of official art. (It was, of course, shut down by the Chinese authorities — with bulldozers as I recall.) “Mahjong” also divides the work into galleries built around ideas like materials, landscape and the human body that make it clear that Chinese artists aren’t all doing recycled Pop or even work that’s in any obvious way topical.

One day later I looked in on “Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art”, a show that has since closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was drawn from the collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, Colorado collectors who have gifted a lot of work in recent years to SFMOMA and the Denver Art Museum. This one was organized by Jeff Kelley, a Bay Area critic and curator who uses the idea of private dream and collective dream as a way of understanding new Chinese art. It’s a trope that has its uses when you’re dealing with a culture that understands all too well that line Stephen Dedalus speaks in Ulysses. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

A lot of new Chinese art strikes me as a visual equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, an attempt to come to grips with the calamity of the Maoist era and then with the head spinning plunge into free market autocracy, or however you would characterize the combination of capitalism and authoritarianism that is the Chinese system now. A few months ago I was puzzled by a piece in The New Republic by their art critic Jed Perl. In a review of both the recent Cai Guo-Qiang show at the Guggenheim and the catalogue of the Saatchi show, Perl makes the claim that “much” of the new Chinese work “is powered by a startling and completely delusionary infatuation with Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.”

It is? Only if The Great Dictator is powered by Charlie Chaplin’s infatuation with Hitler. I’ve looked at hundreds of examples of new Chinese work over the last few years and while I’ve seen a lot that made derisive, belittling and comical uses of the Great Helmsman, like Shi Xinning’s series that imagines a worldly Mao who takes part in real and invented historial scenes.

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Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, Shi Xinning, 2000-2001/ SIGG COLLECTION

But I haven’t seen any that seemed be carrying a torch for the guy. Perl quotes some indisputably knuckleheaded prose from the Saatchi catalogue about the “anti-authoritarianism” of the Red Guards. But that’s essay talk, almost none of which will be read, except by critics. (And which may point up the drawbacks of reviewing a catalogue instead of the show.) Whatever its shortcomings, and I’ll get to those, new Chinese art — as opposed to the occasional catalogue essayist — simply isn’t in love with the Chairman.

It uses Mao, when it uses him, as a way to exorcise him. Mao dominated the life of China for more than three decades, and for many of the new Chinese artists the Cultural Revolution was the primal trauma of their youth. It’s only to be expected that Mao’s image would continue to haunt their work, his wretched statecraft notwithstanding. New Chinese art can be trite, meritricious and derivative. In its blatant appeal to the tastes of the international art fair circuit, it can remind you of Meiji-era export porcelains from Japan. But is any of it a disguised attempt to revalidate Mao? None that I’ve seen.

And for the record I’ve seen Rent Collection Courtyard, 1965, the Cai Guo-Qiang installation that’s one of the few actual works that Perl cites for trying to burnish Mao’s afterglow. It reproduces at full scale a famous work of party soap opera, an ensemble of 114 clay sculptures of peasants in pre-revolutionary China being tormented on rent day by a greedy landlord and his thugs. Perl quotes Cai to the effect that he does not know “whether it is the artists of the Cultural Revolution or us who hold the strongest attachment to art, but the people of that time believed in a new society and an ideal for mankind”. But what Rent Collection Courtyard suggested to me was a work of state-sponsored devotional art placed in a new context, so that both its hectoring qualities and its sentimentality are more evident as aspects of the emotional power it once held. Which didn’t strike me as a recommendation for Maoism.

This post has already gone on too long. I’ll pick up the thread tomorrow.