Chinese Take Out, Last Course

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It’s not news that Chinese artists, who were isolated for decades from developments in Western art, went on a kind of crash course in the 1980s. You see the results in a lot of the work that turns up in any group show of recent Chinese art. I already mentioned yesterday how the spirit of Maurizio Catellan hovers over some of the work in the Saatchi collection. Yin Zhaoyang’s blurred images — for instance, his scenes of huge anonymous crowds in Tiananmen Square — are operating in the same conceptual territory as Gerhard Richter’s blurred paintings of photographs, the ones that smudge the memory of recent German history. As for Zhan Wang’s stainless steel philosopher’s rocks, which I managed to bump into last month in the great courtyard of the British Museum and on the great lawn of the de Young Museum in San Francisco…

Artificial Rock, Zhan Wang, 2005/ PHOTO: LACAYO

……those are part of the worldwide tendency to wrap natural formations in shiny metal, like the stainless steel trees that Roxy Paine started making in 1999.


The connection to Richter seems to me the most pertinent. As I said yesterday, a lot of Chinese artists are looking into ways to express the trauma of their own recent history, a process that didn’t really get underway in German art until almost three decades after the Second World War.

But at this point the Germans have gotten much better at it. Which may be why one of the most affecting works about the Maoist era that I’ve seen in recent weeks wasn’t by a Chinese artist. It was Anselm Kiefer’s large canvas Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, which is on temporary display at Tate Modern. It’s a comment on Mao’s short lived 1957 campaign to invite criticism of the party, which he ended by arresting and executing whoever had been foolish enough to take him up on it.

Is it a comparable gravitas that most new Chinese art lacks? Or is it simply that gravitas isn’t what most foreign collectors are looking for?

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, Anselm Kiefer, /TATE

Meanwhile, the market appeal of some of the biggest names in new Chinese art continues to escape me. Zhang Xiaogang makes that omnipresent series of wide-eyed, affectless faces staring into space. They may look poignant to the Chinese, who may connect them to memories of a repressive past. They still look prosaic and sentimental to me. (Naturally it’s a painting by Zhang that holds the $6.1 milion auction record, set last April, for contemporary Chinese art.)

Bloodline, Zhang Xiaogang, 2005/ © THE SAATCHI GALLERY

And Yue Minjun’s ubiquitous laughing men, all of them based on his own appearance, were pretty enjoyable when I first saw them, many, many men ago. But at some point he’s going to need a new shtick.

Backyard Garden, Yue Minjun, 2005/ © THE SAATCHI GALLERY