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Cao Fei RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei), 2007. Color video, with sound, 6 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Young Collectors Council, with additional funds contributed by Shanghai Tang, 2008.30 © Cao Fei 

The Guggenheim Takes Visitors on a Rollercoaster Ride through Chinese Art

Eleanor Heartney

Running into controversy from the get-go, a new exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York gives shape to the past thirty years of Chinese contemporary art, revealing a scene that swings between creative repression and global success.

Cao Fei RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei), 2007. Color video, with sound, 6 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Young Collectors Council, with additional funds contributed by Shanghai Tang, 2008.30 © Cao Fei 

Even before it opened, the Guggenheim's blockbuster Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World was big news. Activists protesting the treatment of animals in three works worked social media to produce over 700,000 signatories demanding their removal. Bowing to the pressure and threats of violence, curators Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari, and Hou Hanru shuttered the works. It was a instance of self-censorship that cost them the ire of the New York Times editorial board, who on October 13 weighed in against the "hasty, thinly justified" decision. As it turned out, two of the contested pieces are pivotal to the exhibition's curatorial concept: One gives the show its name and overarching theme, while another was to be the closing coda. But even without these elements, Art and China turns out to be a powerful and deeply informative show.

The exhibition opens with Huang Yong Ping's Theater of the World, one of the works excoriated for animal cruelty. It consists of two elements. The Bridge is a 33-foot metal structure in the form of an arching snake. It was supposed to house a variety of propitious Chinese symbols, among them reproductions of Qing dynasty bronzes of dragons, toads, and other creatures, and an assortment of live turtles and snakes. Underneath is the Theater of the World, a turtle-shaped enclosure that was to have been filled with live insects and small reptiles. While the creatures in The Bridge would presumably live in harmony, those in The Theater were expected to follow their natural proclivities and eat or be eaten. Together the two elements represent a Daoist diety called Xuanwu, a snake/turtle hybrid who represents the totality of the universe.

The work thus celebrates a balancing of opposites in which conflict is part of the cosmic order. As such it introduces the exhibition's larger vision of contemporary Chinese art as simultaneously an expression of uniquely Chinese influences, history and perspectives, and as a contender in the fractious battles of modernity. In response to outcries and threats, both structures are empty, emblems now of sterility rather than the controlled chaos of China's interactions with the world.

Chen Zhen Fu Dao/Fu Dao, Upside-Down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune, 1997. Steel, bamboo, resin Buddha statues, washing machine, computer monitor, tires, bicycle, fan, chair, household appliances, other found objects, and string, approximately 350 x 800 x 550 cm overall Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins/Havana

In the galleries that follow, Art and China lays out a roughly chronological narrative, using the linear drive of the Guggenheim ramp to chart the evolution of Chinese avant-garde art. It's a compelling story. The saga begins in 1989 with a multiplicity of events inside and outside China, among them an officially tolerated exhibition of Chinese "modern art" in Beijing's National Art Gallery, the inclusion of three Chinese artists in Magiciens de la Terre, the first major international show to attempt a truly global vision of art, the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the emergence and brutal suppression of the nascent Chinese Democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

From there it is a story of feints and counter feints between artists, a Chinese government intent on compensating for crackdowns in civil liberties with the promise of economic prosperity, and an international art world rushing to embrace globalism as the next big thing. In the course of the ensuing twenty years, artists explored a variety of ways to challenge, undermine, and mock authority without (with a few exceptions) running afoul of the state. They also kept an eye on international trends, incorporating and reinventing the languages of conceptualism, performance, and video.

At the same time, they accommodated themselves to a rapidly changing country. During this period China emerged internationally as an economic powerhouse. This was accompanied by a massive reconstruction effort at home that created a new class of multi-millionaires, exacerbated income inequality among the rural poor and completely transformed the urban environment. For artists, subjects like the exploitation of labor, the sad poetry of shuttered factories and discarded commodities, and chronicles of incessant urban renewal and consumer lust offered ways to address the brave new world of contemporary China.

Huang Yong Ping Theater of the World, 1993. Wood and metal structure with warming lamps, electric cable, insects (spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes), lizards, toads, and snakes, 150 x 270 x 160 cm Guggenheim Abu Dhabi © Huang Yong Ping

The show ostensibly ends in 2008, though a few works extend beyond that date. Like 1989, the show's point of commencement, 2008 was fraught with contradictions. This was the year of the Beijing Olympics, orchestrated by the government as a triumphant display of China's cultural and economic parity with the West. But this was also the year of the global financial collapse and the devastating Sichuan earthquake in which over 69,000 people lost their lives. Echoing these contradictions, the penultimate works in the show take up the subject of utopia, treating it both aspirationally and ironically. The dream of a socialist paradise is here embraced by both artists and party ideologues, though in radically different ways. This section offers a caution to western observers seeking to read contemporary Chinese art as an affirmation of individualism, capitalism, and democracy.

The show ends with a darker coda that points to the unresolved conflicts that continue to shape China's internal and international relationships. The very last work was to have been Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other, a video in which pairs of tethered pit bulls on treadmills aggressively but ineffectually attempt to attack each other. Now simply represented by a black video monitor, the work seems to have been intended as a metaphor for a state of political, psychological and cultural stasis that only barely holds chaos in check.

Between these two shuttered artworks are a remarkable variety of characters and ideas. These include well known and well traveled figures like Cai Guo Jiang, represented here by his gunpowder drawings and his dramatic firework display of the 2008 Olympics; Xu Bing, whose Transference, a video depicting a pair of mating pigs covered with nonsense Chinese and Western characters (this was the third censored work); and Ai Weiwei, whose provocations here include his insouciant destruction of a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo, his angry exposure of government indifference to the children crushed by the substandard construction of their schools in the Sichuan earthquake, and his transportation of 1001 ordinary Chinese citizens to Kassel as his project for the 2007 Documenta.

Wenda Gu, 36 Vanishing Gold Section Pigments, 1991. Mineral pigment in 36 parts, overall trench dimensions: 3 m deep x 150 m x 7 m

There are also more obscure figures: the late Chen Zhen's magical assemblage of inner tubes and wheels careens over the rotunda like an undulating dragon. Lin Tianmiao, one of the few women artists in the show, is represented by a lyrical sculpture consisting of an old-fashioned sewing machine wrapped with thread and overlaid with a ghostlike video projection of hands threading the needle. Ou Ning established a back to the land commune in rural Bishan village that seems, from the evidence of the documentary film here, to have integrated artists and villagers in a variety of commercial and cultural ventures before it was closed down by local authorities in 2016.

The exhibition also presents the work of numerous artists groups, attesting to the powerful communal spirit that runs through Chinese culture. These include the conceptually oriented New Measurement Group, the socially provocative Big Tail Elephant Working Group and Xijing Men, who presented a hilarious counter-Olympics, staging competitive sporting events using quotidian objects like watermelons, balloons, and back scratchers.

One missing thread—evidently deliberately absent—is the degree to which economics have shaped the contemporary Chinese art world. One wouldn't glean from this show that the market for Chinese art within and beyond the country has exploded during this period, nor that a new class of Chinese collectors has emerged which, as in the West, views art as an instrument for financial manipulation. Art and China largely ignores the best-selling Political Pop and Cynical Realism painters who have served as the face of Chinese art in the international media. Instead, this exhibition attempts to provide an alternative account of Chinese contemporary art. However, in order to hold together the narrative of an embattled and rebellious avant-garde, it downplays the commercial success of artists like Ai, Cai, and Xu. And while it recognizes the delicate dance artists must perform in nation where the government holds ultimate power over every aspect of life, it glosses over the perks and prestige conferred on Chinese artists who are willing to court international attention without directly criticizing the government.

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017—January 7, 2018 Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

The other conspicuous lacuna here is the scant acknowledgement of Inside Out: New Chinese Art, the sprawling exhibition presented by Asia Society in 1998 that introduced a number of the same artists and even artworks to the American audience. That show took a different tack, arranging works thematically, and giving much more attention to the Pop-inspired painters who have been commercial successes. Nevertheless it opened the door for many of these artists.

What does Art and China reveal then about art in the New China? There is a rollercoaster aspect to the story it tells, as moments of euphoria are followed by crackdowns and repressions. This is as well the story of modern China. The giant conundrum that faces the Party leadership is whether economic liberalization can coexist with social and cultural repression. Beneath its cheery slogan Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (this is emblazoned over a topographical map of the exhibition by artist Qiu Zhijie at the entrance to the show), is an increasingly intolerant approach to any form of dissent or unorthodoxy. But artists continue to resist and the fate of their efforts may well help determine what their country will become.

Eleanor Heartney is a contributing editor for Art in America and the author of Art & Today (Phaidon, 2008) and co-author of After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (Prestel, 2007).

Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World
is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, through January 7, 2018.