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Issue 44 January-February 1999 RSS

Inside Out: New Chinese Art

Asia Society and PS1, New York, USA

Like a neon apparition from the past, a PVC emperor’s robe descends from the ceiling, resplendent and diaphanous, while nearby lie two piles of unassuming sweaters. Seated in the shallows of a smooth blue lake, a man punches a carved stamp into the water. Impaled roses, holograms, manipulated Maos and clouds of smoky ink slip into this latest and largest entry in the recent spate of shows featuring Asian artists.

The stated intention of the show’s curator Gao Minglu, is to draw out themes of Modernity and identity, while positioning Chinese work as a local elaboration on an international contemporary art scene. Against the backdrop of the Guggenheim’s recent survey of 5,000 years of Chinese art, the show represents the last 15 years of Chinese artistic production. The 80 works, organised by theme and locale, present a Chinese-inflected compendium of references to recent and not so recent Western art history: from Huang Yong Ping’s Dadaist washing of canonical texts, through Mao Xuhui’s Surrealist canvases and Li Shan’s Pop portraiture to Chen Shun-chu’s serialised photos.

The mainland painter Wang Guangyi plunders Pop’s strategy of re-configuring signs, revealing an apposite style on which to pin his Eastern subject matter. In a canvas from his ‘Great Castigation’ series (1993), Wang combines the Coca-Cola logo with Cultural Revolution propaganda posters, but it is only superficially a post-Tiananmen critique of Mao, Socialism and the infiltration of Western commercialism. As the curator has pointed out, these artists knowingly exploit and share the sanctioned mercantile goals of the People’s Republic of China.

Harking back to the 70s, Phoebe Man’s Beautiful Flowers (1996) is a sly meditation on fertility, reminiscent of a certain kind of Western feminist installation art which combines culturally laden found objects to create a commentary about the female body. But here, what seems most salient to the work is the long-standing Chinese relationship with flowers, impenetrable to Western viewers. Wu Mali’s Epitaph (1997), on the other hand, is an embarrassingly earnest foray into the well-trodden territory of a more didactic type of feminist art, a projection that includes the question: ‘Hisstory has been revised…what about herstory?’ Equally formulaic is Wenda Gu’s creepy and overproduced installation, United Nations (1997). Presenting supposedly authentic ethnographic goods, it is a serviceable facsimile of international installation art, drearily untainted by irony or reflexivity.

Reflecting a more recent, less discomfiting, post-colonial consciousness, Cai Guo-Qiang suspended a large boat in the air, a kind of nautical St. Sebastian. The narrative, however, flows not from Christian myth, but from a tale of Chinese cunning in the dubious arts of war. Cai invites us to recognise the signifiers of Chinese-ness, only to trip us up by reflecting back our own expectations of China. Drawing on folk art and cartoons, Hou Chun-ming’s bright woodblock screens are a welcome combination of social commentary and ease with Chinese cultural norms. His fiercely uncoupling couple enact a narrative of sexual liberation at once harrowing and hilarious. Cheerfully obscene, done up in pinks and malevolent yellows, their curiously morphed genitalia comment on a society trapped in an enthusiastic moral tailspin.

Most refreshing are the explorations of supposedly anachronistic techniques, such as brush painting and calligraphy, which are employed to grapple with the debilitating weight of cultural tradition. Stand-outs are the manipulations that involve the evacuation of linguistic meaning, as in Qiu Zhijie’s erasure, through over-production, of the Orchid Pavilion Preface, a classic of Chinese calligraphy. Zhijie’s repeated copying of the text on the same sheet of paper produced a ravishing but wholly unintelligible block of inky black. Repetition as obliteration takes on special significance in light not only of the primacy of the calligraphic tradition in Chinese culture, but also of the Asian tradition of obedience to established precedent. Similarly, Xu Bing’s Books from the Sky (1987-91) are seemingly endless facsimile books of scrambled words and characters. These text works sabotage the string of signification, providing an extended analysis of form versus content.

With globalisation the current big thing, and China increasingly a power to reckon with, this survey was both inevitable and ambivalent. The intentions are good, the effort and curatorial impulses admirable, but the work, however, is too often turgid and uncritically adoptive of Western artistic frameworks. The show tells us something about the pitfalls facing Chinese artists, whose work at its worst veers between the tediously derivative and the hopelessly provincial. At the same time, the many successes and near-misses bring up questions about what we, in the West, expect in terms of a global Modernism or Postmodernism. Is contemporary art, wherever it originates, supposed to address itself to an international community? And how do we reconcile the popularity and success of installation art among non-Western artists, at a time when it is becoming a trifle stale to young Western ones? I’m not convinced that the homogenisation of contemporary art is so desirable. Nor that the only worthy art is that which explores previously unoccupied territory.

Jenny Liu

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First published in
Issue 44, January-February 1999

by Jenny Liu

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