Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, UK
The term ‘multiculturalism’ has an increasingly hollow ring, and ‘Silent Energy’, an exhibition of contemporary Chinese artist, looks, in fact, like its very opposite. Her it becomes apparent that the new breed of Chinese artists has decided to use the Western vocabulary as a means of expression. That brief period of cultural pluralism enjoyed by The People’s Republic between 1956 and 1966, expressed in the slogan, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’, withered in the Socialist Realist soil of the Cultural Revolution, but might be reviving in a cultural glasnost that has affected each of the dissident artists in this exhibition.
The idea of an avant-garde is a Western concept. It was the Yenan Forum of 1942 which set China on the path of Soviet-style Realism, and since that point it has been ideologically and practically impossible to survive as an outsider within a revolutionary proletariat state which regarded itself as the cutting edge of modernism. The artists in this exhibition are therefore necessarily émigrés or dissidents using in their work rather more occidental than oriental vocabulary. Gu Wenda’s Oedipus Refound II: The Enigma of Birth is a version of Kiefer’s iron beds and wilting flowers. The beds are replaced by wooden cots and the backdrop by distorted, garish Chinese calligraphy, used sanitary towels and placenta powder – a different iconoclastic act hitting out at sexual taboos. Provocative statements have been made before by Chinese artists. In 1987, Ai Wei Wei created a coat of condoms entitled Safe Sex, while at the china Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989, Xiao Lu and Tang Song fired a gun at their work. Gu Wenda himself gave every indication of his provocative intent with his installation for the International New-traditional exhibition in Trondheim, Norway in 1988, in which 3 mice were set within bamboo structures along with 3 mousetraps, primed with poisonous bait on red arrows.
Both Wan Luyan’s graphic engine room of machinery and Huang Yong Ping’s Yellow Peril work as modernist critiques. The machinery in Luyan’s work is, in fact, useless, self-destructive and un-manned, like the great engine room of the People’s Republic without those smiling, well groomed workers. It highlights the conflict within the Chinese intelligentsia between industrialisation at the expense of social order, and Confucian social harmony alongside a free-spirited Daoism. It was this difference in the interpretation of modernism that led to the tragic events of June1989. Yellow Peril is the most startling piece n the show, comprising of a wedge-shaped silk and canvas tent, a cage, 1,000 locusts and five scorpions. This arresting spectacle is another language game since yellow and locust are phonetically similar in Chinese. With the irrational 19th century European fear of the yellow peril in mind, we must suppose that the scorpions represent the historic response of the West, and of modernism.
The silent energy or ‘I Ching’ that, it is claimed, runs through some of these works was traditionally found in landscape painting and is one of the most important components in Chinese calligraphy. Here it takes political form in works such as Yellow Peril, and in bodily form, in the case of the acupunctured, wooden slabs of Xi Jianjun. This suggests that despite the photographs of elemental explosions by Cai Guoquiang, today’s young Chinese visionary artists, many of whom were Red guards during the Cultural revolution, have lost the reverence for and understanding of nature that was once central to any form of expression in ‘The Kingdom at the Centre of the World’. A little like the computerised imagery and tongue in cheek comments on our consumer society made by Japanese contemporary artists in the Whitechapel’s A Cabinet of Signs, the new generation of Chinese artists, born with Mao’s credo, ‘To smash and then to establish’ ringing in their ears, have on the evidence of this show become dislocated from the true ‘I Ching’. That so many, according to the catalogue, are influenced by the linguistic gymnastics of Wittgenstein and the prophetic, Daoist writings of Nietzsche is fine, but how much of the Heavenly Kingdom remains? Guan Wei’s Test Tube Baby and the Wunderkind paintings have nothing to do with the pre-revolutionary past. Rather they are ironic observation s on those trapped within the illusion of modernism.
With the exception, perhaps, of the black holes of Yang Jiechang and Xi Jinajun’s Pathways, I did not sense a natural energy in this work. There is a power, a force that is not conciliatory, but is intellectually sophisticated. If only there were the vestiges of a spirit to add to this awareness, the work might be extraordinary.