Contemporary Chinese art is a festival of mis-prision, a dominion of unknown knowns and doubtful doubts. Let’s say I don’t care for Fang Lijun’s ubiquitous paintings of airborne, tangerine-skinned figures, like 1996-10 (1996), the one in this latest show of Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens’ capacious Chinese art collection, with its three grinning protagonists in candy-coloured uniforms soaring, arms outstretched, above a bowl of blue ocean. I can say that Fang appears to have rigorously milked a market, and that on the whole I find the ironic overjoyed conformism of Cynical Realism, of which he has been a leading exponent, unsatisfying even in its calculated thinness. And yet these, though I feel them in my bones, are still windy generalizations built on no actual experience of the cultural context that produced the art. Exclusionary caveat established, however, I then start to doubt how much that matters, and I’m back to a slightly more complicated form of not-liking. And finally, as often with Western art, I start to enjoy feeling unmoored: the difference being that, in the high-ceilinged galleries of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), the ambiguity isn’t prearranged, and I’m missing the point.
‘Our Future’, curated in-house by Jérôme Sans, Guo Xiaoyan and Kate Fowle, and featuring some 60 artists, is intended to signpost ‘an open platform of dialogue between China and the rest of the world’; its audience, at least in part, was apparently presumed to be foreigners passing through Beijing’s 798 art district, where UCCA is located, during the Olympic Games – though it’s also a roundup aimed at inquisitive Chinese too. It is positioned as an instant education, then, and one with a fulsome, catch-as-catch-can air. It has a galumphing, glittering, giant Chandelier (2008) by Ai Weiwei, part of a subsidiary show of on-site commissions, or artful décor, entitled ‘Super Fengshui’. It has, courtesy of Wang Du, a Space-Time Tunnel (2004) which one enters from the lobby, passing through an unfussy media critique (numerous babbling televisions inset into padded walls), before emerging, surprised, down a slide into the big central gallery, over which the propped-up tube turns out to have dramatically snaked.
And it has, in this main stretch, a welter of discontinuities that is best served, to put it mildly, by careful deliquescing. Among the biggest hitters, there is work whose choked, doom-struck atmosphere fully compensates for ostensibly blunt symbolism, such as Chen Zhen’s Perseverance of Regeneration (1999): a matte black crashed car crawling with bug-like toy vehicles, dozens of them swarming into grotesque bulges at the windows. There is also work that expends itself before your eyes, like the parade of laughing, T-shirted clones in Yue Minjun’s painting Happiness (1993), or the courtly expressionism of painted portraits, by Liu Xiaodong and Yan Pei-Ming, of the collectors themselves.
Though you wouldn’t know it from this display, Yan Pei-Ming is capable of paintings which are almost crushingly visceral and, simultaneously, self-scourging: art which doubts its own validity even as its rigour and brutality affirms it. It’s in experiencing such work, where one can grip onto the dialectical game in which the artist is making his moves, that recent Chinese art’s foreignness recedes and one doesn’t find oneself nervously defending it based on a bluffer’s approach to China’s recent socio-political history. That doesn’t happen much among the painters in ‘Our Future’, despite their often overt investiture in Western aesthetics. The high points are mostly three-dimensional. In particular Chinese sculptors appear to do blank horror rather well: consider Huang Yongping’s Buddha’s Hands (2006), a pair of monstrous, faux-stone, disembodied squid-like forms, one toting prayer beads. There is work here – like Wang Jianwei’s Engineering Project (2008) featuring cartoonish, colourful piping built into the walls and dripping sculptural facsimiles of white gunk in ‘Super Fengshui’, and like Lin Yilin’s Our Future (2002), a fibreglass replica of a Chinese dragon smashed into a freestanding breezeblock wall – that hotwires the unconscious with alarming rapidity: an unexpected upside of the greenhorn perspective, perhaps, but the jolts are undeniable.
And look, I’m talking from a position of assumed certitude again, and according to the weightings of taste and misapprehension; which may not be so far different from being Belgian and massively affluent, and buying the Chinese art that looks and feels good to you. The difference being that the Ullenses, through UCCA and financial muscle, are seeking to define to the Chinese and the world what advanced Chinese art looks like, and it is, one might hazard, somewhat rangier than a foreign entrepreneur’s buying habits suggest, at least on this showing. (Pointedly, the nearby Long March space is concurrently exhibiting a parallel mini-history of recent Chinese art which flaunts registers of toughness, wit and conceptual gravity that ‘Our Future’ doesn’t go near.) More importantly, if the Ullens’ want the sociologically punchy Chinese art they favour to be the dominant story, they need to present their purchases so that they energise each other, or narrate recent history, or at least avoid sending the viewer from artwork to artwork with an almost tangible bump. Some things can be passed off under the sign of cultural differences; some things can’t.