Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | OCTOBER 6, 2017 – JANUARY 7, 2018

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Courtesy © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo: David Heald.

Looping endlessly on twelve television monitors, close-up shots of hands frenetically scratch different parts of the body. Zhang Peili’s iconic piece, Uncertain Pleasure II (1996), ironically anticipates today’s highly mediated experience of viewing, as well as the challenges of giving a coherent framework to the chaotic history of contemporary Chinese art.

Co-curated by Alexandra Munroe, Hou Hanru, and Philip Tinari, the exhibition is a rich, dense, and wildly ambitious selection of contemporary artworks produced by Chinese artists from 1989 to 2008, bearing the task of representing these works in a chronological, globally contingent, and historically-responsible manner. Whereas the year 1989 references the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 2008 points to Beijing’s extravagant hosting of the Olympics and the global economic crash. In designating these loaded dates as cut-off points, the exhibition privileges globalization and increasing State-control as two driving forces shaping artistic production. Chinese artists, therefore, necessarily inhabit a schizophrenic realm torn between the global and local, politics and poetics, and discourse and affect.

Huang Yong Ping’s opening piece has proven to be a spectacle as much as it is a critique of one. Composed of Theater of the World (1993), an octagonal cage shaped after a tortoise shell, and The Bridge (1993), a sinewy structure resembling a snake, the installation was originally conceived to house a selection of insects and reptiles, which, in the course of survival, would fight and devour each other. Per Huang’s schematics, the work can be understood as a veiled metaphor for a contemporary colosseum of brutal competition, a live-action model of Bentham’s panopticon. The fact that it is shown as an empty shell is a reminder of the very different sets of realities that the artist and the museum are dealing with: one of social turbulence versus very practical restraints. 

Huang’s interest in social control paves the way for the collision between individual iconoclasm and authority. Subversion was often effectively achieved by appropriating pre-existing structures and turning them on their head. Geng Jianyi’s Forms and Certificates (1988) began as a hoax; he asked twenty-six artists to fill out fake forms. While the format closely resembled government-mandated documents, certain elements stood out as obviously absurd, such as “birth weight,” “life aspirations,” and “favorite person,” to which a good number replied, “myself.” It is in the failure to meet bureaucratic expectations that humor and individualism begin to seep through.

Song Dong, Stamping the Water, 1996. 36 chromogenic prints, 61 × 40 centimeters each. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Promised Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky.

Zhang Peili—widely-known as the father of video art in China—unveils State-instituted obsession with “examination,” “measurement,” and “good citizen[ship]” by employing senseless and monotonous acts, rendering visible the pervasive apparatuses of discipline and control. In Document on Hygiene (1991), Zhang washes a live chicken with soap, playfully mocking the intrusion of hygienic campaigns into people’s lives. In another work, Water (Standard Version from the ‘Cihai’ Dictionary) (1991), a famous newscaster flatly repeats the dictionary’s entry for water, metaphorically, disrupting the smooth machinery of Chinese televisual media.  

Inscription, erasure, and durational repetition were strategies often employed by artists using their bodies to demonstrate, through performances, the fundamental instability of language and identity. A series of sequential photographs document Song Dong “stamping” the Lhasa River in Tibet with a wooden seal carved upon which is the Chinese character for water. Song’s efforts are rendered futile by the evanescent waves, evoking a Taoist sense of impermanence. Similarly, Qiu Zhijie employed calligraphy to copy the famous text “Orchid Pavilion Preface” 1000 times on paper. The result is an illegible black blob, a testament to the simultaneous imprint and erasure of traditional culture.   

With great emphasis on language, it is important to note that many works that incorporate text as medium are not translated—or perhaps they cannot be translated. Far from standalone pieces, these artworks acquire meaning through circulation, contextualization, and audience-making. In fact, a number of artists in the show were critical of the global museum/gallery/biennial system, upon which they became increasingly reliant. In a satirical painting named There Came a Mr. Solomon to China (1994), Zhou Tiehai strikes parallels between foreign critics’ “discovery” of “exotic” Chinese art and Marco Polo’s colonial voyage, echoing Wang Lin’s 1993 manifesto that “Oliva (chairman of the 45th Venice Biennial) is Not the Savior of Chinese Art”.

Zhou Tiehai, There Came a Mr. Solomon to China, 1994. Ink, graphite, watercolor, and paper collage, 230 × 350 centimeters. Collection of Laurence A. Rickels. Courtesy the artist.

The practice of performance art flourished in Beijing’s self-proclaimed “East Village,” an impoverished area where a group of experimental artists gathered in the mid-90s. In a compelling, humorous, and now famous performance, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, (1995) Zhang Huan and his artist friends stripped naked and piled their bodies on top of each other, metaphorically becoming “one” with the mountain and thereby making it one meter taller. The work was inspired by the Buddhist saying, “beyond mountains, there are more mountains.” The performance documented by this work embodies the collective and bare-bones ethos that gave the East Village it’s distinctive quality.

While the lack of female artists in the show demonstrates the gender asymmetry embedded in the making and writing of this history, the work of the women who are included is poignant and moving. Juxtaposing a self-portrait of the artist trimming her bangs with a propaganda photograph glorifying Deng Xiaoping’s tour of southern China, Yu Hong intervenes in the grandeur of state reform with the tactile intimacy of the everyday. Lin Tianmiao’s hauntingly poetic installation Sewing (1997) brings the invisibility of female labor into view by projecting a pair of hands onto a sewing machine station. The work stands crushingly alone in asking: where are the women in mainstream representation? The curatorial setting supplies no answer.

As the exhibition chronology approaches the end, it turns to focus on activism and collective projects, especially those invested with the power of speech and resources: namely Ai Weiwei. In devoting a massive space to the renowned dissident, who has been so tritely portrayed as single-handedly shouldering the burden of China’s activist art, the curators indeed reaffirm him as an institution in which artmaking and activism have become mutually constitutive and completely co-dependent. However, it seems necessary to note that successful activism does not inherently make for important art. This is the case for Weiwei’s installation of Fairytale (2007). It preserves an earlier work in which Ai paid 1001 Chinese visitors to visit Documenta 12 as part of his contribution. Here, those visitors appear as wallpaper. Thankfully, the exhibition concludes on a stronger, if rather somber, note; in large block characters spanning two walls, Gu Dexin prints:

WE KILLED HUMANS WE KILLED MEN WE KILLED WOMEN WE KILLED THE OLD WE KILLED THE KIDS WE ATE HUMANS WE ATE HUMAN HEARTS

Implicating the viewer in the most gruesome way, Gu’s blood-stained words reference A Madman’s Diary (1918), a canonical short story by the modernist writer Lu Xun. Just as the madman recognizes the legacies of Confucian moralism as cannibalistic, Gu’s accusations imply that the world has not evolved that much, only now it’s armed with more advanced techniques of domination. Such pervasive unrest and acts of aggression truly find home in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), the most attacked out of the three artworks the museum chose to censor after public outcry. It is a video documentation of a live performance, wherein pitbulls are chained to treadmills and forced to run. As the dogs growl ferociously at one another, the audience appears giddy with fascination and delight. By perpetrating violence, the artists succeed in restaging a theater of cruelty in which we all participate. Yet the black screen, as it so solemnly stands in the show, testifies to the moral high-ground that groups with different agendas have relentlessly fought over in the media: whereas proponents of animal rights dismissed these works without examining what they actually address, critics of the Guggenheim’s removal ignored what the act of censorship could open up.

With regards to gender disparity, the untranslatability of language, the threshold of ambivalence between art and political activism, and the threat of provocation in dissolving ethical boundaries, the show unwittingly reveals problematic aspects to the exhibition, circulation, and canonization of this history. Yet it is precisely these nebulous spaces, imbued with paradoxes and potentiality, that call for new ways of thinking.

Contributor

Banyi Huang

BANYI HUANG is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.

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