|''Untitled (Marilyn/Mao)'' by Yu Youhan is in the exhibit ''Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art From the Sigg Collection.'' (Peabody Essex Museum)|
Two exhibits take a striking look at Chinese contemporary art
Easily the most compelling show of contemporary art in the vicinity of Boston right now is the Peabody Essex Museum's "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art From the Sigg Collection." With verve and concision, the show presents an overview of recent developments in Chinese art - developments that have been among the most momentous in art anywhere over the past quarter century.
Admittedly, not everyone thinks this stuff is so great. The gold-rush mentality of the recent Chinese art boom has made many recoil in disgust. Moreover, the appeal of exoticism alone quickly palls. As familiarity with the most flamboyant names of recent Chinese art balloons into overfamiliarity, even ardent admirers are forced to admit that much of what is exchanged for profit is formulaic and facile.
But I compare the situation to British art in the 1990s, when such attention-craving artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin provoked a rush to adverse judgment (and priceless publicity), obscuring a creative surge powered, for the most part, by more subtle and intelligent artists.
The Peabody Essex show provides a chance not just to see the recent flourishing of art in China as the fascinating historical phenomenon it is, but to try to spot the artists who really matter. The show is taken from the celebrated collection of Switzerland's Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China and North Korea, who began collecting Chinese art in the early 1990s.
Happily, it's complemented by a compact show at the Smith College Museum of Art: "Post-Mao Dreaming: Chinese Contemporary Art," which presents a gift of more than 30 works by Joan Lebold Cohen and Jerome A. Cohen, Americans who began visiting China and collecting contemporary art there almost two decades before Sigg.
The Smith show provides a perfect prologue for "Mahjong." It concentrates on a 10-year period beginning in the early '70s, when artists were tentatively emerging from the strictures of the Cultural Revolution, rediscovering traditional approaches and testing new freedoms.
The Cohens got to know most of the artists whose work they collected. When they first went to China, in 1972, art had been made completely subservient to revolutionary politics. Artists had to display utter loyalty to the party and to express enthusiastic identification with the people - especially workers, soldiers, and peasants. Traditional Chinese art and most Western styles were forbidden. Socialist Realism - a propagandistic figurative style favored in Stalin's Soviet Union - was the order of the day.
The lives of many of the artists here had been viciously upturned by the authorities. Cheng Shifa, for instance, had his property seized and was forced into hard labor. At one point he was made to wear a dunce cap on which was written "weird, black, wild, confusing." But like many of the artists who were lucky enough to survive, he was eventually rehabilitated. He ended up as principal of the Shanghai Painting Academy.
What makes this relatively modest show so moving is that the artists who lived through this period clung to the possibility that art could be more than an instrument of politics: It could be beautiful. This was their quietly heroic stance. Thus when the thaw began, they jumped at the chance to paint landscapes, flowers, graceful women, and poetic abstractions.
The works in "Post-Mao Dreaming" are mostly variations on ink painting. In some - for instance, Ya Ming's handsome "Mountain Landscape" - the accent is on the reclamation of this 3,000-year-old tradition. In many others, such as Yuan Yunsheng's celebration of graceful femininity, "Nude With Twin Babies," we glimpse signs of a courageous new emphasis on individual expression.
In tenor, the show is very different from "Mahjong," which reveals a generation of artists making full use of new freedoms and confidently exploring a host of mediums, from ink painting and installation to performance and photography. The respect for antiquity and tradition that is one of the pillars of traditional Chinese art gives way in "Mahjong" not just to a burgeoning interest in personal expression but to new forms of satire, critique, cynicism, and lament.
I'm no fan of the so-called Cynical Realists, artists like Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, whose Pop-inspired paintings of laughing androids for many people epitomize the new Chinese art. But I am partial to the work of the more conventional realist Liu Xiaodong. Liu's work can sometimes look sloppy, but here his group portrait "Eating" is as deft as contemporary realism gets.
Six company men are shown posing for a picture in their bathing suits at a beachside picnic. Their stances and facial expressions, by turns casual and self-protective, eloquently express their personalities, without a hint of caricature. This is just the sort of sympathetic frankness Mao would never have tolerated.
"Mahjong" has come to Salem from the Berkeley Art Museum in California, where it filled a vast space set aside for temporary shows. The Peabody Essex curators have cut it down substantially, but it's still big enough to fill multiple galleries. A few pieces have even been ingeniously scattered among Chinese works in the permanent collection.
Thus in the gallery devoted to Asian Export Art, see Xu Yihui's "Boy Reading Mao Book," a porcelain bust of a young boy reading Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book." A tear runs down his face, and the book's pages are strewn with flowers. The meaning of the piece remains mysterious, but it's as if, far from being inspired by Mao's exhortations, the boy were moved to pity. Suggestively, the work has been placed alongside an anonymous 18th-century porcelain statue of a smiling boy from the permanent collection.
Similarly, in a permanent gallery focusing on Chinese aesthetics, a richly decorated Manchurian robe from the museum's collection is hung beside Wang Jin's transparent plastic variation on the same theme, called "The Dream of China." Draw your own conclusions.
The main body of the show is divided into themed sections. In a section called "Urban Transformations," look out for the Luo Brothers' wonderfully witty lacquered collage, a parody of hamburger and Coke-fueled consumerism; Cao Fei's seductively satirical animation of a fantasy city set to mindlessly twittering muzak; and the photos that document a famous work by Wang Jin: In response to a 1996 government commission to design a sculpture for a shopping mall, Wang built a wall (a powerful symbol in once-isolationist China) using blocks of ice. Embedded in these blocks were consumer goods such as cellphones and designer handbags. A crowd gathered, and a near-riot ensued as people jostled and hacked at the ice to get the items.
In the final section, devoted to artists who take up traditional methods or subject matter, it's hard not to be tickled by Liu Wei's huge digital photo "It Looks Like a Landscape." The work resembles a traditional ink painting of misty mountain peaks. It takes a minute to see that the forms are the variously hairless and hirsute bodies of standing humans, bent over double.
Contemporary Chinese art is littered with eye-catching sleights of hand like this. But such pieces, though they may impress, rarely move us. The works of Chen Guangwu and Lu Qing, on the other hand, take up the tradition of scroll painting and, through the patient application of marks with a brush, fill the space around them with a spirit of contemplation, delicacy, and devotion. Their works are far from conventional, but like those in "Post-Mao Dreaming," they are unabashedly beautiful.
Lu Hao gives us the best of both worlds: the demotic wit that delights in the newfound freedom to criticize and pour scorn, along with the singular devotion to technique and poetic expression that has been a mainstay of Chinese art for millennia. His "Grain of Sand" is a miniscule work that we are invited to admire through a magnifying glass. On a tiny stone tablet, illegible to the naked eye, he has inscribed a short biography of a certain Mr. Hu (just the kind of worker with whom Mao demanded artists identify) who was killed by his boss for demanding his back pay.
What more eloquent expression of the vulnerability of ordinary human life under the thumb of authority (be it the authority of tyrants or the authority of the dollar) could there possibly be?