February 9, 2006:
[achtung! kunst] *market* : The Chinese are coming... Eastern artists are captivating the western world
Contemporary Chinese art is sizzling.
Christie's auction house, which opened a branch in Beijing 10 years ago to scout for new work in the country's burgeoning art scene, conducted its first auction there in November, looking to capitalize on the appetite for art among China's newly rich. Next month, Sotheby's will stage its first New York auction of contemporary Chinese art. The Venice Biennale hosted the first official Chinese art pavilion last year. And the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York just became the first major international modern art museum to appoint a curator of Asian art. Now shows are being mounted at several New England museums.
Chinese work has seized the imagination of the Western art world for several reasons. There's the sense that Chinese artists have sprung up seemingly full-blown since the end of the repression and censorship of the Cultural Revolution. There's a fascination with a country that's become a world economic powerhouse. And there's the intoxicating fascination of new love: Chinese artists are spending as much time and energy trying to figure us out as Western art lovers are trying to figure them out.
The explosion of contemporary Chinese art can be traced in part to the 1989 exhibit ''China/Avant Garde" at the National Art Gallery of China in Beijing. The exhibit was shut down by the government, and organizers were banned from working for two years. That was four months before the Tiananmen Square massacre. Many of the most important artists in that show, including Huang Yong Ping and Xu Bing, defected to Europe and the United States. Interest in Chinese and other Asian art started to kindle. Today, it's a bonfire.
Several exhibitions of Chinese and other East Asian contemporary art are opening this season in New England, and a key theme is the collision of Western and Eastern cultures. Central among the shows is ''On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West," at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College starting Feb. 15.
Britta Erickson, who curated ''On the Edge" (originally mounted at Stanford University), has followed Asian contemporary art for 20 years.
''People thought I was nuts," she says of her passion for Chinese art in the 1980s. ''It was so hard to find out what was going on at all."
But times have changed. Chinese officials have realized the advantage of having Chinese stars in the international art market. The country has started to stage its own periodic exhibitions, such as the Shanghai Biennial, drawing foreign curators, collectors, and dealers to China. And economic ties between China and the United States have grown rapidly.
''Like Japan in the 1980s, now China is sucking up US money at a fantastic rate," says Erickson. ''At the same time, Asian art has reached a very exciting stage. Especially China."
Many of the works at the Davis exhibit delve into globalization. Sculptor Sui Jianguo, mindful of the mountain of cheap, Chinese-made plastic toys American children play with, had a Chinese plastics manufacturer put together ''Made in China," a series of 2 1/2-foot-tall red dinosaurs, metaphors for China's growing economic clout.
Another piece at the Davis, Zhang Hongtu's ''Shitao -- Van Gogh #7" re-creates an ink-and-brush 17th-century Chinese landscape in the vividly colorful style of Van Gogh. In its marriage of motifs, it's beautiful but disconcerting -- a visual encapsulation of globalization, which threatens to melt together disparate cultures, and a clever acknowledgment that contemporary art thrives on bringing apparent opposites together. (Coincidentally, a show now at the Museum of Fine Arts, ''Tradition and Transformation: Japanese Art, 1860-1940," examines the earlier impact of modernization on Japanese artists. And there's an eerie correspondence between ''Shitao -- Van Gogh" and Hashimoto Gaho's late 19th-century ''Landscape With Autumn Moon" at the MFA, which blends Western modes of perspective and volume with traditional Japanese subjects and media.)
Some artists who have left China for the West ruminate on Western identity. Zhang Huan, a performance artist who now lives in New York, donned a bodysuit of raw meat that made him resemble a flayed version of the Incredible Hulk and then walked the streets of his adopted hometown in a commentary on the tenacity of New Yorkers after 9/11. At the Davis, photographs and video of ''My New York" convey both the strength and the tenderness of a city recovering from a terrorist attack.
Other artists seek to bridge East and West. Xu Bing's ''Square Word Calligraphy Classroom" was created after he moved to New York and experienced a Western fascination with Chinese characters. The classroom, set up with brush, paper, and ink, gives museum visitors a chance to try writing their own calligraphy.
Past and present
Much of the Chinese work in ''Past in Reverse" pops off the walls with saturated color and humor. Photographer Wang Qinsong's ''Knickknack Peddler" borrows the composition of a Song Dynasty painting, depicting life in a Chinese marketplace 800 years ago. Wang's updated version has the artist peddling Teletubby toys, Snoopy dolls, and postcards of his own work to children dressed so brightly they look toylike themselves. Another photographer, Cao Fei, dips into the slick visual language of advertising to make pointed commentary on the psychological emptiness of consumerist society.
Betti-Sue Hertz, curator of contemporary art at the San Diego Museum of Art, where ''Past in Reverse" was organized, notes that artists tend to stick to their own regional sensibility, even as they confront similar issues.
''The people in Japan are saying [Chinese art like Cao Fei's] is so over the top," Hertz says. ''They say, 'We don't care. We already went through that boom phase. We're returning to small, intimate things, our own community, our families.' "
Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji's ''Vinyl Plastics Connection," for example, is the result of an ongoing project in which Fuji invites communities to take part in a barter-based market for trading toys and other plastic items. For this installation, he has created a large dinosaur out of recycled plastic bottles.
Hong Kong artist Leung Mee Ping examines the tension between individuality and community with ''In Search of Insomnious Sheep," a video and sculptural installation. She placed a small, mirrored dinghy in the city's waterways and invited one person at a time to sit in it. A larger boat towed the dinghy, and the passenger was given a microphone so an audience on the large boat could listen to the individual's reflections. The boat, covered in mirrors, became almost invisible in the water; the artist has said she thinks of this as an ''empty" space. With this work, she marries form and emptiness, addressing an essential riddle of Buddhism.
East meets West
Huang Yong Ping, who has a retrospective show coming to Mass MoCA next month from Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, was an early and brilliant purveyor of such subversive art in China. He was a leader of Xiamen Dada, a 1980s group of artists who once publicly burned their own work to undermine ideas of authorship and attachment. After leaving China in 1989, he settled in Paris.
His works poke and prod at the powers that be. ''The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes" offers up a lump of pulpy paper. ''Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank," a sand castle with the imposing edifice of a Shanghai bank, erodes over the course of the exhibition. And ''11 June 2002 -- The Nightmare of George V," a giant sculpture of a tiger climbing atop an elephant, takes on Western colonialism.
Huang revels in transgressing the artificially drawn line between nature and culture. This, too, has roots in Eastern philosophies; Chinese medicine takes a more holistic approach to healing than Western medicine. Huang's ''The Pharmacy," a sculpture in the form of a gourd, a traditional symbol of Chinese medicine, advocates the Chinese approach. In ''Theater of the World," Huang places hundreds of live insects and reptiles, many of which don't share the same ecosystem, in the same place and leaves his museum audience to witness ''survival of the fittest" at work -- another comment on globalization.
Japanese artist Shintaro Miyake also orchestrates the collision of nature and culture in ''The Beaver Project," opening at the Massachusetts College of Art on Tuesday. Miyake, dressed as a beaver, went out into the world to acquire what he needs to build a dam, which is to be erected in MassArt's Bakalar Gallery.
All the works in these shows may have their origins in Asian culture, but they address issues that matter all over the world. And that's one reason they appeal to a growing number of American art lovers.
''I hope the whole exoticism thing has faded away," says Erickson. ''People have finally realized there's high-quality, important art being made in China. People are looking at it as serious art."
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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