March 31, 2006
Art Reviews | 'Great Performance'; 'The Thirteen'
The Chinese Vanguard Is Blazing Its Trails With Cameras
By HOLLAND COTTER
[image] Scenes from "Keynote Speech," a video by Li Songhua at P.S. 1.
CHINESE contemporary art hit New York, en masse, eight years ago with a
fireworks bang. The big news of this year's Asia Week is that, for the
moment at least, the bang is back.
Taking place today is Sotheby's first-ever auction of contemporary Asian
art. Its preview exhibitions amounted to the largest local survey of
vanguard Chinese material since the "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" shows
at the Asia Society and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 1998.
Two concurrent, longer-running shows in the city focus on types of work
that Sotheby's slighted or ignored: the Max Protetch Gallery in Chelsea
has a small, old-and-new selection of performance-based photography.
More important, at P.S. 1 again, in Long Island City, there is a snappy
roundup of recent video, a favored medium among young artists in a
digitally savvy 21st-century China.
[image] "Am I Dreaming?," a Zhao Bandi photo at the Max Protetch Gallery.
Although post-Tiananmen work filtered into New York throughout the
1990's, "Inside Out" was like an explosion. Suddenly, we were bombarded
with a highly varied art of far-out ideas and vaguely familiar forms:
abstract paintings made with gunpowder, hanging scrolls woven from hair,
printed books the size of tents, calligraphy repeated to the point of
obliteration and performance pieces that combined endurance tests, Dada
and Chinese opera.
In short, Chinese art history was being put through a postmodern
blender, from which it emerged transformed but still oddly intact. The
results were smart, funny, clunky and scary, greater in breadth than in
depth. The startup energy was tremendous, a high. After a while, though,
the high wound down. We heard reports of prodigious activity in China
itself, but little fresh art seemed to travel, and we ended up recycling
second-hand stuff in too many group shows.
The situation may be changing. You would never guess it from the
Sotheby's auction, but photography and video have long since replaced
painting in the Chinese vanguard. We have been seeing a fair amount of
both in New York, most recently in the impressive survey "Between Past
and Future: New Photography and Video From China" at the International
Center of Photography in 2004.
In a sense, the Protetch show, "Great Performance: Contemporary Chinese
Photography," is just a footnote to that survey. It adds a bit of
history by updating the careers of Conceptualists — Ma Liuming, Song
Dong, Wang Jin, Zhao Bandi — who gained notice in the 1990's. And it
gives further exposure to a handful of bright artists from the show
"Between Past and Future" who have yet to find galleries here. Liu Wei,
with a "classical" mountains-in-mist landscape composed of bare legs and
bent knees, is one. Zhang Dali, who has developed his own brand of urban
graffiti in constantly demolished and rebuilt Beijing, is another.
The real find, though, is work by two women. Yin Xiuzhen, best known for
her soft-sculpture cityscapes, has a beautiful photograph of an idyllic
landscape strewn with pairs of empty shoes here. And the formidable
young performance artist Chen Qiulin depicts herself sitting like a
soot-besmirched moon goddess in a rubble-filled urban lot.
The increased visibility of women in China's art scene is confirmed by
"The Thirteen: Chinese Video Now" at P.S. 1, where Cao Fei, born in
1975, has three pieces. In the most elaborate, "Cosplayers" (2004),
teenagers dressed as Japanese anime characters turn the city of
Guangzhou into a stage for epic dramas before sulkily returning home at
dusk to have dinner with their parents.
Ms. Cao, with a growing reputation and a New York solo show — a
disappointing one — at Lombard-Freid Projects in Chelsea, is one of a
handful of P.S. 1 artists who were also in the International Center of
Photography survey. Cui Xiuwen is another, and her exotic, wall-filling
image of lanterns swaying in the dark opens "The Thirteen." The
Shanghai-based Hu Jieming, with a rapid-fire video of architectural
images cued to music, is a third.
And then there is the 20-something artist-curator Xu Zhen, who helps
fill the current show's bad-boy quotient. In the video titled "Rainbow,"
the sound of flesh being slapped or whipped accompanies an image of a
bare human back gradually reddening under assault from unseen hands.
Mostly, however, "The Thirteen" is a showcase for New York debuts. Some
of the newcomers work with political commentary. In Li Songhua's
"Keynote Speech," a child reads aloud from a government report on
economics. The Beijing-based team called 8gg (Jiang Haiqing and Fu Yu)
turns television newscasters into herky-jerky robots.
[image] "Demolition Time Plaza, Beijing," a photograph by Zhang Dali.
One of the show's older artists, Xu Tan, born in 1957, tours a part of
Shanghai where the first Chinese Communist Party Congress met in 1921.
The site is now a Western-style shopping strip of upscale cafes and
boutiques. You could as easily be in Switzerland as in China.
Although other work feels light and slight, like one-line jokes or music
videos, I was very glad to encounter two brooding, mysterious pieces by
Meng Jin, and to reacquaint myself with Lu Chunsheng, a nondebutante who
has shown at the Museum of Modern Art. In his work, and in that of the
highly accomplished Dong Wensheng, an old and a new China meet.
Mr. Dong's seven-minute video "Excited Insects" is one of the best
things here. It opens on a sunny spring day with a modishly dressed
young man making his way through lush undergrowth to an old, almost bare
tree. He climbs onto one of its branches and begins to adorn it with
sprays of blossoms that he pulls from a satchel. He works slowly and to
pretty effect. After he has completed the illusion of bringing the tree
into flower, he drapes a sheer white scarf over the branch and abruptly
A strain of jumpy nihilism that runs through much new Chinese art — you
catch glimpses of it throughout the show — is distilled here. It is a
time-honored response of Chinese artists to the pressures of intense
cultural change, of the kind China is undergoing now. And the response
is as evident in painting from centuries ago as in video today.
We may have been only dimly aware of such connections eight years ago,
but we are beginning to see them now. And we are likely to see them even
more clearly with time, as one of the world's oldest and newest art
traditions — China's — continues to land in our midst and to remain with
us and become part of our lives, as, sooner or later, it certainly will.
"Great Performance: Contemporary Chinese Photography" runs through April
22 at the Max Protetch Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; (212)
633-6999. "The Thirteen: Chinese Video Now" is at P.S. 1 Contemporary
Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, Long Island City,
Queens, through April 24; (718) 784-2084.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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