Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald
Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald
Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald
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Art Gate

By all accounts, 1989 was a pivotal year in history.

TEXTS: Barbara Pollack
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

 

The Berlin Wall fell, South Africa witnessed the beginning of the end of apartheid and the World Wide Web was invented. In China, after months of protests in Tiananmen Square, the pro-democracy movement was brought to a bloody end when government troops fired on the crowds.  And so it is a fitting starting point for the grand exhibition at the Guggenheim, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World which traces the development of Chinese contemporary art from the aftermath of Tiananmen to the coming out party of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. This is not a definitive survey or an attempt to establish a new canon, but the sheer mass of material in this exhibition offers an alternative view of the art of this period, emphasizing conceptual artworks that slyly comment on China’s massive transformation during this period.

 

Near the beginning of the exhibition, Map of Theater of the World, 2017, a newly commissioned work by Qiu Zhijie, uses cartography to lay out various significant art movements like mountains, streams and land masses. Included in this map but missing almost entirely from the exhibition are two important painting movements — Cynical Realism and Political Pop — that are darlings of the auction houses and have dominated all prior attempts at creating a canon. Steering clear of popular paintings that merge Andy Warhol with Cultural Revolution iconography, the Guggenheim survey commendably emphasizes thought-provoking projects, allowing Chinese artists to be viewed as intellectuals, not commodity producers.

 

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald

 

For example, the exhibition emphasizes the role of artists collectives from Beijing’s New Measurement Group and Guangzhou’s Big Tail Elephant Working Group to the more recent activities of artbaba.com, an artist-initiated platform for online discussions founded in 2006. A show-within-the-show is its history of video art, starting with the first example of the medium in China, Zhang Peili‘s exercise in futility, 30 X 30, 1988. Peili is heavily represented in the show with several videos and installations, as is Wang Gongxin whose historic piece, Sky of Brooklyn—Digging a Hole in Beijing, 1995, was originally installed deep in the floor of the artist’s studio as if he had dug through to the other side of the world. This work has been updated with Sky of Beijing—Digging a Hole in New York, 2017, embedded in the museum’s rotunda. The curators should have made a greater effort to find more women artists from this period. As is, the show features a mere 10 out of 71 artists in the show, though Lin Tianmiao makes an impression with her installation, Sewing, 1997, a sewing machine wrapped in cotton thread with a video of the artist hemming a garment and Kan Xuan demonstrates an impulse to stand out on her own in the 1999 video Kan Xuan! Ai!.

 

A focal point of the show, hanging in the museum’s towering atrium, is Chen Zhen’s Precipitous Parturition, 1999, a massive dragon composed of hundreds of rubber inner tubes from bicycles. Another installation by the artist titled Fu Dao/ Fu Dao, Upside-Down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune, 1997, created a bamboo forest with plastic Buddha statues, household appliance, a bicycle and a computer monitor, hanging from its branches.

 

 

A highpoint of the exhibition is the section titled Uncertain Pleasures: Acts of Sensation which covers the 1990s predilection towards nudity and experimentation in art enclaves such as Beijing’s East Village. Ai Weiwei is placed in proper context here as a key organizer, bringing back information from New York’s East Village, publishing interviews with emerging performance artists such as Zhang Huan (who sat in a public toilet and let flies gather on his honey-covered skin) and making his own statement by crashing a valuable Han Dynasty urn. Rare footage of a group of artists, naked, piled up on top of each other in a mountainous landscape, form a tableau best known from the photograph, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995.  Younger artist Xu Zhen, who now shows with James Cohan gallery, displays his radical beginnings with Rainbow, 1998, a video that focuses on the back of a young man turning red from a beating, while the aggressor remains invisible. These artworks were intended to be shocking at a time when there were no public venues in China for displaying unofficial contemporary art and these artists had limited access to the outside world.

 

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald

 

Chinese art from this period still has the ability to shock, as proven by the controversy that erupted just days before the exhibition was scheduled to open. As originally conceived, this massive exhibition   was supposed to begin with the signature work by Huang Yong Ping titled Theater of the World, 1993 and end with the deeply disturbing video Dogs that Can Not Touch Each Other, 2003, by Beijing duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Theater of the World is a turtle-shaped glass terrarium intended to house a host of reptiles and insects that would devour each other over the course of the exhibition. The video in question captured pairs of pitbulls stationed on treadmills, straining to reach each other in perpetual frustration. But these two works proved too difficult for American audiences who viewed them as examples of animal cruelty, as was Macarthur winner Xu Bing‘s A Case Study of Transference, 1994, a video of two pigs, one marked with nonsensical English letters and the other marked in imaginary Chinese characters, engaged in the act of fornication. The Guggenheim responded to a petition of over 700,000 signatures and threats of violence by removing them from the exhibition, leaving Theater of the World in place but empty and the other two works muted on blank monitors.

 

Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018. Photo: David Heald

 

Whether we blame social media or museum administrators, this is undeniably an act of censorship, depriving the public of discovering the extremes, however disturbing, that Chinese artists went to in order to make their voices heard in the world. If there is any criticism of the show, it is that there is little information — either in archival material in vitrines or in the wall labels — that contextualizes the conditions in which these artists worked at a time when government shut-downs of exhibitions and other instances of censorship were daily occurrences. If Americans had a better sense of the obstacles Chinese artists faced prior to the emergence of a booming art market post-2000, they may have better understood the controversial works.

 

Hopefully, this controversy will not silence Chinese artists once again because this is an exhibition worth seeing multiple times with many artists long overdue to be recognized internationally. For decades curators have dreamed of a global art world. This exhibition proves that Chinese artists undeniably framed that world, reinterpreting conceptual art practices and contributing artistic innovations of their own.

 

 

Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
October 6, 2017 to January 7, 2018

 

 


 

Barbara Pollack

Since 1994, Barbara Pollack has written on contemporary art for such publications as The New York Times, the Village Voice, Art in America, Vanity Fair and of course, Artnews, among many others. She is the author of the book, The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China and has written dozens of catalogue essays for a wide range of international artists. In addition to writing, Pollack is an independent curator who organized the exhibition, We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art, currently at Asia Society Texas and she is a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has been awarded two grants from the Asian Cultural Council as well as receiving the prestigious Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer Grant.

 

 
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