Guggenheim’s Tales of Our Time

Zhou Tao, Land of the Throat, 2016 (detail). Installation with two-channel color HD video, with sound. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, THe Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection (C) Zhou Tao. Photo: Courtesy the artist
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo. Kristopher McKay
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
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Zhou Tao, Land of the Throat, 2016 (detail). Installation with two-channel color HD video, with sound. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, THe Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection (C) Zhou Tao. Photo: Courtesy the artist
Zhou Tao, Land of the Throat, 2016 (detail). Installation with two-channel color HD video, with sound. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, THe Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection (C) Zhou Tao. Photo: Courtesy the artist

 

TEXT: Barbara Pollack
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

 

Once upon a time, New Yorkers held firm impressions of contemporary art from China as Pop Art portraits of Mao and installations made of Qing Dynasty furniture dominated the field. But the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is intent on transforming those prejudices with the series of shows they have organized funded by the Robert H.N. Ho Framily Foundation. Tales of Our Time is the second edition of this series, following a lackluster reception for a solo exhibition for Wang Jianwei in 2014, Featuring eight newly commissioned projects by artists from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as mainland China, Tales of Our Time looks at a younger generation of artist — Zhao Tao, Chia-En Jao, Kan Xuan, Sun Xun and Tsang Kin-wah, plus the artist-duo Sun Yuan & Peng Yu and the three-member Yangjiang Group — highlighting alternative narratives that represent sharp departures from news accounts and official histories.

 

Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald

 

From the catastrophic mud slide in Shenzhen to the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, the exhibition touches on a range of topics pulled straight from the headlines. But the artists are more storytellers than journalists. Employing a wide range of mediums from ink painting to animatronics, they deal with China more as a concept than an identity, eschewing easy associations and symbols. This is fitting for an exhibition that takes inspiration from the 1936 modernist classic Old Tales Retold by the influential author Lu Xun who appropriated Chinese folklore to critique the social conditions of his time. Likewise, the artists in Tales of Our Time examine conditions in contemporary China but through approaches that often blur the distinction between fact and fiction.

Entering the exhibition is like walking into an animated wonderland due to the artistry of Beijing artist Sun Xun, 36, who has already shown in New York at the Sean Kelly Gallery. He covered the walls and ceiling with handdrawn mural-sized scrolls on to which a newly commissioned animation was projected. The artwork told the story of his hometown in Northeast China, a center of coal production that has fallen into decline in the age of globalization. Alternatively engaging and disturbing, the work took viewers into a new view of China.

 

Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald

 

There was an abundance of videos in this slim exhibition, due in part to the time constraints of completing work in less than a year for the show. One stand out is Taxi (2016) by Taipei artist Chia-En Jao, 40,. For this work, the artist surreptitiously recorded conversations with taxi drivers en route to politically charged sites around the city, such as the Chang Hwa Bank where a mass protest was suppressed by Chiang Kai-shek’s military regime in 1947 or the Grand Hotel, converted from a Shinto temple when the local government sought to destroy all remnants of the Japanese occupation. From a group of 60, he chose to concentrate on five who specifically spoke of the history of their destinations from personal experience.

Kan Xuan, 44, another artist from Beijing and one of two female artists in the exhibition, completed a long-term project based on extensive travels throughout China to 110 ruins of ancient cities. Her multi-media installation, Kū Lüè Er (2016), plays videos on eleven screens compiled of the thousands of images she shot on her mobile phone during her journey. Shown on a semi-circle of monitors, the work takes viewers to unfamiliar place but does not quite convey the magic of these hallowed sites.

 

Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo. Kristopher McKay
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo. Kristopher McKay

 

Adding a touch of performance to the show, Yangjiang Group, comprised of Zheng Guogu, 46, Chen Zaiyan, 45, and Sun Qinglin, 44, created an interactive tea house for the circular gallery overlooking Central Park, complete with a ceremonial tea service, an invitation to meditate and a blood pressure machine to measure the soothing effect this process had on the participants. This was the most stereotypically Chinese aspect of the exhibition which may have pleased museum visitors but reduced the fresh quality of the overall show.

But the artists who certainly tested the limits of the Guggenheim as an institution are the artist-duo Sun Yuan, 42, and Peng Yu, 44. two of China’s most controversial artists. Having earned their reputation in the early 2000s by making installations using human body fat, live animals and corpses, here they presented a shovel-wielding machine scooping up a blood-like liquid as it seeps across the museum’s floor. Due to safety concerns and general upkeep, the entire installation was housed within a plexiglass cube that visitors surrounded to watch the action. Not only entretaining but also thought provoking, this piece was a savvy metaphor for political pressures in China, attempting to control matters which are always bubbling out of control.

 

Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald

 

For this generation of artists, who were raised with the benefits of the Open Door policy, Chinese identity is a completely different experience than that of the previous generation who suffered through the isolation and repression of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Many of them have studied abroad and most work internationally. Chia En-Jao got his MFA from Goldsmiths in London, for example, and Kan Xuan divides her time between Beijing and Amsterdam. So, while all the works dealt with socio-political issues in greater China, few evoked the kind of stereotypes often associated with Chinese contemporary art, which is a very good thing.

In such an exhibition, China is no longer an exotic territory or a national identity, but a cultural construct framed as much by current social conditions as by 5,000 years of history. In some ways Tales of Our Time could have been a fitting sequel to Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, a historical show that will fill the museum’s entire rotunda when it opens in October 2017. Organized by Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator at the Guggenheim with Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and Hou Hanru again serving as consulting curator, that exhibition surveys Chinese art over the last quarter of a century with no commissioned or recent works and is not funded through the Ho Foundation grant. Yet it shares some of the same impulse to open the world to a reinterpretation of Chinese contemporary art.

“What we share is an interest in breaking down any monolithic reading of contemporary Chinese art,” says Ms. Munroe. “We want to complicate it. We want to explode it. We want to focus on individual artists and individual artist practices and present those ideas in an international context.” Ms. Weng, who is excited to see ideas once mere sketches on paper emerge as full-fledged art installations, is a bit more modest in her claims. “I don’t want to say alter or change or transform the expectations of Chinese contemporary art. I just think it can be updated a little bit,” she says adding, “I will be very happy if we can achieve that.”

 

Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald
Tales of Our Time, Soloomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald

 

Tales of Our Times
On view till March 10, 2017
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

 

 


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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