Witness to Growth – After Image: Dangdai Yishu at London’s Lisson Gallery

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns (detail), 2014. Carpets (Including eight small carpets with variable sizes). Installed dimensions: 940 x 1343 cm. Installed dimensions: 370 x 528 5/8 in.
Li Binyuan, Breakdown, 2019. 4 hours performance.
Yu Hong, 26岁故事片《冬春的日子》剧照, Twenty-six years old A photo showing a scene in the film “The Days”, 1992, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, newspaper. Print: 68 x 100 cm, 26 3/4 x 39 1/4 in, Painting: 100 x 100 cm, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 in.
Zhao Zhao, Untitled, Xinjiang (still), 2018. Single channel HD colour video installation, stereo sound. Dimensions variable.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

Introducing the uninitiated to the history of China is no easy task – there is, put simply, a lot of history. Convening an afterimage, or aftershock of contemporary Chinese art seems hardly any more straight forward.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

 

In his curatorial statement, Victor Wang discusses the complete capitulation of juxiang (figurative art) in the face of the forces of hou juxiang zhuangtai (the post figurative condition), unleashed by China’s ’85 New Wave movement. The classical definition of art as a matter for ink and brush gave way to an openness towards all materials, including video, fibre glass, digital image and performance art (all of which are on display in this show). His words carry an echo of a kind of trauma: the government’s suppression of the individual in favour of the group, and its undermining and censorship of foreign influences meant that the figurative, the representation of the self, was no longer useful as a tool to make sense of the world. An interdisciplinary approach allowed artists to unpick the historical movements, political forces and economic reforms which were now playing an outsized role in their lives.

Wang goes on to stress that the new generation of artists (born after the cultural revolution) “can no longer be defined by geographical region or country of origin,” that they are also products of “a sweeping global modernization movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.” There is an allusion to Chicago-based Professor Wu Hung’s theories of a globalized, “deterritorialized” Chinese art landscape. Contemporary Chinese themes are writ large in this show, however, and to present this exhibition as clear evidence of a Chinese globality would seem counter-intuitive. The visitor bumps into a litany of Chinese concerns from internet censorship (aaajiao’s 404) to the relentless creep of cultural hegemony (Zhao Zhao’s Untitled, Xinjiang), to the timeless Chinese theme of the role of self, family and society (Yu Hong’s Ten years old on the playground in Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics 1976). Part of the show’s success is the multiplicity of its viewpoints.

After Image: Dangdai Yishu is spread over Lisson Gallery’s two sites at Bell Street and Lisson Street, and cleverly nudges the visitor into a sense of being off balance, of dizzy disjuncture. Lin Tianmiao’s Protruding Patterns takes up most of the ground floor at Bell Street, prompting visitors to politely ask staff if they might tread on it to get to the rest of the show. Presentation allows for no signs or stickers. We are vaguely  on our best behaviour, most markedly on the mezzanine floor amidst Xiang Jing’s fibre glass humanoids and the hollowed-out voluptuousness of Ma Qiusha’s Page 21. Zhao Zhao’s mesmerizing Untitled: Xinjiang in the basement is not comfortable viewing: one visitor I spoke to felt “unable to pace herself” in front of a video of uncertain length where we seemed to be half watcher, half watched.

 

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns (detail), 2014. Carpets (Including eight small carpets with variable sizes). Installed dimensions: 940 x 1343 cm. Installed dimensions: 370 x 528 5/8 in.

 

To speak of highlights is subjective, but several works lingered in the memory:

Looking into the internal courtyard, a pile of bricks is all that remains of Li Binyuan’s Breakdown. This is an artist who exemplifies the hou juxiang zhuangtai world where even the human body can replace brush and ink, and the artist is willing to put himself in harm’s way as a kind of performative sacrifice. Standing astride a brick tower, bringing the whole foundation down from above in a shower of masonry, Breakdown offers a metaphor for a kind of anti-revolution, a state of affairs where those at the top smash up the people who got them there, and punish themselves in so doing.

 

Li Binyuan, Breakdown, 2019. 4 hours performance.

 

Yu Hong – an artist trained in the socialist realist style – presents four paintings of different phases of her life set against momentous events in the life of modern China. She began this Witness to Growth series in 1999. They poignantly portray the tender frailty and defiant resilience of the young, the human need to seek pleasure where we can find it. Our lives are transient and fleeting, and the unwanted infringement on them by political influence is a tragedy. In these paintings, bold political movements too seem impermanent and futile.

 

Yu Hong, 26岁故事片《冬春的日子》剧照, Twenty-six years old A photo showing a scene in the film “The Days”, 1992, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, newspaper. Print: 68 x 100 cm, 26 3/4 x 39 1/4 in, Painting: 100 x 100 cm, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 in.

 

Finally, Zhao Zhao, an artist who once plugged in a fridge in the middle of a desert, shines a spotlight once more on the disappearing customs and peace of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang. The gentle silence of women at all stages of life, sitting outside, rocking their children on a swing (rendered still more affecting by their lovely stifled mirth): a study in dogged stoicism.

 

Zhao Zhao, Untitled, Xinjiang (still), 2018. Single channel HD colour video installation, stereo sound. Dimensions variable.

 

Aaajia’s 404 reminds us of the firewalls Chinese citizens hit when trying to inform themselves where it is not permitted. The value of this show goes beyond documenting the victory of the post-figurative condition in contemporary art. In China, are things going to plan or is it all falling apart? What’s smarter – patience or activism? Like netizens greeted with a 404 message, this exhibition will not bring answers, but it sensitively and informatively deals with how Chinese artists have been tackling the realities, questions and challenges of life in China.

 

 

About the Curator

Victor Wang is an independent curator and exhibition-maker based in London and Shanghai. He is Associate Curator at Performa, New York, editor of the recent publication ‘Performance Histories from East Asia 1960s–90s‘ (DRAF 2018), and a Visiting Lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing. Wang has curated ‘Richard Tuttle: Introduction To Practice’ (2019), at MWOODS Beijing, and is co-curator of the forthcoming ‘Micro-Era. Time-based Media-Art from China’ (2019), at the Nationalgalerie Berlin – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, as well as presenting the first museum and gallery solo exhibitions in China of British artist Haroon Mirza (2019) at the Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; Michael Dean (2018) at ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai; Estonian artist Katja Novitskova (2017) at Cc Foundation & Art Centre, Shanghai; Brazilian artist Jac Leirner (2016), at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Pavilion, Shanghai, and French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa (2016), at the chi K11 art museum, Shanghai. Wang also curated the first presentation in the United Kingdom of Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen’s ‘XUZHEN Supermarket’ (2007/2017), and the group exhibition ‘Zhongguo 2185’ at Sadie Coles HQ, London; he also curated the first performances in the United Kingdom of influential Korean artists Kim Ku Lim at the David Roberts Art Foundation (2018) and Lee Kun-Yong at the Korean Cultural Centre UK (2017) London.

 

 


 

Nicholas Stephens is from London and has lived in Hong Kong for the last nine years, where he works for a leading Hong Kong gallery, specializing in contemporary ink. His articles on diverse aspects of the Hong Kong arts scene have been published in “Art Hong Kong”. A graduate in Modern Languages (European ones unfortunately!), Nicholas has authored translations of novels and plays by writers including Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

 

 

 
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