Ethan Cohen Fine Arts | January 24 - April 30, 2002
If anything can characterize contemporary China, it is the experience of rapid social and environmental change. Or so claim the curators of Making China. Rephrasing the all too common “Made in China” stamp that seeps its way into so much popular consumer culture found in the West, Making China sets out to examine the role of the artist in a society and a landscape caught in perpetual transition. With works by 13 artists, all but one currently living and working in China, the exhibition offers a rare glimpse of the Chinese avant-garde (here specifically non-traditional, Western-influenced, often conceptual art) to a Western audience.
The question of the artist’s power is most aggressively and transparently addressed by Gu Dexin in his ongoing installation/performance in which he squeezes small pieces of meat until they petrify. The installation consists of a wall-sized montage of vertical strips of photographs of Gu’s hand at work (three panels of 12 photos represent the squeezing of one piece of meat, or the 36 frames of one roll of film) and two shelves of petri dishes containing groups of whitened, hardened pieces of meat labeled by the days they were “squeezed.” The photographs depict only the artist’s hand holding raw meat with slight variations in rubbing, pressing, and pushing motions. Gu then digitally alters the images to enhance and vary the color red in each image, making the collection of photographs a stunning abstraction of red and black. In contrast to the visceral, bloody experience of the photographs, the actual remains of Gu’s meat are packaged and classified, separated, not merely dead, but completely devoid of life. The photographs have preserved the violent, sexual sensation of the meat in the artist’s hand, but in the process of making these images, the raw material has been completely consumed.
Gu is one of the most well known avant-garde artists working in China today. He has created very public site-specific works in China as well as exhibited in Europe, perhaps because he is clearly conversant in the tropes of 1990s “sensational” installation art (he has a certain reverence for Damien Hirst) and is without an overt concern for politics, either Chinese or global. At the same time, the work can be understood to speak to the artist’s power over both nature and culture in a society reconciling years of absolute governmental control with new social and economic influences from abroad.
Wang Jinsong offers a more overtly political investigation of artistic production. For the photographic project “Standard Family,” Wang photographed hundreds of “families.” Each portrait is composed exactly alike: the mother sits on the left, the father by her side on the right, and the child in the middle, on a bright red background. “Standard Family” is comprised of two hundred 7 by 9 inch portraits and measures 20 by 7 feet which, the artist explains, “slightly exceeds the capacity of human vision.” The work speaks directly to the effects of the Chinese government’s politics and the Chinese people’s acceptance of “one big unified system,” here manifested in the 1979 one-child policy. However, the individual and loving descriptions of each family certainly references Thomas Struth’s mid-1990s family portraits. Wang is documenting the making of China, but he also questions the relationship between artistic production and social reproduction. “Standard Family” claims the equal importance of art and biological reproduction in the continuation of a culture, while questioning how the culture can grow when the personal is so harshly regulated.
Juxtaposed with the order and control of “Standard Family” is the matter of subversive cultural production, which is at the heart of Cui Xiuwen’s video “Ladies Room.” Using a straightforward, documentary style similar to Wang’s, Cui concealed a surveillance camera in her underwear to film women in the bathroom at a glitzy Beijing nightclub that doubles as an upscale brothel. The video retains a circular black frame of a fish-eye lens, which both reminds the viewer that she is “peeping” and emphasizes the fishbowl nature of the bathroom itself. There is a constant stream of women in front of the camera, but they are viewed only from behind or in the mirror into which they scrutinize their reflections, applying make-up and adjusting their breasts openly in the “private space” of the bathroom. But these women are not beautiful objects of art; they are anonymous workers.
Cui did not ask permission to film her subjects, and she catches uninhibited moments without any sense of each individual. An obvious criticism of the work is that it is a complete invasion of these women’s privacy, and the artist does little to answer the ethical issues that she raises (she has stated that she felt free to make the work because she knew that these women would have no right to challenge her since prostitution is illegal). Ladies brings to the fore the lack of artistic responsibility and propriety in experimental Chinese art. However, it also mirrors the anarchic growth of urban life in China, a leap into post-industrialization unchecked by moral and ethical concerns.
Zhao Liang also explores the complicated relationship of art and sociological documentaries in three large-scale color photographs. His series “Beauty” depicts members of a troupe of amputee trapeze fliers. Three men stand, arms linked, naked before the camera against a stark white background; three legs support their upright forms. In another image, three legs fly in the air while six hands support these strange, imperfect bodies. The images recall the fleshy connectivity of the Chapman brothers’ perversities, but a close investigation reveals these figures to be more subtle and more real. Zhao’s camera describes every scar and bruise these men carry with them in their athletic feats, as well as their joyful antics. “Beauty” represents a consenting relationship between artist and subject in describing physical deviations from political and social expectations.
While almost all of the works in the show are excellent examples of significant trends in contemporary Chinese art, the breadth of the survey, in conjunction with the tiresome, excessively postmodern catalogue “conversation” (in lieu of an essay) by the curators, sacrifices the works in the service of reinforcing a hackneyed analysis of the clash of East meets West, ignoring their relevance outside of the Chinese identity of the artists and their geographic context. Increasing exposure to Western popular culture and contemporary arts is one factor in the social revolution in China. The history of Western art in the last century provides Chinese artists with many of the larger questions they pose regarding Chinese society as well as the visual language in which to answer. Artistic production in transition and artistic production as transition are critical questions facing contemporary artists, both Chinese and Western, and the works on view in Making China offer insight into questions facing all artists interested in globalization, including the globalization of contemporary art.
Amidst this chaotic riot of videos and sculptural riffs on pop art, one lyrical and subtle sculpture speaks most clearly about the complicated relationship of East and West for the contemporary Chinese artist. Zhang Jianjun’s “Red Melon” consists of a spherical Qing Lang Yao vase with a narrow mouth which the artist, an NYU professor, found at a flea market in China. Over time, using his experience as a conservator of Matisse ceramics, Zhang extended the neck over a foot. The original vase has a deep brick-color glaze that slowly transitions to a lighter blood-red as the newer clay reaches up gracefully out of the base, so that slowly, and only upon close examination, do the seams in the clay and the artist’s hand extending the clay become visible. The artist states that “sometimes it looks like a melon on a vine, and other times it inspires people’s strange thoughts.” In my strange thoughts, Zhang’s form is a heart with one large artery that flows both into and out of the vessel below, bridging a reverence for the past with the worship of the improvements of technology in the future, and in the process transforming a functional object into a more difficult-to-use sculpture of lines and circles.
Making China has been organized in conjunction with Asia Week and the International Asian Art Fair New York, March 21 – 26, 2002.