New YorkAsia Society
Mirror Image: A Transformation of Chinese Identity
June 15 – December 31, 2022
The seven artists in this exhibition—all born in mainland China between 1979 and 1987—are represented by nineteen works that range from video to performance to installations, digital art, painting, and more. Each tells a different story with wit, curiosity, techno savvy, painterly skill, and/or sociability.
Immersed in a conflicted and globalized universe, these artists contend with many confounding realities, wondering not only who they are but also where they are. The exhibition’s curator, Barbara Pollack, refers to the artists as “transnationals,” inventing themselves as they seek answers. They are building only slightly on Chinese traditions. Mostly, they use their practice to investigate the various subjects that compel and intrigue them.
The most conventional works on view are Cubistic architectural paintings by Cui Jie that depict urban architecture in cityscapes that almost exist in reality. We move in the show through the Pop-inspired theatrical ready-mades of Nabuqi, whose playfully surreal installation arrays household, decorative, and nonfunctional items—fabrics draped over lamps, for instance—on the floor as if set out by Robinson Crusoe on a desert island with no apparent purpose. The presumably made-in-China consumer products were conceived as IKEA configurations with the joke being that they could not be shipped during Covid, so they were purchased from IKEA in the United States following written curatorial instructions from China. Here, Nabuqi employs “sampling” to engage simultaneously with different materials, cultural roots, associations, literary and artistic tropes, and mediums.
The most fascinating and clearly stated work is the Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based Pixy Liao’s images that lead viewers into engagement with a potential narrative and emotional reality. Minimalistic and slyly suggestive, the images of the artist and her much younger husband portray ambiguous sexual identities and roles as when a photo shows a male figure dressed only in boxer shorts being pushed on a swing by the fully dressed artist. It’s as deadpan as could be.
A testimony to the unavoidably spell-binding is Tianzhuo Chen’s video Trance (2019), presented here as a trailer for a twelve-hour video. Filled with images from Buddhism, Christianity, and Happenings, and other various mythologies, the video is a mesmerizing dystopian hodgepodge of international artistic and social unease.
While these artists add only modest touches of Chinese culture, Miao Ying mixes it all up in her film Surplus Intelligence (2021–22), which is supported by AI enhancement, amplifying more than meets the eye. What appears delicate and sweet—an initially indecipherable line drawing set against a powder blue and pink backdrop—reveals slightly threatening black dronelike forms, including cartoonish figures bearing arms, together with plastic looking forms and tombstone shapes and wheels and fire and plants suggesting poisoned environments. The ambiguity of a violence-pocked milieu, a game lending inherent motion to the image, offers an AI-conceived story or nightmare. The half-hour film appears on the screen like the germ of a TV serial continually inspiring the real-life artist.
More familiar film-based works are those of Liu Shiyuan, who introduces found imagery from the internet with that of her own, and Tao Hui, whose most-contemporary parodic soap operas, with characters ranging from queer to transgender, update the genre’s melodramas.
This concise show is a modest and to-the-point commentary on the ideas of what Chinese can be. What is being exported? What is being appropriated? What is being misinterpreted? And how does misinterpretation create a new, multinational heritage? While materials tell much of the story today, globalization and increasingly, intangibility, are at the heart of it.