Thursday, September 21, 2006

When I used to think of China, I had an idea of it as vast foreign place, and I didn’t imagine much variety among the country’s constituents. Moreover, I thought little of China beyond the big cities of my imagination: Beijing and Shanghai. If asked to define the essence of China, I would be at a loss, but I’d believe it possible. The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art’s current exhibition "Entry Gate: Chinese Aesthetics of Heterogeneity" is trying to get at this essence of China through the work of its contemporary artists. What they’ve found is that the reality of China is not easily soluble; it’s complex and multifaceted and this exhibition aims to demonstrate the aesthetics of the conglomerate of dissimilar parts that is contemporary China.

During my visit to the MoCa, I was particularly struck by two works from Qiu Jie. The first piece "Washer Women" is a large pencil drawing on the first floor. The drawing depicts a scene in contemporary China where the old, new, and surreal all congregate. Women wash clothes on stone steps at the base of the river while listening to a radio over which a pair of Nikes is draped. Beyond the women in the foreground we see at the same time modern Chinese town, with cars and trucks traversing the streets and an ancient one, with its citizens washing clothes and visiting the market as they have done for centuries. Flying above the scene is winged man and several mythical Chinese birds adding a surreal element to the piece, perhaps an indication of the artist’s bewilderment at the mixture of old and new.

Qiu Jie’s other drawing on display, "Voyage To the West", also utilizes the surreal. Drawn with pencil, the work symbolizes a departure from, and perhaps even a growing contempt towards, traditional Chinese values, and a steady march towards Western ideals. A Chinese woman, clad in Nike tennis shoes, and her child ride atop a steer traveling through mountains and forest. On the other end of the picture Qiu Jie presents a monkey, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, dancing wildly with a staff in hand. I think Qiu Jie’s monkey is representative of a growing feeling of absurdity towards traditional Chinese beliefs as its society progresses, as it voyages west. The further China goes on its voyage away from its traditional values, the more absurd and out of place those old values look.

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