Outstanding Art: Underwhelming Experience
I saw a sign for Contemporary Art in M50 the other day and decided to check it out. Outstand Art Gallery was having an exhibition featuring the works of artists Yu Jin, Wei Ru, Qin Shengxian, Zhang Yuyin, and Jin Shi, among others. I was curious to see how this contemporary art would compare to the works we mention in class, but ultimately I was somewhat disappointed. Too much red, too many of the same cultural symbols, too much Mao. Yu Jin's Red Guard series depicted black and white young adults with something prominently red, like the flag of China, or their arm bands. They stood around and didn't really do anything, nor did they do anything for me. Jin Shi's masks featured disgustingly obese and effeminate men doing uncomfortable things, their lips painted a bright, luscious red, not unlike Wei Ru's Sentiment series, featuring the familiar combination of black and white people with only one color: red lips. Buddhas smile in the background. My favorite piece was a silhouette of Mao, with Buddhas in his face. It felt completely uninspired. The plaque describing Zhang Yuying's inspiration for painting animals seemed interesting, but the paintings were, again, somewhat uninspired. Cute donkeys, dogs, pigs, etc wandered around with sad faces while easily recognizable landmarks (like the Imperial City) floated in the background.
Whether it was their response to pressure from the external world or their own conception, I hope that emerging artists will discard the notion that Chinese art can't be Chinese unless it contains the same tired cultural symbols (Mao, the Imperial City, propaganda-style posters, emphasis on the color red, etc). I'm sick of Mao in every possible way, and I never want to see him ugly mug again.
Zhongjian: Midway at Eastlink Gallery
Seeing something that looks like a bird skeleton wrapped in cabbage is kind of cool, but only the first five times. Are six nearly identical, bone-white bird skeletons wrapped in cabbage necessary for anything? Does the fourth one convey some message that the first three, either individually or collectively, do not? Or the fifth? Eastlink's Zhongjian – Midway exhibition just opened on Sunday, and I was still in Shanghai, waiting for an erroneously-booked Monday flight home, although in retrospect I'm glad I got to have the extra two or three days to settle down before leaving. In addition to Shen Shaomin's cabbages, Zhongjian featured the works of Liu Qinghe, Julie Bartholomew, Zhang Qing, and Jin Sha, who was also the curator.
Liu Qinghe's paintings of waif-like girl I mistook for a calligraphy painting at first glance, thinking their wispy hair was strands from a willow tree or something similar. Not the case, fortunately. I particularly enjoyed Jin Sha's Fading Away, the plaque for which discussed the commoditization of culture, and like how so many aspects of China before, it, Chinese culture too would soon become defined, delimited, and purchasable anywhere you want, except in the places where it used to be. Based on my time in China, I have the same fears: that something that used to be natural and unique will become just another Chinese export, as fake and plastic as everything else in this country.
Right down the road is the art center at 570 Huaihai Lu. Its open space and nicely renovated buildings aren't as shabby as those of M50, the entire space is far more open and inviting, which I much prefer to claustrophobia. In this sense, it sort of reminds me of 798 in Beijing than the A ring of galleries and cafes surround a relatively open green space, where various sculptures have been installed – multicolored feet, a tantalizingly inviting bicycle with one open seat that reads, "Do not touch," and my favorite piece, a massive, hulking, metal bull. Part animal, part machine, the bull charges, frozen in time, the power conveyed by its size and posture amplified by both the impenetrable metal from which it is made and the pipes, bolts, and gears that gradually take over its body from head to toe. Its horns are almost 1/3 of its entire length, and they are slim, graceful, and deadly.
Right across from the bull is the Red Bridge sculpture gallery, a space that I really enjoyed and strongly recommend checking out. With maybe 100 sculptures inside, the space was very inviting and many of the artworks were both interesting and innovative. Xiang Yi's simple Waiting for the Next Bus resin sculpture depicted a man leaning forward and peering with an intense scrutiny, ostensibly waiting for the next bus. His body was all white, except where shadows were suggested in dark blue. The plaque describing the work expanded the simple act of waiting for a ride home into a metaphor for life in general: "Life is full of occasions where we are waiting alone for something to come. Life is full of dreams that are to be realized through everything that we are doing. We experience the tune of growing up in the course of expecting one after another." At the risk of getting too personal, this piece struck me because I felt like I've spent far too much time waiting alone for something to come or something to happen, a passivity that I have always disliked about myself, yet I also suspect I am far from being the only person who feels this way. Thinking back to the sculpture, I could see how much energy the blue and white man had invested in simply waiting, and I wondered what else he might have been able to do right now. This sculpture reminded me that in order to live the lives we want to lead and experience the things that we want to see and feel, we can't be content with simply waiting for things to come to us – we must become active participants in our own lives in order to make our dreams and desires reality.
Jin Xing and Modern Dance
Frankly, I was surprised to discover that the Chinese army was so supportive of the arts, let alone a transsexual dancer. I knew that the PLA was a major patron of the arts in China, currently trying to purchase Chinese works from all around the globe to bring them back to China, but I was surprised that they seemed so personally invested in the life and success of Jin Xing, especially in light of her transsexuality.
How did the army come to be such a major destination for children whose parents want them to pursue a future in dance? It seems strange that an institution that so many associate with power, control, and "evil" could have produced someone as progressive and potentially controversial as Jin Xing. Sylvie Levey's documentary did an excellent job capturing the emotions, motivations, and methodology of both Jin Xing and her peers, and I was glad that it was more than just a sensationalized documentary on a sensational subject. We previously watched another of her documentaries and even had a chance to talk with her in class The City and the Environment. She followed the lives of a relatively poor family in Shanghai for seven years while they waited to receive the news of their home's demolition and the plans for their future relocation. While she was forced to abandon filming before any conclusion ever came, while editing and producing the film back home she received the news that their relocation had been ultimately successful. Both documentaries were excellent and I would love to see more of her work in the future.
Blackboard Exhibition at ShanghART H-Space
While I wasn't expecting to find 20 different blackboards made by 20 different artists decorated with chalk landscapes or portraits or covered with Hello Kitty stickers at the Blackboard exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an exhibition more creative than I had thought it would be. The first piece visitors encounter is He An's blackboard, which is neither black nor a board. Colored neon lights frame a large white space as each side and color illuminates, clockwise, in turn. It felt like an advertisement for something ("Car Wash!" or "99 cent Hamburger!"), but where any text or photo might have been, instead was an open white space, freeing the viewer to imagine anything they wanted inside of this "blackboard."
Cheng Ran's blackboard was exactly the opposite: it was an entirely spray-painted black creation, a cutout scene where physical layers provided the only way to differentiate between this black and that black… for whatever reason my first thought was of Halloween, which of course made me miss every kind of chocolate other than Dove (like Hershey's!).
Jin Shan did use an actual blackboard to create his work, but not in any way that you might be expecting. He tied a rope to the board and strapped it to his back, stood on the side of the road, and created a six minute video of himself asking passing motorists to take him to New York, thus the title of the piece: To New York. If Jin Shan has ever seen an episode of Candid Camera, the concept might not be all that creative, but it was an enjoyable video at least, and certainly used the blackboard in an unexpected way. I'm not sure whether the performance was staged or not, but the video ends with the driver of a white van agreeing to load his blackboard into the back: they drive off into the distance, before the video fades to black. I'm not sure they made it to New York.
My favorite piece was Qiu Zhijie's blackboard, which he sprayed black before lending it to various committees, organizations, and even a farmers' market to use for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to a few months. He photographed the blackboard in use at each location, wiped it clean after the final use, and attached the four photos to the blank slate.
Tiananmen 20 Years Later: Art from a Soldier
A former soldier who was present at the Tiananmen square events in 1989 is turning his photographs into oil paintings, despite pressure from officials. Stationed at the square to subdue the protests in June 1989, Chen Guang took photographs of the event as a routine procedure, but ended up keeping nearly 100 of the photos. Showing once again the army's connection with the arts, Chen was only a soldier for a little longer before transferring from a military art school to the Chinese Academy of Fine Art.
I am curious to see what these paintings will depict, how they will be received, and if they will ever be displayed, or even viewed, and even if they are viewed, will anyone discuss them? There are almost too many variables to consider. I also wonder why he is converting photographs into oil paintings – does this legitimize them as artistic instead of the complete realism that photographs contain? Is Chen afraid that photos of such a sensitive event would be considered too 'dangerous,' while oil paintings are completely harmless? I do not think this is the case, but I am interested what the content of the work will be, and also to see how it will be received within China. "I'm not doing anything wrong," he said. "I'm just talking about my experiences."
Read the full article at the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/world/asia/04soldier.html
Performance Art and Experimental Theater
Saying that I struggled to make sense of Gerry Pryor, let alone his video of Chance Running, would be an understatement. He's a colorful character, and I would have liked to see some of his other performances too, because I don't think I was the only person who felt a little confused about what they had just seen and who they had just met. My only real issue was the barely-suppressed glee with which he proclaimed, "Using my body in this way is sort of like a sin. Every time I create art... I'm actually sinning." He seemed tickled to death by this fact, but I'll leave my criticism at that.
Last week, we watched a variety of performance art videos with Zhao Chuan, and these were somewhat greater in scope and in length of time than Chance Running. This type of art is definitely abstract, but never to the point of meaninglessness. While I won't claim to be able to extract a single, clear, direct message from any of these works, it is still more than possible to take something away from them. Thinking about Li Ning's work in particular, as emphasized by the frequent nudity, the human body is an essential component of the performance art we saw. As simple as it sounds, I was especially struck by how the actors/performers moved in strange ways, and in ways I wasn't expecting. Eventually, I made a list of what these performances were all "doing." Sure they were running around naked and lighting meat on fire or whatever, but generally these videos emphasized:
1. Thinking about and using our bodies in new ways, and
2. Interacting with and moving through the world in different ways,
both concepts that I think easily translate to a larger, more accessible "meaning," raising questions about anything from the fragility of the human body or the fragility of humanity in general, to posing questions about our roles as individuals within the world or in society, and to what extent our lives and our ways of thinking are shaped (or constrained, or guided) by the particular environment in which we live.
Finally, I was almost surprised at how much I enjoyed the grass stage performance last Friday. I know that accessbility isn't a requirement of any form of art, but I found that a lot of the material presented or addressed in the show felt quite relevant to either my own life and experiences or to humanity in general. It was also a fun opportunity to get to talk to a few of the actors later at the Mommy Foundation party, and hear about how the ways in which they invented and developed the performances, and where they found inspiration for their individual characters.
James Cohan Gallery
Last week Xiaoxia and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to find Stephen the Spectacular at ddmwarehouse, failed, but did manage to see the exhibition at the James Cohan gallery. Featuring works by Xu Zhen, Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, and Anselm Kiefer, Matters of Faith is a small but surprisingly enjoyable exhibition (although it took me a while to figure out that the creepy, giant monkey guarding the bathroom wasn't actually part of this show).
The painted palm leaves didn't manage to engage me at all, and Xu Zhen's model of the Potala Palace built from thousands of miniature playing cards seemed like it was tedious to build but not overly innovative, but I particularly enjoyed the two video art installations. Nam June Paik's Enlightenment Compressed presented a small bronze Buddha watching its own live image displayed on a television screen a few inches in front of it. At first whimsically comical (Buddha seeking enlightenment by contemplating his own image, and on a TV screen, no less), but gradually encountering the layers of meaning, I wondered whether this Buddha was meditating, or merely in a mindless trance. And what about my own childhood, mostly spent inches away from a similar TV? Was Sesame Street really just a vehicle to reaching nirvana? Something tells me no.
Finally, Bill Viola's video featured two women, initially obscured by wierd fuzz. As they approaced the viewer, their forms passed through a grey veil of water before emerging into a world of clarity and color. Upon reaching this world (our world?), a mix of apprehension, outright fear, longing, and hope flashed across their faces. Ultimately, either defeated or disappointed, one woman seemed unable to bear the sight of the new world she had discovered, and fled back through the sheet of water into shades of grey; her companion, after a final warm glance, allowed herself to be pulled back through as well. I found this work to be the most engaging, and I enjoyed hypothesizing what lay on each side of the veil: knowledge and ignorance? order and chaos? Or maybe it was just a room full of monkeys, and the grey-haired lady had a bad childhood experience.
With a relatively limited knowledge of Chinese art, I wanted to do some research for my blog this week. It seemed logical to begin with one of the pioneers in what can be considered modern Chinese art: Lin Fengmian.
Lin Fengmian was born in 1900 in Guangdong, China. The son of a traditional Chinese painter, Lin studied European styles in France and Germany before returning to China in the mid 1920's. His work primarily attempted to synthesize Eastern and Western artistic styles, blending traditional Chinese methods with European modernism. After gaining much fame for his innovative style, Lin Fengmian helped to found the National Academy of Art in Hanghzou, a school that focused both on developing Chinese culture and on integrating Eastern and Western art.
Lin Fengmian produced a large number of paintings depicting autumnal landscapes, many of which are relatively dark and emotive.
Unfortunately, many of his works have been destroyed, first during the Japanese invasion that began in 1937, and later during the Cultural Revolution, when he destroyed many of his own works due to criticism from the Communist Party and the Gang of Four. Despite this, he was still imprisoned for nearly four years, after which he moved to Hong Kong in 1977, where he lived until his death in 1991.
Hello from Hangzhou
While I didn't check out any galleries or studios this weekend, I did get a chance to see something that I think I'd be unlikely to see while exploring Shanghai: nature (or something like it). Specifically, I saw big trees, green grass, and blue sky this weekend in Hangzhou – three things I have yet to see in this gray, hazy metropolis. Sure, I'm from Maine, where we have a lot of trees, but I wasn't expecting every inch of this city to be paved over. I've seen a lot of places here where there's plenty of room for a patch of grass or even a little bush, but instead it's just a big empty space covered with pavement or dirty tiles.
Yet even in Hangzhou, where trees are more than 30 feet tall, the fields of surprisingly green grass were off-limits, and in a park the size of ECNU on the shore of the West Lake, there were something like 10 benches for 10,000 people. Although beautiful, the throng of people trying to enjoy the weather were forced to keep moving, walking on paving stones through this artificial and untouchable landscape.
In the end we decided to jump the fence and play a game of cards on the grass. Four thousand Chinese followed our example. I wish I had before and after pictures of this phenomenon, but all I have is a "before-the-police-arrived-to-kick-us-out" picture of everyone finally enjoying themselves, sitting on the grass. Just because it's simple doesn't mean we don't need it. Does China hate nature? Probably not – but where has it gone?
If not necessarily a record of China's growth as a nation, the Propaganda Poster Art Museum in Shanghai is at least a unique view into the ideological growth of the Communist Party. A chronicle of propaganda posters from the Mao Era, the artwork enables viewers to construct a sort of timeline of events occurring within China and around the world during this time. Yet even with my limited knowledge of modern Chinese history, the world depicted in these posters feels more like a parallel universe from The Twilight Zone than anything close to reality: when I saw peasants happily working in the fields with baskets full of food, I guessed that at the time this poster was created, China was probably starving, or close to it. When hundreds of tanks, airplanes, and soldiers had their guns pointed toward Taiwan, I tried to imagine how threatening Taiwan and its American allies must have seemed.
More interestingly, the characters depicted in the propaganda posters highlight an interesting evolution in China's perception of itself and its allies. Older posters prominently feature Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Engels superimposed onto pictures of Chinese commoners, industries, or military, reinforcing the link between these older philosophers and China's present reality. Eventually, perhaps as the relationship between China and its Soviet uncle declined, Lenin and the others are nowhere to be found, replaced by Mao himself as the ideological leader of China. Still later, one can observe through the posters as Mao transcends from mere human to a revered symbol of China as a whole.
Finally, my favorite poster was one of the last posters in the collection, a futuristic scene from 1979 that reminded me of the intro of The Jetsons. Set in a forest of futuristic buildings, the viewer is surrounded by warplanes, elevated railways, cars, bizarre helicopters, spaceships, and cargo trucks as they try zoom out of the poster and into my face, into the future, but they can't quite make it. Even 30 years later, this utopian vision of a modernized China is still incomplete, and I'm not sure when, if ever, it will become a reality.
An Instant in the Process
Common themes among the projects of the Intrude: Art and Life 366 exhibition at the Zendai MoMA were those of identity and change. In a constantly changing world, and especially in a city like Shanghai, how does one define or even create his or her identity? A culture in flux and a city under construction complicate this process, endlessly replacing old cultural landmarks and traditions with newer, arguably less meaningful ones.
Zhang Jianjun's chalk and painting performance, "An Instant in the Process – 2008 Shanghai Shikumen Scene," highlights both the endless progression of modern life and the inevitable recession of the present into mere memory. Zhang chose two locations where traditional stone gate shikumen houses were being demolished to make room for new apartments or office buildings as locations for his performance. After painting the scenes on paper with water, he invited young children, the new generation of Shanghai, to come draw the scenes on the sidewalk with chalk. Zhang's paintings likely faded within a few hours, and the children's chalk might have lasted a few days, but all eventually faded from sight, as will the shikumen homes, brick by brick. Ultimately, very little will be left of these uniquely Shanghai buildings other than memories, perhaps preserved for another generation in the minds of the children who helped Zhang Jianjun with his project, but in time even these memories will fade.
Interestingly, a project directly beside "An Instant in the Process" provided some comfort for those seeking to reconnect with the past. Huang Dehua's green tile installation, "Echo," consisted of patterned green floor tiles from the 1970's and 1980's placed in various locations within Shanghai. The patterns of the tiles were supposedly well-known, and had "become part of the collective memory of a whole generation." In this way, these simple tiles gave people "a sense of nostalgia and security" that the endless cranes and construction sites around the city likely do not. Things that are constant, and images of daily realities, are always comforting to see, "reminding people of the simple beauty of the past." Though neither a solution to the difficulties of retaining traditional cultural symbols nor a resolution for the tension between old and new, the tiles at least allow for some brief moments to remember a time when things did not feel quite so uncertain.