A lavish banquet of contemporary Chinese art is currently on show at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane, Australia. GoMA’s sister, the Queensland Art Gallery, is famous for its Asia Pacific Triennial (APT), the only regular Australian exhibition of international moment (much better than the Sydney Biennale, although there is hope that will improve with new director, David Elliott). The first APT in 1993 did something rare for the time, concentrating on contemporary art from across Asia. Given the APT’s sheer breadth, it has an astoundingly good record of picking future world stars. Cai Guo Qiang, Zhang Xiao Gang, Zhang Huan, and Xu Bing were all picked up by the APT relatively early their respective careers.
The China Project is really three exhibitions at once. It begins with a survey of the last 30 years of Chinese art, drawing heavily on the QAG’s excellent collection but thoughtfully supplemented with private loans. Some work is of more historical than artistic interest but plenty are both. I was particularly impressed by Shen Shaomin’s woodblock prints from the mid-1980s, which are at once wonderfully abstract and also historically poignant, referring to Mao’s 1957 speech encouraging criticism by the intelligentsia:
“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”
Those who did so tended to disappear, permanently.
Xu Bing, ‘A book from the sky’, 1987-91
The theme of censorship and propaganda is picked up again in Xu Bing’s ‘A book from the sky’ (1987-91), one of the key post-cultural revolution works. Giant rolls of rice paper hang in huge curves above your head, closely printed with Chinese characters. Only they are not really readable, because Xu Bing has subtly subverted them, turning them into nonsense. Underneath lie two carefully arranged grids of books and their boxes. It took Xu Bing five years to make and when it was first shown, because nothing is more subversive than creating uncertainty. It begins as a wry game but the absurdity is trenchantly relentless and quickly turns caustic.
Another high point of the exhibition is its performance art, particularly the video artworks. Chinese artists of the past twenty years have done much to revive performance art, which in the West had withered on the vine since its heydays in the conceptualist ’70s. Some complain that photographic editions of performances have over-commercialised Chinese performance art, thereby detracting from their intrinsic worth. To some extent I agree with the first bit but even then one has to recognise that artists really do survive on their wits alone in China. There is no public purse to rely upon and it is very competitive. As for denigrating the original meaning of the performance, I completely disagree. On the contrary, it has allowed performances to be widely disseminated, no trivial matter when one considers that many performances are subversive, including violently, sexually or politically offensive, or all three together.
Zhang Huan, ’12 square meters’, 1994
But back to the video art, at the centre of which often lies humour. Yang Fudong’s pastiche of time and crime in ‘City light’ is deliciously charming and funny. Yang Zhenzhong, best known for balancing Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower on his finger, continues the absurdity with ’922 rice corns’, a counting race to see which of two chickens eats the most corn. Zhang Peili’s ring of 8 videos invites us to join in some competitive ballroom dancing. Zhang Huan’s ’12 square meters’, filmed in a public toilet, definitely does not though. Here is his description of the process:
My body was covered with honey and fish juice, and before long, flies were all over my body, even my lips and eyes…In the course of the hour, I tried to forget myself and separate my mind from my flesh, but I was pulled back to reality again and again. Only after the performance did I understand what I experienced. An hour later, I walked out of the toilet and into a nearby pond that was polluted with garbage. I walked until water covered my head and hoards of flies struggled on the water to save their lives. Zhang Huan, ‘ A Piece of nothing’ in Melissa Chiu (ed.), Zhang Huan: Altered States, ex. cat., Edizioni Charta, Milan and Asia Society , N.Y., 2007, pp.58-59.
And it doesn’t end there. Along with Song Dong’s ‘Stamping the water’, Zhang Song’s ‘Seven Character Quatrain’, Qiu Zhijie’s ‘Landscape’ and He Yunchang’s ‘Dialogue with water’, this part of the exhibition really forms a primer in Chinese video art. Brilliant stuff.
Song Dong, ‘Stamping the water’, 1996
Xu Zhen’s ‘ShanghART Supermarket’, a recreation of a common, modern Shanghai supermarket, including groceries, is an amusing comment on banality and commercialism, not least in art. Here you can buy, literally, some of the cheapest art works of all time: any product from the shelves, the prices directly transposed from Renminbi into Australian dollars. The packets are empty though – you’re buying the conceptual packaging. There is even a convex mirror in one corner to catch any shoplifters. My one quibble is that I think GoMA should have made it clear, particularly in the catalogue, that ShanghART is a real gallery, arguably the most important in China, and therefore one of the most influential in the world. It is a matter of professionalism. After all, it appears one of the targets of the artwork and Xu Zhen’s acerbity is the grotesquely self-indulgent Louis Vuitton shop that was set up actually inside the recent Takashi Murakami exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
There are also a smattering of Australian-Chinese artists, both migrants and second-generation, such as Ah Xian, Guan Wei, Shen Shaomin and the young Kate Benyon. After 1989, many artists, among others, sought refuge overseas, and in particular in America, Canada, France and Australia. Often these countries didn’t know how lucky they were to receive these artists.
Zhang Xiaogang, ‘Three comrades’ (from ‘Bloodline: The big family’ series), 1994
In addition to the general survey, are retrospectives of Zhang Xiaogang and Australian-Chinese artist, William Yang. I was never a great fan of Zhang Xiaogang’s art. Since then, what little interest I had, suffocated long ago in the sea of hyperbole surrounding his art, verbal and financial. However, this is a really terrific exhibition, both thorough and beautifully presented. The early works show the heavy influence of European modernists, from Cezanne and Monet, all the way up to post-modernist Gerhard Richter. His recent diary entries written over photographic images of the nightly news demonstrate an evolutionary rather than radical departure from his signature Bloodline series of paintings.
William Yang grew up in very provincial 1970s North Queensland. Add to the mix the fact he is gay, and he has a lot of artistic material at his disposal regarding identity. It’s a good show but I felt it would have fared better shown independently from the two other exhibitions. His gentle ruminations regarding race, gender, religion and acceptance tend to get drowned out by his noisy relatives from mainland China. Most importantly, he raises the question of what ‘Chinese’ means anyway, and leaves it hanging.
William Yang, ‘William in scholar’s costume’, 1984 (from ‘GoMA self-portrait’ series) 2008
Children have been well catered for too, with various artist-designed projects to engage children with fun and intelligence. My two year old really liked Zhan Wang’s installation of scholar stones. Here children can practice their Chinese writing skills with water, a traditional pastime for calligraphers, on the surface of the weighty rocks.
There are a few negatives. I am not sure that the “everything-in-the-lollyshop” approach was perhaps the best. A clutch of diverse works by Ai Wei Wei are exhibited, though not, unfortunately, his giant Boomerang chandelier from the last APT. More importantly though, much more could have been said regarding his central role in supporting contemporary art in all its forms in China, including as mentor to many now-famous artists, as well as his role as political activist and provocateur (after all, he curated the hugely influential ‘Fuck Off’ exhibition in 2000). This would have helped to unify an inherently disparate display.
Then there is the catalogue, which to say the least is disappointing. First of all, the presentation is underwhelming. The attempt to reference Chinese red on the cover resulted in something etiolated rather than the rich, highly symbolic red of China. Then there are the essays, which are all right but that’s about it. In another context, it wouldn’t matter but because the APT is so important, the gallery has a reputation to uphold. While an essay on the intricacies of paint restoration is definitely worthy, it is only marginally more interesting than watching the stuff dry, particularly when compared with the dramatic hurly-burly of the Chinese art scene, involving among other things, pornography, violence, torture and cannibalism.
The China Project
Until 28 June 2009
Gallery of Modern Art