Everything about China fascinates me, and because I know little about contemporary Chinese art, “Art and China After 1989” at the Guggenheim, with works since the Tiananmen Square revolt in 1989, was a must-see when I was in New York City recently. There has only been one other such extensive exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in our country.
One reviewer commented, “To Americans, Ai Weiwei IS Chinese art. We don’t know any other artists.” Out of the 70 artists represented, I still thought his art was among the most accessible and powerful. Highly political and conceptual, as were many of the works on display, one of his installations addresses the 2009 Sichuan earthquake in which over 5,000 children died but whose deaths the government did not at first admit. Volunteers did the research to identify children in schools within the disaster zone. Their names are printed on the wall behind boxes that contain information about them.
An accompanying video of interviews with mothers of those children made me sad, and photos of more recently built stronger structures surrounding the collapsed cheaply constructed school made me angry.
Much of the art uses text and language and reflects artists’ responses to the political repression after the violent Tiananmen protests in 1989. Another example from that time period involves a female news anchor, who has been called China’s Walter Cronkite. Zhang Peili, the country’s first video artist lied, told the anchor he was doing an educational project about water and asked her to read a bunch of meaningless information about water. In this work, he sought to find a way to depict the absurdity of the state’s broadcasters never reporting about the dramatic chaos at Tiananmen Square.
The second distinct period covered is the economic boom of the 2000s. Like artists around the world, Weiwei developed an appreciation for Duchamp’s ready mades. Upon returning to China in 1993 (after a decade in New York), he created “Han Dynasty Um,” imprinting the most common American emblem, the Coca-Cola label, onto an ancient clay pot, a highly significant emblem reflective of China’s long history and rich culture. A video shows him then smashing the piece. These works raise questions about how cultures appropriate one another and how value is ascribed.
Two-dimensional works were few, frequently water-based and in ink. In only a couple did I see this historically significant medium in China used in a more traditional way.
Not many women were represented. Men ran the art schools, and few women were accepted. The exquisitely crafted 1997 sculptural piece by Lin Tianmiao, is a thread-wrapped, child-size sewing machine from the Maoist era onto which a video image of laboring hands is projected. The silk had the same sensual quality as encaustic and was more beautiful than any photo could capture, and the hands honored women’s contributions.
The most spectacular work at the museum was completed in 1999 when China had fully entered the global economy and first faced the dangers of domestic consumerism. A dragon, woven from hundreds of cast-off bicycle wheel tubes and stuffed with tiny toy cars seeks to remind us that China’s pedal-driven culture is a thing of the past.
One of the pioneers of China’s contemporary art world, Qui Zhijie, 48, concludes, “The art I see here in Beijing is totally different to what I see in New York.” Referring to the early 2000s when the first contemporary native art, huge portraits, were hot in the U.S., he reflects, “The big face school of painting gave a fake image of what Chinese art is. The Guggenheim will correct that image.”