On the opening night of Stella Zhang’s exhibition, 0-Viewpoint, at the Chinese Culture Center, the administrators were tense with apprehension and anticipation. I gathered with the crowd in the lobby outside the CCC and waited through 30 minutes of speeches from the artist, the curator, the director of the Center and others before being allowed to view the work.
Thinly veiled in the tone of these speeches were warnings about the intimate and controversial nature of Zhang’s art, apparently a major departure from the traditional aesthetic of the CCC. While the Center was originally founded by Chinatown locals who wanted to preserve their cultural heritage, the Xian Rui (Fresh and Sharp) series highlights the work of emerging and underrepresented Chinese artists. This is a much-needed step for the Center’s relevancy within San Francisco’s art scene, not to mention the vibrant contemporary Chinese art market.
Zhang, who was born in Beijing in 1965 but educated both in the United States and Japan, relies on her personal intuition to create this work, which she claims in her artist’s statement is “an embodiment of my inner conflict and struggles”. This private focus clearly pushes the institution’s boundaries. I suspect Curator Abby Chen probably fought to get the work in the door. After the speeches, which bordered on excuses for any sensibilities that might be offended, a ribbon cutting ceremony finally opened the entrance to the gallery. I was prepared for erotic fanfare and shock.
The work on view doesn’t merit such expectations. The gallery is filled with pure white work, an untainted palette sustained throughout. Five cylindrical sculptures over ten feet high, made with stretchy white cotton fabric pulled over a ridged internal structure, are installed in the first room. As these tall phalluses towered over me, there seemed little to ponder beyond their initial recognition. (I heard later that a male visitor straddled one of the sculptures, laughing and posing for pictures.)
As I moved onto the next room, the works became more dimensional. Dozens of small white cotton-like puffs pierced with sharp wooden spikes lay nestled in a circular cradle of fabric; others hung suspended, hovering from above, appearing fluid and in motion. Each piece is unique. Many are bulbous-shaped or egg-like, some with centers deeply creased as though they were about to split apart and multiply, like new cells breaking from one another. These little cushiony forms feel distinctly bodily, like an internal process of nuclei morphing and regenerating. They can be seen as eggs nestled within the uterus, some clinging and growing, others falling away. However, the tactile quality and visual interest of their abstracted forms keeps them from being anchored to a singular vaginal reference, producing an ambiguity that keeps one lingering.
In a third room hang five all-white canvases with fabric knotted, stretched, and torn across their rectangular planes. Each holds a palpable tension, evocative of something desperately trying to come up for air and reveal itself, only to be repeatedly covered up, silenced, and concealed. Some of these compositions do look like labia and folds of internal skin, but I found myself distracted by these more obvious references. The nuances of the knotting and ripping of the fabric are far more compelling, and to me seem like an apt metaphor for the resistance and discomfort caused by public discussions of female sexuality.
The video in the last room of the gallery — a projection of swirling vapor or smoke spiraling on the carpeted floor – feels like an afterthought. The film is looped and synched to generic, new age music and concludes with a projection of the number 0 before repeating itself. After the lofty phalluses and other overt sexual references, I assume these forms are meant to signify swirling sperm. It’s a simplistic assumption, I admit, but the work suggests little else. Overall, the projection feels like a premature experiment with new media, and it utilized none of Zhang’s skill with materials and composition.
Hanging along the hallway linking the gallery’s four rooms are 12 paintings made of sand, glue and white paint on canvas. These depict various fluctuations with an oval shape, and are apparently meant to allude to Zhang’s feelings about her monthly menstrual cycles, or so a gallery assistant told me. Above them, billowing clouds of elastic cotton fabric hang from the ceiling, draped and pulled along the length of the hallway. It’s a provocative, but ultimately decorative gesture that succeeds only in blocking the light that would otherwise illuminate the paintings.
Conceptually and aesthetically, the strongest works are those left untethered to obvious sexual or physical indication, for such allusions flatten any potential for complex meaning. That said, perhaps it really is important to fill the first room with enormous phalluses. What better way for the curator to signal to Chinatown, San Francisco, and especially the Center’s board of directors, that the CCC is done playing it safe? The show clearly shocked some people at the opening. What else would motivate a man to straddle a sculpture in a gallery and mock it before a crowd? What was so threatening or uncomfortable that he needed to turn it into a joke?
The phallus sculptures are certainly not groundbreaking or shocking to an audience versed in Western contemporary art. Nearly 40 years ago, we saw Linda Benglis advertise herself wearing a giant strap-on, Annie Sprinkle filming her cervix and Carolee Schneemann reach inside her vagina and pull out an internal scroll to read to an audience. What the 0-Viewpoint exhibition acutely demonstrates is the disparity between the San Francisco contemporary art scene and the artistic sensibilities of the Chinatown community. The fact that this disparity was called to light by the very personal, sexual, and bodily evocations of a Chinese woman, as supposed to a radical or sweeping political statement, is particularly striking. Apparently, a woman’s sexuality can be a potent and contentious statement in this community. And while I find the phallus sculptures to be vacant and one-note, they strategically function as an effective icebreaker for the CCC. I can also see them as a deeply liberating exercise for Zhang whose original artistic training was in traditional Chinese ink painting. If this frees her up and allows her to delve more fully into her materials and engage her ample skills, as she does with the torn and knotted canvases and the cotton-like sculpture installation, then the effort is worthwhile. When Zhang resists the predictable she more effectively communicates an intimate, sensual, and multifaceted feminine perspective. This is no small achievement, especially with only a white palette; it is a prime example of the artist making abstraction work when she fully commits to it.
I applaud the CCC for engaging in the very necessary, but also very precarious, challenge of balancing Chinese tradition and heritage while also taking steps to make itself relevant to a younger generation. Zhang’s work opens this dialogue. My experience, however, was hampered by the apologetic tenor of the speeches at the opening. A contemporary exhibition space doesn’t need to issue warnings or play to expectations. Zhang’s work speaks for itself.
Artist Talk: June 24, 2010 at 6 pm.
All other photos: Chih Chang