by Mark Van Proyen
Clearly, the animal abuse controversy that overwhelmed the initial reception of Art and China: Theater of the World now lies in a moot state of “deactivation,” and I for one am glad for it. The three offending works that initially prompted activist consternation when the exhibition opened at the Guggenheim late last year are still represented in the current, slightly smaller incarnation of the show that is now snugly ensconced in the seventh floor gallery at SFMOMA, but they are inert relics of their prior incarnations, no longer featuring signs of distressed living creatures “performing” as components of works of art. In other words, they have been officially neutralized, as has the controversy between proponents of artistic freedom and defenders of the humane treatment of non-human sentient creatures. No doubt, that debate will continue in another time and in another place, but suspending it here and now opens up a valuable opportunity to engage another more important aspect of the exhibition that has heretofore gone unremarked upon, namely its compulsive re-staging of a historical theater of sadomasochistic drama, suggesting that the recent history of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre be examined in a similar light. Given that China has experienced an unprecedented economic explosion during the past three decades, we might also be fairly tempted to see its emerging leadership of the global economy as either reflecting or embossing the attributes of that drama onto the entire world of the 21st century.
Admittedly, there is little in the exhibition’s impressive catalog that explicitly prompts such a fanciful reading. The informative essays written by curators Alexandra Monroe, Hou Hanru and Philip Tinari all hint at the lurking presence of sadomasochistic themes, but then sidestep them to address other topics such as the post-Cold War emergence of neo-liberal globalism, domestic political upheaval in China and the social impact of rapid technological transformation. All of these factors are also present in Theater of The World, but to linger too long upon them would be to confuse the subject matter of works of art with their emotional and psychological contents. For this reason, I take my cues about a pervasive sadomasochistic theme in Theater of The World from many of the works presented in the exhibition.
In some cases, the works come off as estheticized instruments of slow torture, as can be surmised from the deactivated remains of Huang Yong Ping’s two-part sculpture, Theater of the World (1993) and The Bridge (1995), which not only seem like expertly designed objects for the panopticon-like incarceration of the animals that were once part of the works in their more “activated” state, but more generally, an elaborate mechanism that could facilitate some kind of bondage ritual. The same can be said about Precipitous Parturition (1999), a work by Chen Zhen, which hangs overhead in the museum’s lobby. It takes the form of a 65-foot long writhing dragon made of bicycles, interlaced bicycle tires and tiny toy cars, presenting itself as an allegory of digestion and transformation that bespeaks the way that the artist’s native city of Shanghai was transformed from a bicycle-based urban environment to one choked with too many cars on too few roads. In another register, it also says something about the fast jump that China took into the prosperous forefront of global manufacturing, casting that jump as the conjuration of an ancient demon.
In other cases, the implied torture is not so slow, as in Burning a Rat (1995), a realist painting by Liu Xiaodong, showing two uniformed men standing next to a river, seemingly enjoying the fact that they have just incinerated a hapless rodent. The 12-channel video piece by Zheng Pelli, Uncertain Pleasures II (1996), uses a dozen video monitors to show close-ups of the artist aggressively and compulsively scratching his own skin, while another three-minute video by Xu Zhen, Rainbow (1998), also shows the results of a seemingly painful skin violation. Another exercise in passivity in the face of violation is revealed in a photograph of performance artist Zhang Huan sitting naked in a public toilet as his body, swathed in honey and fish oil, is being covered by flies. The original performance, 12 Square Meters, took place in Bejing in 1994.
Sometimes the sadomasochistic themes of the exhibition are stated with elegant subtlety, as in Lin Tianmiao’s 1997 piece Sewing Machine, which presents an antique sewing machine coupled with a downward-focused looped video projection of two hands at work, bespeaking the mind-numbing tedium of sweatshop labor and reminding us of the millions of people who do that kind of work in China’s vast network of factory towns. In other instances, it shouts loudly to
those who can read the bold red ideograms wrapping around white walls by Gu Dexin in a piece called 2009-05-02 (2008) that repeats 11 lines from Lu Xun’s 1918 text A Madman’s Diary. In translation, the text is chilling: in a banner font that seems more appropriate to a political rally, it attests to torture, murder and cannibalism. Regarding Gu’s work, critic Li Xiantang has written that it “reveals the vulgarity behind lofty, pretentious and glamorous ideas,” and he has proclaimed Gu to be China’s greatest living artist. Gu has been described as “reclusive.” He abandoned the art world in 2008, the year when international enthusiasm for Chinese contemporary art reached its zenith, and the year that supposedly concludes the timeline covered by Theater of the World. Six years later, Xi Jinping would become the new leader of China’s government, ushering in a slow rollback of the liberalization policies that began in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping initiated the period of “opening up” that allowed for a more liberal attitude about western influences. This, too, says something about the master/slave dialectic of the exhibition, and with many permutations, it shows up again and again, always casting “the individual” as the unhappy slave, and the “state” as the cruel and indifferent master.
Gu’s work shows up in several different guises throughout the exhibition, and it tends to be among the most subversive insofar as political dissidence is concerned, much more so than work by celebrity dissident Ai Weiwei, who is represented by a trio of photographs titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), showing him holding and then willfully dropping what we may assume to be a valuable piece of ancient crockery. A softer “writing” on the floor is subtly revealed in a re-creation of Xu Bing’s 2004 installation When Does the Dust Itself Collect?, featuring a platform from which viewers can look down to see those eponymous words ominously revealed in a thin pile of dust collected from the 9/11 World Trade Center demolition. A very different writing appears in Yan Lei’s Appetizer (2002), a simple tray topped with a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill and a corporate hotel key card. Between those two objects are neatly configured mounds of suspicious-looking white powder that spell out the word Biennale, attesting to cautious ambivalence about the then-recent success of Chinese art in the international exhibition circuit.
Theater of the World is sub-divided into six thematic subsections, or as I prefer to think of them, three thematic dyads, each being a heads-and-tails opposition wrapped around a given topic. In an oblique way, these echo the three “regenerated” traditions posited by Li Xianting in 2004: the tradition of literati ink wash painting representing the recovery of pre-revolutionary idealizations of the natural world; the tradition of socialist realism that was imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and is still given emphasis in many of China’s art academies; and the tradition of transplanted European Modernism, which can be traced back 100 years to the May 4th Movement, but has grown vitally resurgent since 1979, after having been previously stigmatized by Mao Zedong as “cultural pollution.” For example, the second subsection, New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation, at first glance looks like a belated imitation of Euro-American minimalist and conceptualist practices from the 1970s. The question is, are these mimics satirical or honorific in intent? It’s both, but what really matters is the way that the works in this section speak in the language of coded irony insofar as the domestic political situation in China was and still is concerned.
Many of the works in this section were made by one of four collaborative groups that have been active in various cities in China since the end of the 1980s. Take, for example, the suite of 16 small black-and-white photograms by the Tactile Sensation Group, (Gu Dexin and Wang Luyan, both of Beijing). These works are simple and elegant cryptograms that conjoin Chinese characters and simple geometric formulas to create what is, in effect, a kind of idiosyncratic I-Ching sequence, the implications being that if you intervene in the mechanisms
of conventional metrics, a fresh, non-indoctrinated experience will ensue. The Beijing-based New Measurements Group was formed by the same two artists plus Chen Shaoping, and are represented here by a vitrine of artists’ books that also feature cryptic diagrams and other postulations of alternative social measurement. In spirit, these books echo the work of the American Art and Language group founded by Joseph Kosuth in the mid-1960s.
In a series of works called Forms and Certificates (1988) by Geng Jianyi, bureaucratic documents are presented in altered form to indicate how the overwhelming force of everyday bureaucracy impacts the lives of individuals. This seems to be a particularly painful subject that haunts the entirety of Theater of the World, reminding us of the severe social and psychological stresses that must have come part-and-parcel with China’s rapid transition from an insular collectivist society to an exceedingly successful kind of government-sponsored hyper-capitalism with global outreach. To a large extent, the effects of these stresses inform almost all of the work in Theater of the World, and given the recent velocity of technologically driven social change that pervades the world, they also speak to the stressful conditions of 21st century life across the globe.
Two other works in the New Measurements section are worth signaling out. One is Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary, a 1991 video by Zhang Peili, which features a famous broadcast newsreader reciting the dictionary definition of the Chinese word for water, subtly suggesting that the force of that element (representing the people’s will?) would eventually alter China’s social such that it respects freedom of its citizens. A 1988 painting by Wang Guangyi, Mao Zedong—Red Grid Number 2, adopts a different strategy; it shows a deadpan black-and-white rendition of Mao based on a photograph that makes him look uncannily young. Superimposed over the photograph is a grid of red. At one level it suggests imprisonment, while on another, a chain of red squares makes the image of Mao seem further from the viewer, with the letters A and O repeated twice in the painting’s four corners. This work is executed in a style that some critics have called Political Pop, echoing the work of Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter; but it also says something about the Chinese surveillance state and the sinister potential of facial recognition software.
The flipside of the New Measurements area is the fifth sub-section called Uncertain Pleasure: Acts of Sensation, and it contains many of the works that I mentioned in the discussion about sadomasochistic imagery at the top of this essay. There are a few works of this ilk that are indicated in the catalog that don’t appear in the exhibition such as Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (1978-79) and Xu Bing’s Case Study in Transference (1994), the later documenting two pigs fornicating, one of which is tattooed with European words, the other inscribed with Chinese characters. Other works in the section seem to resonate with the thinking of philosopher Jiwei Ci, whose 1994 book Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution, seems to provide a good intellectual context for many of the works on view. In it, he proposes that once the utopian dream of Maoism became untenable, Chinese culture lurched in the directions of previously suppressed nihilism and hedonism, both of which became the shadowy motivations undergirding China’s push toward hyper-capitalism in the post-Cold War era.
At the point they expected the future to meet the present, meaning to become actuality, and heightened consciousness to register a sense of fulfillment, nothing happened. This gap between future and present, meaning and actuality, consciousness and fulfillment, which had been the locus of an energizing tension as long as people anticipated the gap would one day be closed, became, once that anticipation evaporated through disappointment loss or stamina, the very site of nihilism.
–Jiwei Ci, Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (1994)
Even though Ci’s book was published a scant five years after the Tiananmen massacre, I find his analysis both forward- thinking and compelling, partly because of how it explained and predicted so much of what was soon to come. It also squares with my observation pertaining to the sadomasochistic subtexts underlying so much of the work included in Theater of the World, because his categories of hedonism and nihilism so closely echo the master-slave dialectic that shapes our psychoanalytically informed understanding of the psychology of pain and trauma. This is a complex topic that has to do with the ways that passive, dependent and submissive subjectivities experience sublimated gratification from the omnipotent other, and to seriously elaborate on that point would require much more space than I have here, so suffice to say here that the signs of bodies in distress and the many other resorts to pain and power that we see in the exhibition indicate a unique kind of irony that pervades the entire exhibition. In stating this linkage between irony and sadomasochism, I am aware of the fact that I might be accused of facilely transplanting a western concept onto a non-western cultural circumstance, but better that than giving in to the conceit that Chinese contemporary art is to be regarded as somehow immune from such analyses on grounds of its alleged “double modernity” that simultaneously derives from western and non-western sources, thereby invoking the hoary stereotype of the inscrutable Asian.
Of course, irony was one of the most salient tropes of American and European art of the 1980s, but after the end of the Cold War, it fell out of favor to the point where the art of the 1990s became expressly dedicated to something that the novelist David Foster Wallace called “post-irony,” (or “The New Sincerity”). Reality television and confessional literature followed in this wake, and I myself miss the old days of smarty- pants irony, and blame its demise on everything from Honey Boo Boo and Jeff Koons to Donald Trump. But that is neither here nor there, because irony has always had such a rich and complex history in Asian culture. Insofar as Theater of the World is concerned, we would do well to remember that irony is a rhetorical form that flourishes in political or social circumstances where unvarnished critical commentary is dangerously impossible, thereby requiring the camouflage of double meanings to survive in a hostile environment. This tells us much about why so much of the work in Theater of The World looks like a throwback to the European and American art of the three decades past, at least to Euro-American eyes.
The presumptive revival of the literati tradition is echoed in Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between, the section where we find the most pronounced relief from the circus of sadomasochism that pervades the rest of the exhibition. It is dominated by a large panoramic painting by Liu Dan titled Splendour of Heaven and Earth (1994-95). This impresive painting, executed on paper, displays a meticulous dry brush technique that seems eerily similar and strangely different from the practice of landscape painting that was handed down from the Song and Yuan dynasties. In fact, its meandering composition seems richly informed by one of the founding masterpieces of T’ang dynasty painting, Emperor Xuanzong’s Flight to Shu Ting (c. 750), a work that we only know from later copies. Insofar as its modulation of subtle tonalities is concerned, Splendour of Heaven and Earth is more than worthy of that tradition, even though it is not “classically” formulated from calligraphic brush strokes. But look closely and you will see a very different landscape portrayed therein. We can make out a vast geography of mountains and streams, but their contours seem influenced by Cubist geometry, or at the very least, Paul Cezanne’s paintings of mining quarries. In it there are no trees or any signs of vegetative life. Liu, along with Hung Liu, is one of several artists included in Theater of the World who has lived in the U.S. for quite some time (in his case, since 1981), reminding us that the exhibition is partly focused on the work of Chinese artists who have lived and worked outside of China. Another painting by Cai-Guo Qiang, Ascending Dragon Project for Extraterrestrials No.2 (1989), also invokes the literati tradition, providing a gestural rendition of the Great Wall of China, set in a steep mountain ridge leading up to a volcanic eruption. It is a pretty good painting, but partially eclipsed by virtue of its proximity to Liu’s Spendour of Heaven and Earth.
Another subsection, 5 Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism and Realism, features works that play with and off of the poetics of old-style Social Realism. This is where the best photography in the exhibition is located. Liu Zheng presents stark black-and- white photographs from the mid-1990s of downtrodden workers, beggars and strippers, all shown with gritty smirks worthy of Diane Arbus, almost as if to say, “here, have a look at our wonderful worker’s paradise!” A noisy minute and a half video loop by Kwan Sheung-chi shows a looped repetition of the lowering of the British Flag and simultaneous hoisting of the Chinese flag outside of a dilapidated Hong Kong apartment window, serenaded by a listless performance of the Chinese national anthem. In a two-panel work by Yu Hong from 1992 titled Deng Xiaoping’s Tour in the South of China, we see an inkjet print of Deng meeting with other political leaders to discuss a building project, while the right hand panel, an enigmatic acrylic painting, shows a young woman who seems to be trying to eavesdrop on what the men in the other panel are saying.
Zeng Fanzhi submits a 1992 painting of two workers in a meat packing plant, their bodies looking almost indistinguishable from the Francis Baconesque pig carcasses that hang around and below them. Zhao Bandi contributes a portrait on a diagonally hung canvas named Young Zhang (1992), the sitter being an old friend of the artist who is pictured smoking a cigarette while sitting in a rumpled bed, all illuminated by the ghastly glare of a television positioned in the foreground. The technique employed in this work offers a great example of Socialist Realism (calling to mind the early work of Eric Fischl), but the staging of the subject represents a stark reversal of the mandates of that style. The sitter is doing nothing to heroically forward the historical mission of the worker’s state, choosing instead to wallow in a state of decadent indolence. Belonging in this section but located elsewhere is self-portrait by Hung Liu, executed on a thick, shaped canvas. In keeping with the conventions of Socialist Realism, this mannerist representation of its subject is based on a photo of taken of the artist decades earlier when she served in the Chinese army. Everything in the painting tends to somber tonalities, except the multi-colored bayonet affixed to the end of her AK 47, as if to signal that art would someday become her weapon of choice. In both portraits, we see evidence of skills based on Social Realist training, but executed in a way that suggest attempts to bring that style into line with the sensibilities of post-Pop and post-Conceptual painting in North America and Europe.
The flipside of Capitalism, Urbanism and Realism can be found another section, Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives circa 2008. It consists of social practice projects that appear to put a positive and uplifting cap on the exhibition. That thrust, however, is blunted and undermined by the location of these works under the previously mentioned work by Gu Dexin, 2009-05-02, which makes their “third space utopianism” look feeble. One such work is Factory (2003), a 30-minute video by Chen Chieh-jen, which shows scenes of isolated workers laboring in dilapidated factory environments, subtly suggesting the stoicism of people who toil for little reward in China’s many manufacturing centers.
In contrast, another video provides documentation of an ongoing collectively authored set of group actions called The Long March Project, originally instigated by Lu Jie in 1999. The project has since taken on a life of its own, its most prominent feature being documentation of large groups of people slowly walking backwards in many places around the world, ranging from the Ho Chi Minh trail to the Museum of Modern Art. Both the work and its title are an obvious pun on The Long March of the late 1930s, which set the stage for the Communist revolution in China, and more obliquely, a play on Antonio Gramsci’s idea that revolutions can best be accomplished through “long marches through the institutions.” In today’s world of emerging transnational fascism, large groups of people marching backwards tells us everything that we need to know about where things are headed.
I saved Theater of the World’s first section for the end of this essay for two reasons. One is that it alone sets up the exhibition’s larger historical claims, which allows for a concluding summary. The other is that it allows for a backward segue from the grand reversal of The Long March Project, because it is subtitled with the injunctive phrase, No U Turn: 1989. That, too, requires some explanation. In February of 1989, an exhibition opened at the National art Gallery in Beijing titled China/Avant-Garde, which was quickly closed by government officials. The exhibition sought to capture the range of avant-garde activities that were being pursued by Chinese artists since 1989, including some very confrontational performance art. Prior to that event, recently permissible exhibitions of western art had already introduced Chinese artists to European art movements like Dada and Fluxus, spawning Chinese variants like the Stars Art Group of modernist abstractionists, who were active since 1979, and the Xiamen Dada Group, which was active since 1986.
In May of 1989, three artists from China had been invited to participate in Jean Hubert Martin’s Magiciens De La Terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. That exhibition signaled the onset of a truly globalized art world, and early on, China viewed this as a new opportunity that could bring significant benefits, but not before the world bore horrified witness to the Tiananmen massacre in June, which indicated the emergence of a serious conflict between the government of China and its unhappy citizens. Eventually, the government made concessions, meaning that the U-turn away from the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping was averted, or to put it more accurately, deferred and deflected. Soon it became easier for China’s artists to travel to participate in international exhibitions, the result being that they would be ubiquitous participants in the four Documentas and ten Venice Biennials occurring after that date. In November of that year, the Berlin wall was torn down, marking the moment when the collapse of the Soviet Union was eminent and inevitable, assuring the rise of global neoliberalism. Rather than contest it, China embarked on the much bolder course of beating it at its own game, succeeding admirably in a stunningly short amount of time.
It was during this decade that the much misunderstood term globalism would gain circulation. Many misguided people on the left wishfully saw the term as a synonym for an international program of national liberation that would “inevitably” flourish in the wake of the Cold War, but anybody who was paying close attention knew that its true significance lay in the way that it signaled almost unfettered neoliberal access to the natural resources, labor markets and most importantly, credit markets of those developing countries who were formerly affiliated with what was once called the Third World. In that moment, China seized an opportunity that was previously reserved for Europe and North America by becoming the country that most successfully penetrated those aforementioned markets, fueling its meteoric economic rise. While the United States squandered 6 trillion dollars on Mideast military adventures of dubious benefit, China invested a similar amount of money on infrastructure, assuring long-term prosperity and eventual leadership of the global economy. One of the secrets of this ascendency was China’s mastery of the soft power of economic positioning; its highly visible success in the globalized artworld of the 1990s was very much a part of that strategy.
But who could have seen all of this in the China of 1989? This is an unanswerable question, but the stage for asking it is set in the No U Turn section of the exhibition. It begins with another collection of works by the seemingly omnipresent Gu Dexin whose Plastic Pieces 287 (1983-85) are very similar to, if not identical, to those he presented in Magiciens De La Terre. Gu spent many years working in (and in fact, living in) a plastics manufacturing facility near Beijing, which gave him access to his chosen materials. He began making sculpture by melting the plastic with a heat gun or a blowtorch, which he would then glue together. What we see on the wall at Theater of the World looks uncannily like the vast amalgamations of plastic refuse that float in the Pacific Ocean, an ominous statement about how China’s manufacturing boom effects the world’s ecosystem.
The most impressive work in this section is Qiu Zhijie’s Map of Theater of the World (2017), onto which is superimposed an absurdist psycho-geography of the country’s physical features, casting it as a kind of fantasyland of cultural pretentions. The work is painted directly onto the gallery wall in successive layers applied in a crisp calligraphic style, featuring humorous indications (in English) of various art events taking place throughout the country.
Much less humorous is New Beijing (2001), a photorealist painting by Wang Xingwei, which shows a bicyclist rushing two stout penguins on a cart to the emergency room—the birds in question sporting visible gunshot wounds. The technique of this work is stunning, but not nearly as much as the political comment made by the wry substitute of Antarctic birds for wounded Tiananmen protestors pictured in the work’s archival source photograph, displayed in a Time cover story just a few feet to the left in a vitrine.
Although there are a few works in Theater of the World that were executed during the past decade, 2008 is the year that the curators proclaim as its conclusion. At that time interest in Chinese contemporary art had reached its zenith, but it would not start to decline until about 2014. The most recent Documenta in 2016 included only one Chinese artist, and that seems to be the most reliable barometer of the artworld’s refocusing of attention. Nonetheless, 2008 was quite a year for China. The fact that the timeframe of the exhibition concludes with the 2008 Olympics that were staged in Beijing point to the triumphalism of China’s global economic success. But as sado-masochistic luck would have it, that hyperspectacurlized “theater of triumph” occurred just a few short months after the all-too untheatrical devastation caused by
the Sichuan earthquake, in which 69,000 people lost their lives. Thus, on an unspeakably grand scale, we see the sadomasochistic dialectic played out as a historical yin-yang symbol made from the components of extreme nature and extreme culture, both of which foreshadow the 2008-2011 global financial crisis, which sent China’s economy into unprecedented overdrive. At that point, the whole post-Cold War global economy became ensnared in the theatricalization of China’s historical drama, with its status as “factory to the world” placing it and the art made therein at the center of the world’s myriad contradictions.
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Art and China After 1989: The Theater of the World @ SFMOMA through February 24, 2019.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.