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China Inc.

The Guggenheim's massive exhibition of Chinese art flatters the reigning powers of East and West -- by ironing out the rough spots.

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In the seventies and eighties, Japan sent a series of exquisite exhibitions to the United States that were intended to convince Americans, then worried about Japan’s growing economic power, that the Japanese were more interested in tea ceremonies than in Toyotas. This use of art for political and economic ends remains a common ploy. Just two years ago, Taiwan sent a huge show to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now Taiwan’s archenemy Beijing -- eager to protect its export trade to America and to blunt criticism of its human-rights record -- is replying with China: 5,000 Years at the Guggenheim Museum. Hillary Clinton is the “honorary chair” of this exhibit. Henry Kissinger is on the “Honorary Committee.” Both the Clinton administration and Kissinger are, of course, strongly associated with a policy of mollifying Beijing. Corporations that hope to make a killing in the China market and require the help of the Chinese government to do so -- among them, Coca-Cola, Nokia, and Ford -- are helping to pay for the show.

Not surprisingly, Beijing is loaning many wonderful works. The uptown Guggenheim is exhibiting objects and paintings from “traditional” China. Many of the bronzes, jades, porcelains, and other works have been unearthed in the past 50 years; the great paintings are handsomely displayed. The Guggenheim Museum SoHo is showing art from the modern period. The rooms of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century painting -- when Chinese artists began responding to Western ideas -- are particularly interesting. I had always thought the interplay between East and West resulted in minor pastiche. I was wrong: Artists could sometimes revivify their tradition by confronting Western art. In addition, the SoHo museum is exhibiting a collection of woodblock prints, many of which are passionate political responses to war and injustice; a survey of the Soviet-inspired socialist realism -- largely Mao worship -- created during the fifties, sixties, and seventies; and an examination of contemporary work, which focuses mainly upon recent efforts to reestablish traditional painting.

It would be ludicrous to review 5,000 years of Chinese art in 1,000 words. Anyone interested in one of the world’s great traditions will find both the uptown and the downtown shows fascinating. What should not be overlooked, however, is how telling “China: 5,000 Years” is about contemporary Western culture. This exhibit is not only an instance of political showmanship but also a perfect illustration of the values of the postmodern museum. To begin with, the show does not originate in a settled tradition of scholarship or area of competence at the Guggenheim. Instead, it seems plucked from the moment. The museum has brought in hired guns -- including many leading scholars -- to organize a survey that suits the director Thomas Krens’s desire to take “a global approach to culture.” Two years ago, the museum presented “Africa.” Now it is “China.” One day, the Guggenheim will organize the mother of all shows, “The Globe: 100,000 Years,” which will make a nice fit with Frank Lloyd Wright’s cosmic spiral.

Size and theatricality are the dominant notes of the exhibit. Four vast columns, each rendered in a color representing one of the four directions, turn the rotunda into a postmodern stage set. Several splendid Qin terra-cotta soldiers, romantically lit and placed, increase the drama. The wall panels give viewers a quick précis of the history of Chinese art, but little attempt is made to convey the deeper meanings in the work. The effect -- as one Sungs here and Tangs there -- is pleasantly dizzying: History becomes a skate across time. The scale of the exhibit itself seems mannerist and sometimes bizarrely askew. In the fall, the Guggenheim devoted all its space uptown and downtown to one contemporary artist, Robert Rauschenberg. Now it gives essentially the same space to 5,000 years of China. (To the postmodern mind, Rauschenberg is a China and China a Rauschenberg.) At times, the perspective is aerial, a grand glance over the centuries; at others, the eye fastens upon the single work. There seems nothing in-between, none of the dense middle ground between the global and the particular. One is always looking through both ends of the binoculars.

In the uptown Guggenheim, white cases or vitrines hold many of the works. The cases stand awkwardly on the winding ramp; to my eye, the boxed art looks uneasy in the vast open space, like an actor who has lost his lines -- but it’s still delightful to look at. Paradoxically, there doesn’t seem to be enough art. That’s what comes from asking 500 pieces to speak for 5,000 years: The show is both too big and not big enough (a characteristic sensation of postmodern culture). Downtown, the air of performance becomes especially surreal on the second floor. There, a large show of interesting Maoist boilerplate is presented as if it were the most natural thing in the world to display this stuff. Not surprisingly, the organizers of the exhibit are too polite to present any unpleasant images of Uncle Sam. None of this bothers me. If it takes some compromises and razzle-dazzle to bring great art here, well, some Faustian bargaining is to be expected. Historically, art is often the consort of power; it is naïve to expect today’s politicians or corporations to act from pure motives.

But there is one compromise in this exhibit that deserves contempt. The weakness of postmodernism, which is also its charm, is that it turns history into a show -- a parade of fashion, style, and special effects. But recent Chinese history, shot through with war, tyranny, and the widespread destruction of art during the Cultural Revolution, is too serious a matter for a glancing approach. Some moral fortitude is necessary, especially for a university or a museum presumably devoted to the free life of the mind. After the display of socialist realism, the organizers of the exhibit proved too timid to present a full survey of contemporary Chinese art -- some of which addresses totalitarianism -- even though this museum makes a specialty of “the contemporary.” The official explanation is that there wasn’t space. That is pussyfooting nonsense. Space and money could have been found if the Guggenheim made doing so a priority. (For Rauschenberg, the museum borrowed additional gallery space.) And if Coca-Cola or the Chinese government did not approve, well, then, too bad. The museum promises a show of contemporary Chinese art in the summer of 1999. Which is good, but not good enough. If you brag about “5,000” years, you should have the guts to finish the story. You owe it to those who have suffered for their ideas.


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