A quarter of a century ago, Deng Xiaoping initiated the modernization of China, sparking one of the most astonishing cultural transformations in history. Chinese cities began to churn like kaleidoscopes, erasing and remaking themselves; skyscrapers soared above the ruins. Between city and country, rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, great rifts opened, generating powerful economic, social, and political pressures. If Communists once overpowered Confucian China, shiny-eyed consumers now supplanted Maoism: The cell phone replaced the little red book. It’s hard to imagine a more unsettling, stressful—and intoxicating—place than contemporary China. Or a more challenging subject for art.
The Asia Society and the International Center of Photography, working together, have undertaken a survey of the work of 60 artists who are trying to capture the ever-changing face of this culture. Organized by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China is an exhibit that’s varied and flickering, a natural reflection of the scale of the subject and the large number of artists represented. The curators have built their survey around four fairly self-explanatory themes: “History and Memory,” “Reimagining the Body,” “People and Place,” and “Performing the Self.” The categories are more an invitation to reflection than a settled analysis, however, and don’t overwhelm the exhibition. China is a place of collapsing boundaries and lost generalizations: Much work fits into more than one section.
The inescapable center of the show is the human body. Chinese artists do not treat the body conventionally, as a “portrait” or a “nude” or a “figure in the landscape.” Instead, the body becomes a kind of malleable metaphorical clay upon which artists impress the physical and mental transformations of China. In a way, the body is China itself. This obsession with the flesh is understandable. In the Maoist period, abstract ideological platitudes dominated every aspect of experience; the dream of uniformity ironed out individual differences. Zhang Huan, in Family Tree, presents nine images of his face upon which Chinese characters are written. In each successive image, the characters cover more and more of the face until, finally, it becomes a blackboard out of which the eyes stare. Not much is left, in short, once family and society finish writing their story upon us. But Zhang Huan’s work remains ambiguous, for perhaps an artist can eventually write his own language on the empty slate.
The body, in contemporary China, will not be denied: No idea can cage the animal—or the spirit—within the flesh. Qiu Zhijie’s Washroom is a video of the face of a man lying on his back. A kind of grid entraps this face as it buckles and contorts, its wet mouth opening, its eyes rocketing around, as watery flushing sounds in the background. In Wang Wei’s 1/30th of a Second Underwater, viewers walk across the image of a drowning face trapped in water under glass. Of course, it’s not only the physical body that struggles to escape. The character locked within the flesh also seeks expression. In Lin Tianmiao’s Braiding, a huge, rather vague, free-standing face is dotted with tiny knots. On the back of the image, behind each knot, is a thread that trails into huge, complex skeins—a symbol, perhaps, of the tangled personality behind surface appearances.
“The body becomes a kind of clay upon which artists impress China’s physical and mental transformations.”
Using the body in performance art—and its commemoration in photography and video—seems particularly important in Chinese art. After the public spectacles of Maoism, itself a kind of political theater, artists insist upon the poetic, private, and personal gesture. In some works, they try to reclaim and bring back to life the great public monuments of China. Song Dong lay down on wintry Tiananmen Square and breathed into the ground until ice formed. Ma Liuming, a man with long, feminine hair, walked naked on the Great Wall—a person without the usual boundaries skipping about the greatest defensive fortification in the world. Some artists “perform” historical events or insert themselves into earlier works of art. In Night Revels of Lao Li, Wang Qingsong photographed many of his friends arranged into a composition found in a famous Chinese painting. Zhao Shaoruo digitally imposed his own face onto historical figures, including Mao, found in old photographs.
Again and again, Chinese artists play with the fraught space between the one and the many, the individual and the mass. Bai Yilou’s The People, a lineup of countless tiny photographic portraits, seems to be corroding into bits and pieces. Some Chinese artists are fascinated by the coarse reality behind the public pose—and not just in Communist dramas. Karaoke is an obsession in Asia, and in Ladies Room, Cui Xiuwen shows karaoke girls who sing with expense-account men privately dolling up and counting their money.
Even the startling transformation of the cities sometimes plays out upon the body. Zhang Dali marks old buildings that will be destroyed with a graffitilike profile of a human head. Chen Lingyang digitally drapes her naked body over the top of a building like a giantess sheltering part of the city. Perhaps the most startling image of urban transience comes in Song Dong’s video Crumpling Shanghai, in which viewers see a succession of images of Shanghai projected onto sheets of paper. Each time, after a moment or two, an anonymous hand crumples up the sheet.
There are some interesting absences in “Between Past and Future.” Mao appears occasionally, but not powerfully. (Andy Warhol’s portrait may still be the most memorable image in art of the Great Helmsman.) You would think Chinese conceptual artists, fascinated with Chinese history and culture, would address this mesmerizing, iconic figure more directly. You would also think that they would confront more aggressively than they do political repression and the banality of current consumer culture. A kind of iconoclastic reticence, perhaps partly explained by the danger that may still attend the making of art, seems to restrain the hand of many artists.
Some Chinese work (like so much art in general) merely illustrates obvious moral or social points. But the strongest images in “Between Past and Future” are emotionally complex and provocative, mysteriously crystallizing the mood of the culture. When Sheng Qi moved abroad for political reasons, for example, he cut off one finger and left it behind—a pointed symbol of exile.
Later, in some photographs called “Memories,” he placed a series of family photographs in the palm of his hand, as if to replace the finger with another piece of the disfigured past. His “Memories” seem both personal and historical. China’s open palm awaits, in his work, its fortune teller.