Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
May 11 – September 23, 2018
Review by Stanley Portus
Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, aims to show the recent history of Chinese Art, bracketed by the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, two events that radically altered China’s relationship to itself and with the rest of the world.This is the second iteration of the exhibition after its first staging at the Guggenheim, New York last year – an exhibition that was shrouded in controversy and has resulted in a show that includes what feels like an overwhelming 120 works by 60 artists, spread out across 6 themed sections.
Before the New York show opened a petition was started objecting to the inclusion of several artworks that included or had involved animals in their making: Xu Bing’s A Case ‘Study of Transference’ (1994), a video work that shows two pigs marked in pen with Chinese and nonsensical Roman script; Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s ‘Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other’ (2003), another video which consists of two dogs on wooden treadmills, unable to reach other, but trying to fight; and the artwork that gave the exhibition one half of its name, Huang Yong Ping’s ‘Theater of the World’ (1993), which contains lizards and all manner of beetles. The curatorial response, explained at the Bilbao press conference, immediately pointed out that there was never going to be any live dogs or pigs in the show, and would not pull the artworks entirely, but instead form a counter protest by turning the screens depicting Xu Bing’s and Sun & Peng’s films off, and to remove the critters in Huang Yong Ping’s work leaving the structure vacant.
Huang’s critters have made it to the Guggenheim Bilbao (as has A Case Study for Transference - Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other was, according to the curators, never on the cards for Bilbao), and the populated work offers a paradigm through which to view the show. The structure of Theater of the World is meant to act as an arena-cum- Panopticon, where despite the fact the creatures are quarantined, they come to feed off one another. This is at once a critique and jab at the supposed superiority of Western Modernity, which many Chinese artists at the time were questioning, but also an expression of superficial divisions between East and West, where in the world of the artwork difference does not lead to division but to digestion and nourishment.
While this breakdown of an East and West dualism maybe a familiar starting point for an exhibition devised by a Western institution looking at Chinese art, what is most salient about Theater of the World in the context of Art and China after 1989 is that it examples an absurdist streak that runs throughout much of the exhibition. Pushing things to their extremes to reveal the ludicrousness of existing structures is repeated time and again to highlight the false divisions between East and West, but it is also done to question the conservatism of tradition and the workings of the Chinese state. Qui Zhijie’s ‘Assignment No. 1: Copying the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” 1,000 times’ (1990 - 1995) shows the artist using his skills as a calligrapher to copy out a text considered to be the highest standard of calligraphy to the point of an unreadable spoil of ink, calling for a return to the act of writing itself. Language is also interrogated in Geng Jianyi’s ‘Misprinted Books’ (1992), which take the official texts and turns them into nonsense through pressing printing plates over each other, while Wu Shanzhuan’s ‘Today No Water’ (1986 - 1996), a 437-page study of the language and visual culture of the Mao Zedong era, highlights the control exercised through bureaucracy and government propaganda, and the exhaustion of meaning that ensues.
As well as pieces that move the workings and material of everyday life into a conceptual realm, much of what’s on display in Art and China after 1989 shows artists carrying out actions in the real world. In the case of the Big Tail Elephant Working Group, who organised events in public spaces, it was a means to think through China’s opening up to the world as a market economy in the 1990s. One such example of this is the 90-minute recording of ‘Safely Maneuvering across Linhe Road; (1995) where Lin Yilin moves a wall of concrete blocks across a road next to a construction site, calling into the question how people’s everyday experiences are altered by the onset of economic growth and rapid urbanization. ‘Kan Xuan’s Kan Xuan! Ai! (1999), doesn’t so much look at how physical spaces change, but how they can prescribe behaviour. Shot on a hand held camera Kan walks against the flow of commuter traffic in a subway shouting ‘Ai’, which can signify alarm or simply recognition. In this instance, it turns into a call for autonomy, but also a reminder of restraints of expected behaviour, as the commuter’s turn in surprise.
There is a teleological feel to many of these works, but in regards to global perceptions of Chinese art in the 1990s, some artists took a far more standoffish, explicitly critical stance. In ‘There Came a Mr. Solomon to China’ (1994), Zhou Tiehai presents the American author and journalist Andrew Solomon, who came to China in the early nineties and wrote about the contemporary art scene for the New York Times, aboard a boat piloted by Marco Polo, ridiculing his ‘discovery’ of Chinese art. Yan Lei and Hong Hao’s ‘Invitation Letter’ (1997), a forged invite to Documenta X sent to 100 Chinese artists, mocks the stardom promised by international recognition, and Yan’s ‘Appetizer’ (2002), a silver tray with biennale written in white powder, shows success as, obviously, a drug: something that may lure, but warps perceptions.
What becomes apparent in the latter stages of the exhibition is a sense that many of the exhibition’s themes collapse into one another. 2008 is painted as a pivotal moment where the Beijing Olympics act as an affirmation of China’s ascent to global power, yet the Sichuan earthquake happened only a month before. Throughout Art and China after 1989 the curators have gone to great lengths to provide the viewer with contextual information. Each of the show’s six sections is given ample introduction in the form of wall texts. But little explanation is needed for the closing sections. Ai Weiwei’s ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ (2009 - 2010), a project which would ultimately land him in prison, sits one room away from footage of the Olympic opening ceremonies, taking place, of course, in the Bird’s Nest stadium. Sarah Morris’s ‘Beijing’ (2008), and the Long March Collective’s action, ‘Avant-Garde’ (2007). also sit nearby offering a glimpse into the changing face of the city as well as the uproar, reinforcing the conflict of interest that came with the exposure promised by the Olympic project and the domestic repercussions.
The exhibition concludes with the ‘Coda’, a single room where Yan Jiechang’s ‘Lifelines 1’ (1999), hangs at one end, while Gu Dexin’s ‘2009-05-02’ (2009), runs across the room’s four walls, and Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s ‘Freedom’ (2009), a recording of a fire hose suspended and thrashing from its own power, plays in the centre of the space. These three works were made to commemorate anniversaries of Tiananmen Square, and considering the exhibition’s historical and often duteous approach, it may not come as a surprise to find such a neat loop back to the exhibition’s starting date of 1989. But really the space comes to represent the monumentality and expanse of the exhibition itself, and leaves the visitor feeling what the exhibition presents elsewhere: a desire for frenzied opening and consideration, rather than a calling to order.