Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

I know. I know. Speaking of Art and China after 1989, the new exhibition at the Guggenheim featuring 71 major artists and art movements across contemporary China, all the voices are concentrated on those three works featuring animals, and the museum submissively pulled down these works as the petition demanded, a shame. That the public is given the power to control the display of artworks in museums or galleries, is alarming, and abhorrently similar to the despotism in China.

But here let’s narrow the topic down to the exhibition itself. Apparently, besides those controversial three works “recognized by the public,” the whole exhibition, addressing the tumultuous social and economic changes in China from post-Tiananmen period to Beijing Olympics, covers numerous influential Chinese contemporary artists and art movements. The censure of political issues in China plays a key role in most of their works, and I, a Chinese student raised and educated under censorship and now studying in the United States, viscerally understand their motives.

One day in May 1989, when my mom was in her first year of college in Xiamen, a southern city in China, she was told that all the students should go outside to the street and throw themselves into a procession. Classes were cancelled and she was offered free food, so she followed everyone, although no one knew why they should participated in a random parade. Weeks later, suddenly everything ended, students were pushed back to campus again as nothing had ever happened, including that notorious massacre in Tiananmen Square. Until now, the word “six four” ( or “June Fourth Incident” ) was shielded in all Chinese social media. This is same as when this exhibition is reported by Chinese media, the word “Tiananmen Square Incident” is replaced with “Cold War,” or getting entirely erased.

The year 1989 marks the end of a relatively open era in Chinese politics. After that tragedy happened in Beijing, artists and audiences started to seek a new way to express their thoughts by utilizing the Western framework to initialize and then established the system of Chinese contemporary art. As a result, you may notice some trace of Western art movements such as Dada, Pop-art and Social Realism in this exhibition.

When you just enter the rotunda and walk uphill a while, you will find Wang Guangyi’s realist oil painting Mao Zedong: Red Grid No.2 (1988), in which he “blocks” the traditional portrayal of Mao by red grids representing the mass reproduction of images. Wang is the pioneer of Political Pop in the 1990s in China, known for his pop-art paintings combining Maoist-era propaganda with seemly irrelevant logos of Western companies such as Coca-cola and FedEx. Upon first glaze, this piece punch me in the face since it reminded me of that feeling of being locked in a cage and deprived the right to speak, not that far away.

At the middle of the ramp there jumps out Ai Weiwei’s recognizable series of photograph Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), in which he dropped and smashed a 2000-year old ceremonial urn. He paid several thousand dollars for the ancient urn and destroyed it, because,  as he said, "General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one," a sharp criticism of the Cultural Revolution led by Mao. This series was shown over and over again in western world, still assuming the role of a  miniature of contemporary Chinese  art.

Song Dong was born in Beijing. His father was caught and sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution. He started his career as an oil painter, but entirely changed his medium after 1989. You can spot his series of chromogenic prints documenting his best-known performance artwork Stamping the Water (1996), in which he sat in the Lhasa River in Tibet for an hour, repeatedly stamping the water with a large wood seal carved with the Chinese character for water. The wood stamp appearing in the photographs is also on display. Obscured by the shadow of conveying the notion of  “impermanence of change,” his attempt to reveal how negligible ordinary people are compared to the power of dictators seems obvious to me.

My favorite piece in this exhibit is a row of plastic toy tanks literally fried in oil.  They are Stir-Fried Tanks(2004) by a relatively less-known artist Zheng Guogu, a metaphor of criticism of the Tiananmen Massacre.

Ironically, most artists participating in the exhibition themselves are either not Chinese citizens, or on their way to  immigration. Some of their works never get shown in China because they are “politically sensitive.” A large number of works were originally owned by that famous Swiss collector Uli Sigg, who was the Swiss Ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia from 1995 to 1998 and donated tons of contemporary Chinese art to M+ Museum in Hong Kong. And it may mean something that although the exhibition is filled with works criticizing Chinese political figures and events in the past, any content relating to the current president, Xi, remains a vacuum.