Art Guide

"Inside Out" Show Both Big and Surprising
(Nov. 11, 1999 - March 5, 2000)

By Deloris Tarzan Ament

The most outrageous show of Chinese art ever to hit the U.S. makes its debut in the Northwest November 18 through March 5, 2000. "New Chinese Art: Inside Out" is so big it fills both the Henry Art Gallery and the Tacoma Art Museum with contemporary art from four sources: the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and individual Chinese artists in diaspora around the world. You'll need to see both parts of the show to get a complete picture.

Critics got used to feeling condescending about Chinese art during the days of Mao. Those heroic images of rosy-cheeked workers seemed so much like children's art.

But since the beginning of recorded history, China has produced some of the world's most sophisticated art. Difficult political times don't make art and artists disappear; they simply force them underground, where tension and secrecy add to their power. "New Chinese Art: Inside Out" shows the audacious creativity brewing in China, one of he fastest changing areas of the world both economically and politically.

Wu shan Zhuan points to the bewildering speed of the changes and the contradictions they encompass in "Red Humor," which lays out the contents of consciousness as a room in which walls, ceiling and floor are covered with political slogans, lines from classical poetry, advertising, private messages, medical texts and jokes. On the floor, Chinese characters spell out the message, "No one can interpret it."

Until 1979, artists in China were closed off from the rest of the world. Then suddenly, when China opened its doors, they were exposed to Western art all at once. Botticelli was as new to them as Duchamp and Picasso. They got the "Mona Lisa" and "Piss Christ" all at the same time.

To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, Zhang Huan, 1997, Photo: Robyn Beck

Inside Out: New Chinese Art

Henry Art Gallery and the Tacoma Art Museum
November 11 1999 - March 6, 2000

The Second Situation, Nos. 1 - 4, 1987, detail, oil on cavas, 4 panes each 66" x 51" x 1 3/4". Collection of Uli & Rita Sigg

A Dream of a Spring Night, We Tien-chang, 1995, mixed media, 74.5" x 62.25" x 5.5". Collection of the Artist

Cadres of avant garde were galvanized. Since the incident in Tiananmen Square, they have been using private spaces as stages for work which cannot be exhibited commercially, and indeed is not salable. They refer to it as "apartment art," although it often takes place out of doors.

One artist conceived of replicating a section of the Great Wall with Coca-Cola cans and bottles. Another dressed a mule in sheer black stockings and a pink bridal veil, donning a tuxedo for a performance art piece, "To Marry a Mule."

Mosquito repellent coils, sanitary napkins, dyed eggs, and unraveled sweaters have become the stuff of art. So has the human body.

The men who stand in chest-high water, as immobile and expressionless as water plants in Zhang Huan's "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond" seem symbolic of a "new crop" coming to maturity in China; a generation willing to use their minds and their bodies in newly expressive ways. A photograph in the show documents the performance, which took place at Nanmofang fishpond, Beijing, in August, 1997. Zhang stands in the foreground with a child clinging to his head.

The sensuous quality of Zhang's vision is equally striking in the tawny heap of five muscular young bodies who lie sandwiched in "To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain," performance art from 1995.

Some of the most radical art happenings have commented on China's growing consumer culture. In Wuhan, the New History Group of artists saw art becoming a mass consumer product, on the level of fast food. They staged an extravagant happening with rock music, portraits of famous businessmen, a fashion show, and the sale of 10,000 pairs of jeans with the patterns of flags of every nation in the world, at the world's biggest McDonald's, in Beijing.

In Zhengzhou, Wang Jin -- the man who married a mule -- and his associates commented on the material fetishism of contemporary culture by creating a 30-meter-long wall of ice in which they embedded jewelry, toys, cosmetics, cell-phones, and other consumer goods. As soon as viewers spotted the goods, they began to dig them out by any frantic means possible, bringing down the wall.

"New Chinese Art: Inside Out" spans 15 years, from 1984 through 1998. It includes everything from the sublime -- Zhang Yu's hauntingly beautiful veined image, "The Floating Sphere" -- to the ridiculous. That would be by Zhang Huan, creator of the fishpond performance, who covered himself with honey and sat naked in an outhouse for 3 hours, attracting flies, to call attention to the living situations of ordinary people. The show challenges our traditional perceptions of Asian art. It was organized to showcase contemporary Chinese artists as a vital part of the international art community, and as elements of the new Chinese culture. But we quickly see that there is more than one Chinese culture.

In Hong Kong, which was recently returned to China, artists are concerned with freeing themselves from the influences of colonialism and consumerism. Small wonder that issues of balance and identity permeate their work.

In Taiwan, where artists have always been free to travel, and Western art has long been familiar, contemporary artists struggle with their cultural identity. Taipei artist Wu Tien-Chang's "Dream of a Spring Night" shows a woman suspended between the old world and the new, framed by flower-shaped lights. Cupping her hands over her breasts in a gesture that is both protective and provocative, she stands between classically decorated posts wearing modish, western-style sunglasses. A spot of bright light which catches her in its glow shows a ship on the distant horizon, symbolic of foreign culture, although it is uncertain whether it is arriving or departing.

A pervasive theme in the show is exploration of written script as form without meaning. Pseudo-graphs which look at first like Chinese characters, but on closer inspection turn out to be meaningless patterns invented by the artist, turn up everywhere. The predilection for distorting and dissolving images into meaningless pattern is a hallowed tradition in Chinese art. Applied to script, it becomes a way of subverting a powerful tool of state. In the China of years gone by, when ordinary citizens were largely illiterate, any piece of paper with writing on it was sacrosanct. It was forbidden for ordinary citizens to discard or destroy it. In contemporary reversal, artists show it empty of meaning.

New York artist Xu Bing, who was born in Chongqing, subverts the printed word by producing thousands of hand-printed, traditional looking pages in "Book from the Sky," on which not a single character is legible.

Cai Guo-qiang, a Quan zhou artist who has lived in the U.S. since 1995, communicates by more traditional sym bolic means. Cai hangs a boat of rice straw in the air, flying a Chinese flag, pierced by arrows. Titled "Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows," it is a political piece, although anyone not Chinese is apt to miss its historic reference.

Some time around 350 A.D., a Chinese general realized he did not have enough arrows for a battle he was facing. He ordered his troops to make 300 boats of rice straw and push them out on the water toward the enemy on a misty morning. When the enemy peppered the boats with arrows, the general pulled the boats back to his own shore, retrieved the arrows, and used them to defeat his enemy. The moral: Beware of shooting at Chinese.

DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.

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