FAREWELL OUR GLOBALISM
EXCERPT from the originally published article in Art in America
Dec. 01, 2017
by Richard Vine
First the good news. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” now appearing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 7, samples China’s most fertile and challenging post-Mao period of art production in ways that are stimulating for specialists and general viewers alike. Organized by three experts intimately involved in the history they present—Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian art; Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing; and Hou Hanru, artistic director of MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art, in Rome—the exhibition eschews a strict chronological format. Instead, it strives, through savvy and sometimes unexpected selections, creatively mixed, to convey the ferment of a time in China when liberation was in the air, anything seemed possible, and avant-garde artists, at first little appreciated (and sometimes persecuted) at home, sought to take their place in the global art system. The realization that those times have sadly changed is due in equal measure to a cultural revanchism in the People’s Republic of China and a resurgence of moral provincialism in the United States.
The organizers’ first smart move was choosing to examine the transformative years between 1989 (the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 2008 (the triumphant Beijing Olympics, the financial crash in the US and Europe). For experimental artists in China, this period marked a heady escape from Socialist Realism, an adoption of many Western techniques and aesthetic values, the establishment of a tacit bond between progressive art and progressive social ideas, and the birth of a contemporary art market that soon became voracious. We must recall the new-found boldness that roiled Chinese cultural life in those years in order to appreciate what we are now steadily losing to careerism, nativism (on both sides), and moral provincialism in the US.
The curatorial team’s second crucial choice was to largely avoid spectacle in favor of more soberly conceptual work. “Gaudiness,” “crudeness,” “vulgarity”—whatever term naysayers prefer—is the stick that Western skeptics have repeatedly used to beat contemporary Chinese art back into its proper Second World place. There could be no more “striking” example of this than the critical reception of the Guggenheim’s Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective in 2008, when some commentators cringed at the sight of six full-size, light-tube-sprouting automobiles dangling in the museum’s rotunda and a pack of stuffed wolves caught in mid-suicidal leap against a glass wall on its ramp. The only echo of such visual extravagance in the current show is Chen Zhen’s Precipitous Parturition (1999), a relatively modest (only about sixty-five-foot-long) dragon composed of bicycle parts and woven inner tubes. Suspended high above the atrium and pregnant with toy cars, the work serves as a metaphor for the PRC’s generational shift from pedal power to gas-guzzlers.
One consequence of this curatorial move is a rather strange dearth of the art form that, beginning with the internationally touring show “China’s New Art, Post-1989” (1993–97), most consistently represented the new China to the outside world—namely, semi-cartoonish figurative painting, especially of the Big Face variety. Anyone who imagined that “Theater of the World” would bedeck the Guggenheim spiral with looming visages by Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Feng Zhengjie, and others need hope—or fear—no more. The few paintings actually on offer (ranging from linear abstractions by Liu Wei and Ding Yi to social observation scenes by Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong) are somewhat recessively integrated into a more diverse story of artistic exploration.
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