Fervent celebration of the Fifty-Sixth Anniversary of the People's Republic of China is not generally among the uses to which the Potomac River is put. Yet there I was in Washington D.C., after nightfall October 1, standing on the banks of the national Euphrates and waiting for the fireworks to begin. Surrounded by middle-aged American couples reminiscing about their wonderful trips to China, aging Fujianese immigrants, same-sex couples and their adopted Chinese baby girls, and collegiate Caucasian men with their collegiate Chinese girlfriends in tow, I watched, as at 9:50 precisely, a circle alternating motorised rowboats and barges moved downstream from its practice site north of the Rock Creek split-off, through the Georgetown Channel, to a patch of river squarely abutting the terraces of the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. Then before the gathered masses on the ground level, and the Chinese and American bureaucrats and donors on the rooftop, the blasts began - kicking off a month of Chinese art in the U.S. unmatched for its diversity and prestige.
Cai Guoqiang has been at the pyrotechnics game for over a decade now; each instance however seems to outdo the previous one in terms of geopolitical over-determination. Were the gathered heads of state, two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, prepared for such a round of joyous explosions at the 2001 APEC Summit in Shanghai? Did New Yorkers realise what was happening when, during the MoMAQNS opening in 2002, he exploded a "Transient Rainbow" over the East River? Surely the Washingtonians, watching the barges circle and fire pretty coloured rockets in precisely alternating splendor, were unprepared for what followed. The FAA had been warned; the Delta and US Airways 737s preparing to touch down on the Reagan National tarmac were just feet above the crests of these dainty explosions, in some perverse twist on the bombs other, similarly marked, similarly silver American planes had grown accustomed to dropping on riverside cities elsewhere in the world. Or was the irony of this fluvial hijacking - the Potomac brought into the service of the PRC - not apparent to the huddled masses?
It took the three bursts which followed the dazzle, megaton bursts issuing white flames and dark smoke from unmarked platforms, causing the ground to shake and the babies to cry, to drive the point home. Cai called the work a '"man-made tornado," riffing on the Chinese translation of tornado as "dragon-wind." But the collegians on the nearby Georgetown hilltop were in a frenzy, and the police department received hundreds of calls. Everyone thought the terrorists were back. George W. Bush himself, we must assume, sliding under the covers a few blocks up the street just after his ten o'clock bedtime hour, must have felt and heard the booms. Surely these were the largest explosions in the District since the plane hit the Pentagon. But what everyone mistook for terror was really just (Chinese) art.
The next morning's Washington Post framed a brightly painted Peking Opera face, announcing that the Kennedy Centre's Festival of China had begun. Cai's pyrotechnics were a piece of opening-ceremony showmanship, a taste of what he might like to do in Beijing a few summers hence. The month was to include performances by ensembles ranging from the China National Acrobatic Troupe and the Inner Mongolian Chorus to the Beijing Modern Dance Company and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. But the Kennedy Centre's China foray, curated by vice president of international programming and dance, Alicia Adams, and financed to the tune of $7 million, was the largest China-centred performing arts program in American history. It even featured a modest visual component, with an installation by Oscar-winning set and costume designer Tim Yip that covered the Centre's tall riverfront windows in red paper-cut-like silhouettes in a project called "China Red." The Centre's main car approach was framed by (what else?) a Zhan Wang steel rock and a Sui Jianguo caged dinosaur, part of a sculpture exhibition entitled Transferred Landscapes.
[An earlier version contained factual errors regarding the Kennedy Centre's October 2005 Festival of China. Zhang Yimou's ballet adaptation of Raise the Red Lantern was, in fact, performed at the Centre. Financing for the Festival did not come directly from the two governments, but from a number of private sponsors, and in the form of travel, cargo, and other costs covered by the Chinese Ministry of Culture as well as presentation costs shouldered by the Kennedy Centre. The U.S. Government did not contribute to the Festival.]
Yes, it was the month of China in the U.S. If the performing-arts fun was just beginning in D.C., however, the visual parade would subside for two weeks, until the much-anticipated opening of Huang Yong Ping's retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show proved incredibly rich, bolstered by near flawless installation and a highly developed curatorial agenda. A careful consideration of this monumental show requires a separate essay (forthcoming), but by way of cursory documentation, let it be noted that House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective is perhaps the largest push the American art scene has yet received away from pegging Chinese artists as Chinese artists, and toward a more discriminating (in terms of taste) and un-discriminating (in terms of nationality) aesthetic standard. In this, the first solo show mounted at the Walker since its re-opening in a Herzog and DeMeuron designed pod last spring, Old Master Huang's greatest works were distributed among three levels of exhibition space.
While, say curators Philippe Vergne and Doryun Chong, Huang's oeuvre is diametrically opposed to the very concept of a chronological retrospective, a useful (if ultimately also arbitrary and authoritarian) set of distinguishing principles was used to separate a massive body of more than forty works. The entry room was about "imperialism/colonialism." Dominated by the 2002 elephant sculpture, and supplemented by the earlier "Eight-legged Hat" and "Palanquin" pieces, the exhibition entryway was divided by a wall. Over it hung signs marking door-paths for "Nationals" and "Others," leading past cages into a room full of blown-up export-porcelain bowls full of food products that expired in July 1997.
Upstairs, a giant room centred around the show's eponym, "House of Oracles," (1989-1992), the installation in which Huang first conflated Yi Jing divination, global geopolitics, and the military etymology of the term "avant-garde" into a tent full of geomancer's tools, with stunning visual effect. At the room's centre sat the show's crowd-pleaser, the 1993 work "The Theatre of the World," an oversized display table framed by wire mesh mirroring the design of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, and filled with crickets, scorpions, lizards, and snakes. The number of crickets had dwindled markedly by the time the gallery tour began on the show's second day. On the walls hung the great early fruits of the Xiamen Dada period: the original roulette wheel, in its shoddy leather briefcase, along with the "Four Paintings Produced According to Random Instructions" that it had enabled; "Mona-Vinci," a riff on the poor printing quality of 1980s art history textbooks in Fujian, in which two iconic DaVinci images were printed on different sides of the same thin leaf, making for a curious, hermaphroditic image of Leonardo-cum-Mona Lisa; the Duchampian painting in kitchen grease; and the conceptualist classic "The Beard is Easiest to Burn." Other major works filled out the room, including a giant wooden sculpture of a python skeleton running overhead, and the 1995 piece "The Pharmacy," consisting of a giant medicinal gourd, filled with herbal remedies, spewing digested nuggets of culture onto the ground before it.
The exhibition's third and final level housed a register of works commenting on the end of the American empire. For soundbite value, one is hard-pressed to beat "Amerigo Vespucci" (2003), an aluminum sculpture of a mastiff, Neapolitan like its namesake, leg raised against the wall, pissing an outline of these United States onto the floor. But the fun didn't end there: "Two Typhoons" (2002), from the artist's oversized Tibetan prayer wheel series, presented a twin towers of incomprehensible script, one drawn from the Quran, the other from a Tibetan sutra. The towers looked out over a toppled pole topped by a bald eagle perched on the crown of Windsor, with markers pointing at precisely calculated angles (in relation to the work's original place of display, in Manchester) toward a series of "Eastern" nations, ordered, according to the artist, by the likelihood of an American military attack upon them.
The piece de resistance was "Bat Project IV," which functioned simultaneously and paradoxically as the capping piece in a cycle of works that rigorously and pointedly examined American hegemony, and as confirmation of the enduring strength of the American museum system. Bat Project was, of course, a stifled trilogy: a re-instantiation of the downed American spy plane of April 2001 whose tail and fuselage were censored at Shenzhen, cockpit and left wing at Guangzhou, and right wing at Beijing. The well-worn story is that this censorship unfolded under the mutual and competing direction of bureaucracies American, Chinese, and French, reflecting, instantiating, and even performing the delicate nature of the global balance of power. As the slogan across that old Zhou Tiehai painting goes, "The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post-Cold War era."
"Bat Project IV" reveled in its superfluity, adding touches of realism and whimsy to a work that had been completed, up to this point, in the unflagging lexicon of critique through verisimilitude. For this installation, the curators culled the battered cockpit of an actual P-3 Orion (the classic Lockheed military plane of which the EP-3 is a later modification) from a junkyard in Northern California; it was elongated with a fuselage framed in marvelously circular bamboo, and covered in the incidentally red-white-and-blue polyethylene fabric found on most Chinese construction sites. Inside, three hundred taxidermic Fujianese bats hung from the ceilings and crouched in the corners, as the re-created flight deck played host to a documentary display on the project and its history. The irony, perhaps, was that a work so seemingly critical of the U.S., and so frequently portrayed as having been censored out of U.S. national interest, was successfully exhibited for the first time only in an American museum. (This reading, of course, presumes that the point of the first three Bat Project works was to be formally exhibited, which may itself be a mis-reading.)
I flew out of Minneapolis and into New York early on the morning of Monday, October 17, and hurried to make it into Times Square by noon. Song Dong was reputedly to perform his “Writing with Water” on the concrete island at the centre of the billboards. The performance, sponsored by the New York public-art collective, Creative Time ( http://www.creativetime.org ) - the same group which aired video work by Song Dong on the monitors in the Square as part of its "59th Minute" program earlier this year - was postponed until that evening, hours after I had left the city.
Two days later, I was on the road again, this time setting out by car to Rochester and Buffalo, where two bizarrely complementary exhibitions were unfolding simultaneously. First, at the University of Rochester's Hartnett Gallery - a small but powerful triangular space inside the school's I.M. Pei-designed student centre - Beijing's newest artist collective, The Complete Art Experience Project ( http://www.caep.com.cn ), was at it again with a project called Playgrounds of Authorship . CAEP is largely composed of artists who first collaborated during the epochal Post-Sense Sensibility exhibitions of the late nineties (think Liu Wei, Wang Wei, Qiu Zhijie, Shi Qing, Wu Ershan, Zhang Hui), now supplemented by younger and non-PRC-born additions like Liu Ding, Rania Ho, Colin Chinnery, and Li Zhenhua. The collective, fresh off the triumph of its 24 Hours exhibition during the Beijing Biennale week, was wasting no time. In accordance with funding strictures, they had decided with curator Mara Gladstone (herself a Ph.D. student-cum-film-producer now enrolled at Rochester) to send two of their ten members to the U.S. Once there, they would open and manipulate eight cubic wooden crates, packed by the members who had not made the journey. No artist would know in advance what any other artist's crate contained.
Wang Wei and Shi Qing made the trip from Beijing, and after a few days of visiting galleries and museums in New York (where I met them before heading out to Minneapolis), they had come to Rochester to "open each box to interpret, enact, and install the plans."The project's Chinese title ( ???? ) is much more topical than the English, taken from a Pandora's-box-like story in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The installation was to last four days, with two boxes being opened each day; I visited the gallery on the third day, October 19. The artists had set guidelines for themselves forbidding them to talk to each other once they opened a box.
I stood with Ms. Gladstone and other university onlookers as the two artists installed the contents of their friend Wu Ershan's crate. It contained a schoolchild's map of China and a box of Inner Mongolian sand. Wang Wei drew pictures for Shi Qing illustrating that he was to hang the map on the gallery's eastern wall, trickle the sand into another map of their country on the gallery floor, and stay within the boundaries of this tiny, sandy China until the gallery closed. The sand arrangement took about an hour, after which Shi Qing sat atop the metal box that had contained the sand and ate a lunch of French fries and a bacon cheeseburger. In the end, this tiny, astutely curated show proved as interesting in its theoretical premises and artistic rigor as in the topical commentaries on distances physical and cultural made by some of the crated materials and their subsequent execution as works.
There was no time to stay and see the final day of installation; in less than two hours, Gao Minglu's epic The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art was opening some seventy miles up the Erie Canal, in Buffalo. The Wall completed its run at the Millennium Art Museum in Beijing last summer. Its second life, split among the three venues of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, and the University at Buffalo Centre for the Arts, was occasion for celebration. I arrived in time to chat with participating artists Xu Bing, Wang Xingwei, Zheng Lianjie, and He Yunchang before a performance by the relatively unknown Sichuan artist Chen Qiulin in the main atrium of the UB Centre for the Arts. Chen had enlisted eight male students of uniform height for her piece, entitled "I Exist, I Consume, I Am Happy," in which she sat in a shopping cart, wearing a bridal gown and powdering her nose, as the men, attached to the cart by lengths of rope harnessed to dog collars around their necks, pulled furiously in all directions. The tug-of-war ended when one man's rope snapped, whereupon he picked his bride out of the shopping cart and kissed her on the cheek. This strange piece, first realised in Chengdu, and enthusiastically received in Buffalo, is given extensive analysis in the show's catalogue.
The party moved on to the Anderson Gallery, a converted elementary school near the university's older South Campus. The second-floor galleries held two of the show's highlights: a wall full of conceptual work from Wu Shanzhuan's "Today No Water" series, juxtaposed with a Buffalo cityscape in steel pots and pans by Zhan Wang. (Zhan Wang was also present for the opening, fresh in from San Francisco, where another of his scholar's rocks has been collected and installed outside the newly re-opened de Young Museum.) From there, the assembled crowd moved once more, this time to the Albright-Knox, a staid neoclassical art temple - caryatids and all—on the edge of the city's major Olmsted-landscaped park.
Of a number of excellent installations at the Albright-Knox, two stand out. First was Xu Bing's hefty 1991 project "Ghosts Pounding the Wall," a life-size ink-rubbing of a Great Wall watchtower. This iconic piece, Xu Bing's post-Tian'anmen, pre-New York send-up of Chinese historical tragedy, was given in a dark room on the Albright-Knox's second level a sense of gravitas it was unable to achieve when it hung in the foyer of the Guangdong Museum of Art during the First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002.
A second, poignant room housed Yu Hong's installation "Memory Dress," which consisted of dozens of t-shirt-like cotton forms silk-screened on opposite sides with her paintings and images culled from news reports. The paintings - many, themselves copies of old family photographs - were exactly contemporaneous with the events depicted on each shirt's reverse; thus, one hanging featured on one side an image of the artist with her young daughter in a Beijing park, and on the other side the Sanlian Life Weekly cover for the week immediately following September 11, 2001. These contrasts between public and private, exaggerated by the artist's bilingual notations in marker under each image, and indeed the oscillations of the cotton forms as they hung from the ceiling, made for a chilling piece.
A four-day research conference to accompany the opening entitled "The Roles and Representations of Walls in the Reshaping of Chinese Modernity" was only just beginning, but I had to head east. On my way to Cambridge, Massachusetts I took in In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds, an excellent traveling exhibition of highlights from Berkeley's Ching Yuan Chai collection of Chinese landscape painting now on view at the Williams College Museum of Art. Writing from Cambridge, I am missing a preview of Wang Jianwei's latest solo show at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, not to mention Zhou Xiaohu's first New York gallery show at Ethan Cohen. It seems fitting to compare this month of Chinese art exhibitions and happenings in the U.S. to some of the more heavily orchestrated recent "Year of China" celebrations around Europe, even if this group of events unfolded more or less organically. It is also worth noting that this month in the U.S. will be remembered not for any of these exhibitions, but for the various problems it has finally presented to the men running this country. As the New York Times noted on October 27, "It seems safe to say that President George W. Bush has never had a worse political week than this one - and it is not over yet." Maybe, just maybe, the bubble of Chinese avant-gardism will continue to expand, even after the bubble of American neoconservatism has popped.
Philip Tinari is a writer, curator, and translator specialising in contemporary Chinese art. He holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Harvard (2005) and a B.A. in literature and history from Duke (2001), and was a Fulbright Fellow at Peking University (2001-2002). In 2002 and 2003, he worked in China as associate curator of "The Long March: A Walking Visual Display" and as curatorial assistant to The First Guangzhou Triennial . In 2004, he worked as reporter in the Beijing bureau of The Wall Street Journal . His writing has also appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education , Yishu-Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art , and McSweeney's , and his original Chinese writing has appeared in publications including Dushu . He curated the exhibitions "Made in Asia?" (Duke University Museum of Art, Durham N.C., 2001) and "Temporary Space: An Experiment by Wang Wei" (Long March Space, Beijing, 2003). Most recently, he completed a summer of Arabic study at Yarmouk University, Irbid, Jordan and organised an international workshop on Asian contemporary art for the Harvard Project on Asian and International Relations conference in Tokyo.
- Tue, 1 Nov 2005