China's Irrepressible Modern Art Scene

Article excerpt

China sits atop a gold mine of contemporary art that few people have ever seen, either inside or outside the country. An exhibition near Boston unveils an unexpected side of China - colorful, winsome, and touched with a subversive kind of humor.

The art falls roughly into two categories: a celebration of the individual over the collective experience, and the adaptation of traditional methods and forms into entirely new objects. From juiced- up portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong to misty landscapes composed of human bodies, Chinese contemporary art has emerged as a heavyweight contender on the global scene.

Proof can be found in the exhibition "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. About 100 objects, from paintings and photographs to installations and video, offer a glimpse of the vitality and diversity of Chinese culture.

Today's art is built on top of a turbulent history, affected largely by the rise of Communism in the 20th century. Mao's Cultural Revolution was responsible for the loss of tens of millions of lives from 1966-76. Families were decimated. Cultural artifacts were destroyed or spirited away. Artists were assigned to farms or forced to make propaganda images of happy, productive workers.

After Mao's death in 1976 and the loosening of government restrictions, artists were able to see examples of Western abstract art for the first time. In the beginning, they copied images they saw in art magazines, but a desire to express the turmoil of recent events soon won out. By the mid-1980s, artists had moved toward a uniquely Chinese vocabulary, says collector Uli Sigg. While Western art fixated on Abstraction, the Chinese continued to depict figures, often done in brightly colored styles that emulated Pop Art. Their pent-up anger toward Mao found expression in irreverent makeovers of his official portrait, including a recent one by Yu Youhan in which the Chinese leader is given the Andy Warhol-Marilyn Monroe treatment, "Untitled (Mao/Marilyn)" (2005).

For collectors such as Mr. Sigg, this burst of experimentation after such long isolation makes contemporary Chinese art extraordinarily compelling. They argue that the West hasn't seen a similar ferocious need to make art since the 1940s. "The urgency and necessity that provoked the new Chinese art is more authentic than it is currently in Western art," writes gallery owner Arne Glimcher in The Daily Beast (www.thedailybeast.com).

Held up against the current art scene in the West, the best of the Chinese work feels fresh, urgent, close to the bone.

"It's remarkable how they've emerged under the boot heel of a Communist state," says David A. Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Finally, of course, the art has to transcend all that, it has to be of more than historic significance."

The Sigg collection touches on historic milestones, such as Socialist Realist propaganda paintings, but it doesn't stop there. The exhibition includes paintings that poke holes in the mythology of the contented worker, dubbed Cynical Realism. Artists such as Yue Minjun and Geng Jianyi create images of faces frozen in huge, grotesque grins, suggesting not just stereotypes of uncomplaining workers but also, underneath, a darker, bleaker vaudeville performance. The Chinese are acting their part in a collective society, keeping their true feelings hidden.

The growing consumer culture also takes a hit. Artist Wang Guangyi co-opts the image of proud workers, making them part of a Chanel No. …