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
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. …