"The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art"; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery University at Buffalo Art Gallery

By Meyer, James | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

"The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art"; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery University at Buffalo Art Gallery


Meyer, James, Artforum International


"POOR CHINA!" It is June 2003; Venice is sweltering. A friend and I have traversed the Arsenale and now find ourselves standing before an installation of bright lights and ungainly statuary that is meant to evoke the chaotic dynamism of the postmillennial Chinese city. Despite this theme, the work feels inert--showy, but dumb. We grow restless. The aforementioned comment by my companion expresses with sad resignation the view that contemporary art in China cannot hold its own against the more sophisticated endeavors of the West. Not only can it not compete: It is worthy of our sympathy.

Buffalo, January 2006: "The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art"--a survey first presented last summer at Beijing's Millennium Art Museum--is far more promising. The best work among the contributions of some forty-five artists is provocatively conceptual. Song Dong's Together with Farm Workers, 2005, is the video record of an event orchestrated by the artist: Two hundred shirtless male peasants, newly arrived in the capital in search of work, consented to be bound to one another and led around a Beijing art space by Song for a modest fee--a Santiago Sierra--esque tactic with particular resonance in today's rapidly urbanizing China. Zhang Dali's video Face Behind the City. Zhang Dali and Beijing, 2005, documents the destruction of Beijing's ancient neighborhoods as well as the artist's practice of marking these ill-fated sites with graffitied heads that resemble his own in profile, which he then chisels through so as to expose the surrounding ambience: rubble heaps, forlorn imperial structures, and a new species of condominium tower, half-postmodernist, half-"Chinese," that has few rivals for contemporary urban hideousness. The work reiterates the disjointed spatiotemporality of the Chinese city, where the architecture of the imperial and Communist past and that of the capitalist-globalist present are brutally joined, the latter rapidly erasing the former. Xu Bing's Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990-91, a rubbing of a single beacon tower of the Great Wall, redefines previous notions of indexicality in art. In this installation, the act of transferring a thing's impression to paper is blown up to monumental proportions (the installation, at a height of thirty feet, fits snugly in the Albright-Knox's sculpture court). The participation of numerous collaborators and the fact that the project took nearly a month to complete recall the actual history of the wall--the thousands of nameless masons involved in its construction over several centuries. A pair of works by Huang Yongping traces the trajectory of a century of contentious US-Sino relations, from imperialism to geopolitical rivalry: His sculpture 1/4 Hoover Tower, 2005, references Stanford University's creepy edifice of that name, which houses the library of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, and also alludes to President Hoover's youthful stint as an engineer working for a private corporation in China from 1899 to 1901, while Bat Project III, 2003, is a replica of the American surveillance plane downed in Chinese territory in April 2001 (the original work, installed at the Millennium Art Museum, was documented photographically for Buffalo).

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These and other works in Buffalo suggested it was not the limitations of Chinese art that my friend and I encountered at Venice but a partial representation of the field itself--a field we could not grasp. That exhibition, "ZOU (Zone of Urgency)," curated by Hou Hanru, represented a "Pop" or realist sensibility in Chinese practice that can be traced to the Capitalist Realist paintings of the early '80s; it also put forward a futurist, Koolhaasian vision of the new Chinese city. "The Wall" reflected by contrast the Conceptualist interests of its organizer, Gao Minglu, one of the curators of "China/Avant-Garde" (the first official show of advanced Chinese art at the National Museum in Beijing, mounted in the months before the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989) and a cocurator of the Queens Museum of Art's 1999 "Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s. …

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