Patty Chang: Shangri-La

Museum of Contemporary Art

A dazzling rotating model of a mountain, perhaps eight feet tall and covered with triangular mirrors, anchors Patty Chang’s installation Shangri-La, now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The sculpture represents a Western fantasy of the exotic East, the fictional Tibetan mountain paradise that’s the setting for James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon and Frank Capra’s 1937 film adaptation–part of a long tradition of mystical mountains in movies, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For her take on the theme, Chinese-American artist Chang traveled to a small Chinese town near the Tibetan border that recently changed its name from Zhongdian to Shangri-La in the hope of attracting tourists. There she made the 40-minute video that’s the other half of the installation, much of it devoted to workers fabricating the mirrored mountain in Shangri-La and transporting it by truck across the wild gray expanse of the Himalayan foothills.

Predictably, the exhibition catalog refers to what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls the “mirror phase” of development, when a child’s self-recognition enables the ego to progress through imagined projections of a unified self. Like Lacan, Chang recognizes the role fantasy plays in forming identity–and in the identity art she creates. Such work, which focuses not on the artist’s individual humanity but on some group identification (race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability), often falters when it relies on a humorless, self-martyring combination of condescension and accusation to supposedly subvert stereotypes. However, like identity artists Cindy Sherman and William Pope L., Chang calls into question the exploitative side of self-representation by including unsettling and fantastic elements in her work. In her 1998 video Melons (at a Loss) she tells a story while eating chunks of the canteloupes installed in the cups of her corset, and in Contortion (2000-’01) she uses creative camera work to tape herself in Chinese acrobatic poses, then take them to the point of absurdity. In other videos she stuffs hot dogs in her mouth, sews words onto her neck, shaves her pubic hair, and puts live eels down her shirt. The 1999 piece Fountain may be her clearest statement on the horrors of continuous reflection. In the video Chang appears to be upright, passionately kissing her own image. But in the actual performance she was lying on a mirror slurping water from its surface for 45 minutes straight–and trying not to throw up.

Chang makes only brief appearances in the Shangri-La video, mostly holding the camera as she documents various processes of creation: the subcontractors fabricating the mountain from plywood, Styrofoam, and mirrors, the construction of a wedding cake topped by mountains, and the transformation of Chang herself into a Chinese bride. The two constructions are connected by the mountain theme and by nuptial imagery: a Chinese TV demonstration of lotus flowers being created from icing prefigures the mountain cake, and before the large mountain is created we see its white, somewhat cakelike Styrofoam mock-up. Later there’s a staged wedding photo shoot (featuring Chang) against picturesque mountains; the event’s “natural” harmony and serenity must be constantly tweaked by shooing away inquisitive kids and adjusting the happy couple’s poses. Later still Chang gets a makeover and stars in a misty, romantic video accompanied by Chinese pop music, alternately appearing in a seductive flowered dress and a full white bridal ensemble. The other ceremonial costumes in the video are the maroon robes of the Buddhist monks who populate both the fictional (real?) and the actual (fake?) Shangri-La. At one point Chang shows monks breathing oxygen in a room built to replicate the chambers used to treat altitude sickness, which in turn resemble the fuselage of an airplane, recalling the one that carries the visitors in Lost Horizon.

Though Chang’s mountain does conform to current formal trends favoring reflective surfaces and complex geometric forms, Shangri-La is far more substantial than Yutaka Sone’s installation at the Renaissance Society earlier this year, “Forecast: Snow.” Sone’s lame ode to skiing also featured elements fabricated by Chinese workers–delicate marble and crystal replicas of ski slopes and snowflakes. Sone mentioned the work of his expert contractors during his artist’s talk, but otherwise their efforts weren’t acknowledged, hidden away in Sone’s roomful of pine trees and fake snow. Chang, on the other hand, creates a compellingtension between process and product, myth and economics, illusion and apparatus. As curator Russell Ferguson points out in the catalog essay, the mirrored surfaces are not only magical looking but evoke glass-and-steel modernism, which had its birth in the utopian visions of architects like Bruno Taut. Today, of course, modernism is represented by the mirrored skyscraper facades of global capitalism, whose current expansion owes a great deal to Chinese labor. And tomorrow the children of workers who are today building projects for successful artists might become wealthy collectors and benefactors themselves–or the artists contracting out work.

In Shangri-La Chang has moved away from videos based on a particular performance, but the sense of narrative progression and a real-time process remains. Other sections are still and timeless, scenes without clear purpose: the wedding video, the monks breathing, the vast landscape. Ultimately Chang goes beyond the solipsism of a mirrored subject or the mystique of a magical mountain to offer a more subtle understanding of identity, drawing on the way objects, bodies, experiences, history, and fantasy interact and change one another.

WHEN: Through 8/20

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

PRICE: $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids under 12 free

INFO: 312-280-2660

MORE: Exhibit tour Tue 8/8 at noon

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Patty Chang and David Kelley, courtesy the MCA and Kustera Tilton Gallery, New York.