Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century

at the Smart Museum, through April 18

By Mark Swartz

Here in America we like to think the 60s were a big deal because some students grew their hair long, took drugs, and burned the flag. France looks back in awe at the same period because of various labor strikes and sit-ins. Yet these events are mere ripples compared to the tidal wave of China’s Cultural Revolution, launched by Chairman Mao in 1966.

The Cultural Revolution upended the social order to the point that drivers were instructed to stop at green lights and go at red ones. Students attacked and tortured their teachers. According to Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn in China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, the Guangxi province saw “one of the largest episodes of cannibalism anywhere in the world in the last century or more”; the writers add that “the cannibalism took place in public, often organized by Communist Party officials, and people indulged communally to prove their revolutionary ardor.”

Because 15 of the 21 artists represented in “Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century” were born in the 1960s, they didn’t so much live through the Cultural Revolution as they came of age during the long recovery from it. Although the show’s catalog maintains that “to this generation of artists, the 1960s and 1970s has become the remote past,” there’s a level of seriousness, even grimness, in all the work displayed that suggests to me that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are still influencing the culture.

Some of the artists directly address Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and China’s attempts to extricate itself from painful memories. Zhan Wang’s Temptation consists of three Mao suits (the dictator moonlighted as best-selling author and fashion trendsetter) molded into human shapes and resting on a circle of dirt. The artist has likened these humanoid shells to cicada skins, a common symbol of metamorphosis in Chinese culture. But far from making an optimistic statement about leaving the Cultural Revolution behind, this piece seems to show the past lingering, painfully.

Rong Rong’s three untitled black-and-white photographs of ruined villages suggest a similar refusal to die. The subjects are decades-old demolition sites littered with posters of bourgeois women, which the owners kept hidden during the Cultural Revolution but which the wrecking ball exposed. In each scene, vibrant photos of smiling or dancing women are juxtaposed with rubble; these places haven’t quite completed the transformation from disaster area to archaeological site. Rong has found places that reveal layers of history, partly destroyed and partly maintained, and by photographing them he freezes them in that state.

Xing Danwen’s nude photographs of a pregnant friend also include a photo within the photo, though the third party in her pictures is none other than Chairman Mao. Unlike the anonymous women in Rong’s work, Mao’s familiar visage elicits more specific responses. For most American viewers, Mao is just another pop icon, one among Warhol’s pantheon, but his face has a different meaning in China; according to the catalog, 2.2 billion portraits of him were produced during the Cultural Revolution–enough for everybody in the country to own three. Xing’s photographs suggest that even though Mao’s influence is fading, he continues to haunt current generations. An alternative, more ominous interpretation, considering the presence of a pregnant woman, is Mao’s figurative paternity–with that kind of DNA, the kid doesn’t stand a chance. Kristof and Wudunn compare China’s social trauma during the revolution to “the way you’d feel if your parents suddenly turned out to be ogres who molested your siblings and killed the neighbors.”

Not all the art in “Transience” refers directly to social or political issues, but the most powerful works protest China’s legacy of dehumanizing policies in the name of revolution as well as attempts to overcome that legacy. Xu Bing has never been allowed to exhibit his “counter-monument” Ghosts Pounding the Wall, which dominates the lobby of the museum, in his homeland. For this piece he enlisted a crew of students and peasants to take impressions from the Great Wall on sheets of paper, which he’s then mounted–redeploying one of the icons of both Chinese nationalism and Chinese communism, this time in ink on paper instead of bricks.

This Person Is for Sale, Zhu Fadong’s performance and video, isn’t as absurd an offer as it sounds: this is a country where brides and laborers are routinely offered for sale. The video shows the artist dressed in a Mao suit wandering around Beijing with a sign on his back announcing his status as commodity. The meaning of the sign seems to vary with his surroundings; it amounts to an accusation when the artist passes a McDonald’s, given that the Chinese economy is approaching the commodification of labor in capitalist economies. Zhu’s deadpan manner might provoke laughter, but the idea behind his project is as serious as it is simple.

Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters offers no cause for laughter. For this performance, shown at the museum on video, Zhang covered his naked body in honey and sat motionless in a Beijing public lavatory on a stifling day, allowing flies to cover him. His choice of artistic expression is even more puzzling considering that, a decade earlier, the artist was painting domestic scenes in a self-consciously premodern European style. Zhang must have reached a point where oil painting seemed an insufficient response to modern life, and in this performance and similar masochistic acts (described in the catalog) he attempts to respond to that chaos. His art is desperate, inarticulate, and apocalyptic, a mirror of life in the impoverished district where the performance took place.

Not all the work on display is as radical or experimental as 12 Square Meters; curator Wu Hung has included oil paintings in contemporary styles, modern updates of the Chinese calligraphic arts, and two different responses to the derelict state of Chinese opera and to the crushed uprising at Tiananmen Square on in 1989. In fact, the show’s variety of material and theme partly justifies Wu’s observation that, by the mid-90s, “many artists finally bid farewell to the Cultural Revolution and its visual and mental baggage.” But abandoned luggage often reappears. Just as American artists revisit slavery and the destruction of Native American culture, and just as French artists are still dealing with the country’s history of colonialism, so Chinese artists will probably continue to address the Cultural Revolution. To borrow Xu Bing’s title, the ghosts pounding the wall haven’t given up yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “12 Square Meters” by Zhang Huan.