Last week I was up in London and I managed to catch Art of Change, an exhibition of Chinese art, at the Hayward Gallery on the south bank.
Now the reason that I had come to see it was because a friend had told me about an interesting work about rock castings at this show, but one thing that amused me when I first stepped in was the number of Chinese visitors coming to see this. When I made a visit to the Hayward, I would say that at least 75% of the people walking through its galleries were young chinese people. Was the intention to make this body of Chinese art accessible to english audiences, or had they also anticipated the interest of sufficient numbers of Chinese artists/art students dwelling in London who would visit this show?
If one were to make a superficial judgement from the appearance of their relative youthfulness, one would have to assume that they were still studying at school (probably art school). Many seemed and behaved like shy (but hipster-hairdoed) undergraduates in London. I imagined that their educations might not be complete, and in fact might just only be starting; and then i thought about how funny it was that it seemed as if they had to be sent all the way to England to be given a lesson on Chinese art rather than encountering it at home.
Eventually, I also realised, that I myself was also small and Chinese and easily mistaken for a Chinese undergraduate. The lady at the door had given me a student discount on seeing me, despite my not having a student card. But of course, I didn’t have a student card because I haven’t been a student for years now and technically I was teaching staff now. Neither was I really “Chinese Chinese”, because Singapore Chinese people have little in common with China Chinese people, plus I’m an obsessive english-speaking-only anglophile……..
But, with my presence gracing this lovely show, it seems I had just perpetuated the illusion of “all these young chinese artists coming to the West to study about Chinese Art”…
THE HORRORS! OH THE HORRORS! SURELY NOT THAT!
But on with the show.
The show is accompanied by a great archive of Chinese art (available at a few terminals scattered around the exhibition spaces), with essays and suggested links between articles, grouped by themes and issues. I spent a good half hour sitting there reading through the archive, which was useful because I started to see certain links between the Beijing East Village and Artist Village in Singapore. The show is truly ripe territory for anyone who is interested in chinese contemporary art, avant gardism, performance art, shock art or art about the body as it has developed since the 90s in China. Many of the artists are very mobile and make works that involve a great deal of human participation.
The first work that greets you is a set of plaster castings of rocks that were supposedly from revolutions. A “social activity” produced by the “MadeIn” Company, visitors were also invited to contribute “stones that represent their cause”, and casts would be made of these rocks.
Xu Zhen – Untitled (2007) (Gym machine, remote control)
The artist formerly known as Xu Zhen, is now MadeIn Company. This is a simple piece that is a prelude to Xu Zhen’s other far more (conceptually) impressive works (including the “cover image” of the work that presents you with the image of the person about to fall). I liked this but not the museum staff hawking over nervously to make sure you didn’t completely spazz out on the controls and overwork the remote controlled exercise machine.
Duan Yingmei – Happy Yingmei
Next, there were a few works by Duan Yingmei, including a small room with a small door in the wall of the gallery (“Happy Yingmei”). In that room, Yingmei sits in the room filled with small tree branches, singing a little song, and when you enter she gives you a small piece of paper containing a wish for you to carry out. If you want to find out what it is, you’ll have to go inside and see it for yourself.
Duan Yingmei – Sleeping (2004/2012)
In the other room, there is a sleeping person. I saw a volunteer being led in by staff, and being helped up into the blue sleeping bag. After she was all wrapped up she turned to face outside. I looked at her. She blinked.
Xu Zhen – Untitled (2008/2011)
This work is of a kind of white wet paint that covers the wall of the gallery and it does not dry. The wall text suggested that a non-drying pigment was selected because if one touched it to see what it was, then one would leave a mark on the wet wall. I wanted to touch it but there was a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign, and I also recalled the last time I saw a big artwork in Palais de Tokyo of a big block of lipstick and… (oops! I better not say too much about that time?) But anyway, I think it would be great if there was no “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. It would be ambiguous like the block of lipstick that would end up being touched and gently palpated by the fingers of curious people.
Xu Zhen – In Just A Blink Of An Eye (2007)
(Archive) Xu Zhen – 8848-1.86
Xu Zhen also allegedly scaled Mount Everest in August 2005, sawed off 1.86 metros (Xu Zhen’s height) and then brought it back and exhibited the icy peak in a customized fridge along with photographic materials from the trip. In September 2005, the People’s Republic of China sent another team with the latest technology to re-evaluate the height of Everest and revised it downwards to 8844m.
Liang Shaoji – Various works with silk and silkworms – Whirl (Stones and silk), Windows (Cocoons and windows), Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Iron chains and silk)
Born 1945, Liang Shaoji has worked for decades on works with silkworms, living and working in isolation in a village in the Tiantai Mountains – the silkworms being a symbol of generosity and the thread also representing human life and history.
The silkworms are alive in this room on the work with the windows, and in the next room behind, you can hear the live sounds of silkworms eating crunchy leaves and audibly growing and moulting and turning into silkworm moths that flap their wings. It is most fantastic but one must be gentle with them.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Civilisation Pillar
This is a pillar of human fat retrieved from liposuction clinics, made by the infamous duo who have been making extreme works incorporating human body parts, corpses, animal carcasses in order to confront a world that they perceive to be desensitized by images of violence through commercialism. In the background they also show two animals, a rhinosaurus and a Triceratops, as part of another work “I Didn’t Notice What I Was Doing”.
Various oddities abound in this upstairs gallery, but no wall text though or explanation though. So I just wandered through.
Wang Jianwei – Surplus Value
In a strangely darkened room there was Wang Jianwei’s modified pingpong table which results in most balls ending up in the same well on this perilous pingpong table.
Gu Dexin – 1997-6-16 – 1998-6-13
Gu Dexin is apparently famous for working with materials that are unusual in that they are usually perishable. This is a work in which he squeezes water out of pieces of raw pork every day and then keeps them like archaeological remains.
Chen Zhen – Purification Room
Chen Zhen covers a normal room with mud which cracks and changes color over the course of time. The red clay mud is supposed to “purify and disinfect the materialist culture of objects” and by being covered in mud, give the objects a new future destiny.
Chen Zhen – Un-interrupted Voice
Part of a larger installation that Chen Zhen had created for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, where peace talks are at a crucial or difficult stage, as it were, these are animal skins stretched over chairs to make drums which exhibition visitors are welcome to hit. The artist explains: “Instead of striking people, one beats the drums, drumming an awakening into the mind”
Here ends the Chinese Art adventure. A very good show indeed. But my parting comment would be that I wish the archive was made available online and not just on the computers at the gallery itself. I could have read it for hours…