"the dilemma of projecting an international space on the trace of a decentred, fragmented subject" *

Chen Zhen
Fu Dao/Fu Dao, Upside-Down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune, 1997
Steel, bamboo, resin Buddha statues, washing machine, computer monitor, tires, bicycle, fan, chair, household appliances, other found objects, and string, approximately 350 x 800 x 550 cm overall Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins/Havana

On view now until January 7th, the Guggenheim in New York presents "Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World," an exhibition of contemporary art from China spanning 1989 to 2008, according to the museum's press release.  Curated by Alexandra Munroe
Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, this show, however, includes a number of artists that have actually lived in Europe since 1989, and some of the works do not address "China" per-se. Namely, Huang Yong Ping, who has been living in Paris since 1989  and whose large installation work's title- "Theater of the World," 1993 is used for the naming of this exhibition.  Thus, I find this generalizing of "art from China" misleading.  

Based on an ancient Chinese recipe for making a potent poison, "Theatre of the World," 1993 in its intended form should have encased a live centipede, a snake, a scorpion, a toad and a lizard.  As they devoured each other over the exhibition period, whatever corpse left is supposed to be the most poisonous.  In fact, this work has never been shown in its entirety anywhere with the live animals inside, due to public protest and as a gesture of respect for  animal rights, the installation has only been exhibited as an empty case.  

In his 1989 essay, “Art / Power / Discourse,” in chapter 4: Discourse-Art-Power (1985-1999) of his exhibition catalogue.  Huang writes, “ ...[y]et is the goal of deliberately causing an exhibition to be canceled to reveal the existence of power, or is it to use it to reach another type of power- that is, by becoming the subject of ‘more’ talk, and not only the subject of talk? ...” (p. 89)  Here, the work according to the artist presents a power dynamic that is  independent from anything to do with China.  What this work does is calling forth an institutional critique.  As for the idea of being a "global citizen," one aspect of the curatorial intent as stated by Dr. Monroe, this work comments on institutional bureaucracy and the morality issue in regards to animal rights.  Recently, Frieze picked up on the animal rights and the morality problem of using live animals in art works.  

Furthermore, I like to bring up another problems.  Namely, this idea of a West and East binary which, has been hotly debated among post-modern theorists for decades now.  Seeing this exhibition, and as it appears, this binary has a very long shadow.

Huang Yong Ping
Theater of the World, 1993
Wood and metal structure with warming lamps, electric cable, insects (spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes), lizards, toads, and snakes, 150 x 270 x 160 cm Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
© Huang Yong Ping

However ambitious and good intentioned this exhibition is, I don't see how we have departed from presenting these works without doing away with the binary of West and East.  The exhibition examines the time period after 1989, and the year after the Tiananmen Square incident, until the year of 2008 in the style of a survey.  Each of the themes separates one phase of the cultural and political change from the next, except the one called "Uncertain Pleasure: Acts of Sensation."  By inserting this apparently anomalous category compared with the rest, it serves like a diversion that keeps the exhibition from a rigid criticism, such as one about it being either a survey or a non-survey show. 

In all fairness, "Art and China after 1989" does present evidence that it involved tremendously dedicated effort in research, especially in the section mapping out the beginning of the "Chinese avant-garde movement."  However, the term "avant-garde" is altogether a Western term originating from France describing 20th century post-war art produced in Europe.  First coined by Wu Hung, a pioneer scholar in the study of Contemporary Chinese art, he introduced the term to described the years during which when Chinese artists put on unofficial exhibitions in China.  Since the beginning of his scholarship and in his 1996 publication of "Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture," he compares Shang-dynasty bronze to Eiffel Tower and makes a case for Chinese monumentality using Western criteria.  Incidentally, in his more recent publications of Contemporary Chinese art,  it is not a surprise that he would borrow the Western term of "avant-garde" to chronicle Chinese contemporary art history.  This is not wrong, but if we are in the age of  trying to do away with cultural binary, then we need to think in other terms that is not Eurocentric.  

Why does my picking-out of the West and East binary not make me guilty of emphasizing this idea in the first place? Am I the one pointing the finger, and calling out the binary when it in fact doesn't exist in this exhibition?  Dr. Monroe mentioned that this exhibition showcases a third-dimension and one that has not been done before in North American institutions.  Moreover, she also mentioned that her exhibition is about bringing to the audience of these artists' awareness of being global citizens, except for the works by Chinese artists living and practicing abroad, the others do not address the issue of being a global citizen at all.  For example, the works by Zhao Bandi, Yu Hong and Liu Dan, just to name a few.  For these artists, the works speak to rift between the the consequent physical changes in the Chinese landscape and the lives of ordinary people in the time of rapid economic growth.  The global citizen aspect is purely subjective, and read more as a presumptuous commentary that the ambition to be a strong economic should mean being global.  What does global even mean in this instance?  

Zhao Bandi
Young Zhang, 1992
Oil on canvas, 214 x 140 cm
Private collection
Image courtesy ShangART Gallery, Shanghai

Yu Hong
Deng Xiaoping’s Tour in the South of China, “China Pictorial,” p. 2, no. 6, 1992, and 1992, Twenty-Six Years Old, A Still of the Film “The Days,” 2001, from Witness to Growth, 1999–present
Two parts, left: inkjet print, 68 x 100 cm; right: acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm
Collection of the artist, Beijing
© Yu Hong

Liu Dan
Splendor of Heaven and Earth, 1994—1995
Ink on paper, 190 x 500 cm
Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Image courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang

The title of my article,  "the dilemma of projecting an international space on the trace of a decentered, fragmented subject" is extracted from Homi K. Bhabha's The Location of Culture, and the chapter 11 of the book called, "How Newness Enters The World: Postmodern space, postcolonial times and the trials of cultural translation (p. 309).  In which, this quote is a reflection and analysis on a text by Fredric Jameson in his book called, Post Modernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  One of the issues with this new "internationalism" or "global citizen"nomenclature is the question of its origin, here in this sentence by Jameson, also as Bhabha highlighted: "I take such spatial peculiarities as symptoms and expressions of a new and historically original dilemma, one that involves our insertion as individual subjects into a multidimensional set of radical discontinuous realities, whose frames range from the still surviving spaces of bourgeois private life all the way to the unimaginable decentering of global capital itself. ..." (p. 413)

During the press conference held just the day before the exhibition's official opening, Alexandra Monroe (Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts of Guggenheim Museum) explained her recent exhibition as an effort to trace and bring to light the cultural change of China as a country entering the global social and economic arena post 1989.  Problematically,  she referred to the Chinese contemporary art in this exhibition as something that fills in the existing art discourse with a "third-dimension. "  This reference implies that non-western art is a subject that exists independent of the existing discourse, one that predominately involves the West. On the notion of the West versus the East binary and the center versus the periphery, this reference indicates the stagnating perception of non-Western art since "Magiciens de la terra," 1989, that took place in Paris.  

By contextualizing Chinese contemporary art as the "third-dimension," unique from the others is perhaps a remark on how remarkably innovative it is, however, if only this was true.  In all seriousness, this remark puts us back to 1989 when in the Western perception of China after the Cold War was indeed that of a "third-world country."  In a way, Dr. Monroe set up a trap for herself when she stated this current exhibition should follow the tradition of  "Magiciens de la terra," a 1989 exhibition curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and presented at Centre Pompidou.

Zhao Bandi
Young Zhang, 1992
Oil on canvas, 214 x 140 cm
Private collection
Image courtesy ShangART Gallery, Shanghai

Like "Magiciens de la terre," Guggenheim's "Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World" is a big social event in the history of art.  The attempt to de-center from the mainstream, as in defined by examples of works by Western artists, and to shift the spotlight to China by putting up this exhibition in a North American museum is commendable.  Here, to end, I want to ask the same question that Thomas McEvilley did (he wrote an essay for the "Magiciens" catalogue but was asked to write it before the exhibition, later he provided some afterthought) in his essay called "The Global Issue," included in his book called Art and Otherness: Crisis in cultural Identity, in which, he writes: "Magiciens opened the door of the long-insular and hermetic Western art world to non-Western artists.  The question is not really whether the people who opened the door had gravy on their jacket,  or slipped and fell as they were opening it.  The question is this and only this: as we enter the global village  of the 90s, would any of us really rather that door remain closed?"  The people that worked on "Art and China after 1989" would reply, no, the door is still open.  But the question remains, just how far is it open?  What saves this exhibition from a single framework critique and thus escapes from rigidity is its broad inclusion of works addressing the issues that does confine to a single line of inquiry.  Maybe skirting around is all we can do for the moment.


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