China’s modern art that grieves for the old

by Matthew Larking

The art on display in “From the 11th Chinese National Art Exhibition 2009: Contemporary Fine Art from China” at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art is of a different species than the headline-grabbing pieces that have propelled Chinese art into a much sought-after commodity frequently at the forefront of art-world conversations.

It is remote from the work of artists such as Zhu Yu, who claims to have eaten child fetuses in his performances, or the fireworks of Cai Guo-Qiang. Instead, here is art that acts as if Modernism, or anything more recent, never occurred and is, in essence, a contemporary social realism.

This is due in part to the nature of the exhibition and the marshaling of particular perspectives. Begun in 1949 and held at five year intervals, the Chinese National Art Exhibition is a kind of equivalent to Japan’s fine art exhibition, the Nitten. The show is divided into 10 genres, such as Chinese ink painting, oil painting, sculpture, engraving and other such. Several thousand entries are whittled down to a few hundred by a jury, and the best are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. Of those winners, 80 works are presently touring Japan as part of friendly China-Japan relations.

The subjects taken up are largely peripheral to contemporary art concerns. Take, for example, Li Jieping’s “Young Couple” (2009), which was awarded the gold medal in oil painting. A man plasters a wall and a young woman yokes buckets of plaster. Both look out toward the spectator with facial expressions of defiant optimism, even though the menial labor they accomplish, the fate of migrant workers, could in no way engender rosy outlooks. This kind of positive spin on a bad situation is endemic in the show. It can be seen in the cheery smiles on the faces of Li Xiaolin’s coal miners, who toil in darkness, and in the workers crammed eight to a room in Li Chuanzen’s “Work Shed” (2007-09). The toothy grins are a deception, similar to putting on your best face for a photograph, just like the grinning family who squash together in Liu Qing’s sculpture “Say Cheese!” (2008).

Such a positive spin may be psychologically practical, but it is also a way of avoiding potentially more fraught political realities. It is not, of course, requisite that art engage in politics, but so many of the works are deeply political.

Take Liu Manwen’s “Peace, 2009″ (2009), for example. Many viewers may be perplexed by the friction the title implies and the subject matter of three closeup portraits of military officers outfitted with modern technologies such as breathing apparatus, high-tech telescopes and digital screens. “Peace, 2009″ is not alone. It is a part of something that even appears as a distinctive genre within the larger show: there are images of border patrols, the elite Snow Wolf Commando Unit and Gao Yun’s “Do You Still Remember Us” (2007), which is meant to resurrect women’s contribution to the armed forces.

Where the exhibition becomes more critical, though of an inoffensive manner, is in its mild contempt for the lifestyles of younger generations under the effects of rapid economic change. “3G Life” (2009) by Yan Suping portrays a scantily attired girl who reclines in her chair, eyes closed, earphones in, shut off from and oblivious to the world.

A further sub-theme running through the exhibition is the collapse of human relationships and the alienating effects of contemporary life to the detriment of societal cohesion. Wang Renhua’s “Memory of China” (2009) depicts fashionably dressed girls manipulating traditional Chinese puppets. The girls are inept at their task and they strike the same awkward poses as the puppets, revealing that they have insufficient grasp of their cultural traditions.

A final thread is an elegiac one for an irrecoverable past set amid the societal transitions and turbulences of China’s rise. Works take up the vastly different cultural traditions and visual cultures that China pools to form a tentatively unified one, while other pieces lament the disappearance of traditional industries such as loom weaving and the loss of distinctive architectural styles and town planning that were once places for community interaction. Even rusted machinery is given a romantic, nostalgic gloss in “Memory of Old Workshop” (2009) by Jiao Liqiang.

Despite these discords, this is a superb exhibition to appreciate the skill of superior art technicians and to meditate upon what contemporary art indeed is. For several decades now the international contemporary art world has espoused concepts of pluralism, relativism and “anything goes.” It is remarkable, then, that the art here, in China’s largest (and therefore the mainstream?) exhibition, should ultimately be peripheral or even irrelevant to the present global art scene.

“From the 11th Chinese National Art Exhibition 2009: Contemporary Fine Art from China” at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art runs till July 4; admission ¥800; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 9 p.m. Fri. and Sat.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.pref.nara.jp/dd_aspx_menuid-19349.htm