Interesting times in China


Chinese contemporary art made a splash in the late 1990s with the so-called Mao Goes Pop movement, which broke big among Western gallerygoers and collectors.

The art was fun, cheap, iconoclastic and readable: With China racing to modernize, who couldn’t appreciate a painting of Mao Zedong hailing a taxi?

The pioneers of the style are now China’s established artists, and, along with them, the market for new Chinese art has also grown. Beijing-based China Guardian, the country’s leading auction house, sold some 5 billion yen of Chinese paintings in 2004 — almost triple the previous year’s total.

Meanwhile, gallery districts are blossoming in Shanghai and Beijing; New York’s Sotheby’s opened a new Chinese contemporary department this spring; and in Tokyo there is now “Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium,” an exhibition featuring 18 artists and artists’ groups that is showing at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi.

Conspicuous absence

A defining feature of “Follow Me!” is that all the participating artists were born after 1960. Hence, Cai Guo-Qiang and Xu Bing missed the cut by three and five years respectively. However, the popular Zhang Huan, who qualifies by age, is conspicuous by his absence. It is clear that — in a bid to anticipate the second wave of Chinese contemporary art — the Mori wanted to present new, lesser-known artists.

One of the first pieces the visitor encounters is a work from 2003 by 27-year-old Cao Fei, whose three-minute video titled “Hip Hop” comprises dozens of randomly chosen passersby executing often hilarious dance stylings on a daytime city street to the sound of a cheesy hip-hop beat. The construction workers, Communist Party members, children and seniors alike seen here communicate the essential appeal of Chinese contemporary art — which is that, when a society has decades of restrictions lifted in a relatively short period of time, people can become intoxicated in a celebration of freedom, and, whoopee, suddenly everyone is an artist.

The first room of the show is dominated by a sort of boxing ring that’s about 5 meters square. Whirling this way and that inside the ring are a half-dozen robot vehicles, souped-up toy construction trucks laden with models of towering skyscrapers. Visitors can use remote controls to move the contraptions about, creating a cityscape in flux (although at the opening the wine-driven objective was less urban planner and more bumper car).

Temporal urban centers

The 2001 piece is titled “Building Dodgem,” and the artist, Lu Hao, says it is a commentary on the too-fast changes impacting Chinese cities — a theme that recurs throughout this show.

“Beijing is active all the time; the city and people’s lives are constantly evolving,” Lu explained. “It is exciting, of course, but I don’t always like it. In some ways I think we are becoming one gigantic factory, one big machine, and so now I prefer the countryside.”

Also commenting on the temporal nature of urban centers is Yin Xiuzhen, who has built six “Portable City” models and stuffed them into suitcases. I liked these since they illustrate how easily we identify a particular city and its mood through a small number of signals (landmarks). Here, for example, San Francisco is represented by the Golden Gate bridge stretching over a fog of cotton balls. Very good.

Yang Zhenzhong’s upside-down skyline photographs, on the other hand, see the artist “balancing” an entire city on a fingertip in a fanciful reversal of the urban pressure paradigm.

Far less concrete in all respects are Weng Fen’s photographs showing here, which take as their subject people gazing out at the ocean from his father’s hometown, located on an island on the South China Sea. In the manner of his previous series, “Sitting on the Wall” (reviewed in this column when it showed at the Tang Gallery in Bangkok last year), the new series titled “Staring at the Sea” is a study in uncertainty informed by the inquietude regarding what lies out there, and what awaits us beyond the now.

Personal life changes

Much of the work in “Follow Me!” poses the same question: What is going on? As such, the China it examines can be viewed as a metaphor and the work can also speak to personal life changes. What I think is good about this show is that the “language” has matured from a decade ago, when it was enough to superimpose Mao over a Coca-Cola logo to make an artistic statement. Here and now, what we have are more universal messages.

It is ironic that the splashy and popular Chinese contemporary art of the ’90s — falling as it does between the scopes of “Follow Me!” and its companion show “Crossroads” (see accompanying review) — is not represented in the Mori’s “China Summer.” In any case, the show seems light — I was left wanting more.

If you are heading to Roppongi to see the “Crossroads” show anyway, then “Follow Me!” will provide a nice finish by way of contrast. But if your interest is exclusively in contemporary art, the admission price seems too high for the mere two rooms that the show occupies.