You can safely assume the Beijing Olympic Committee had nothing to do with “Avant-garde China: 20 years of Chinese Contemporary Art,” an earnest attempt to present a bite-size overview of contemporary Chinese art. Due to the nature of China’s tightly managed “re-opening,” most recent Chinese art has been personal statements about an ongoing process of social change that is complex and often traumatic.

The curators of “Avant-garde China,” showing at the National Art Center till Oct. 20, uses contemporary art’s typical lack of decorum to recalibrate our image of China’s recent past. The exhibition features 50-odd works by over a dozen artists and groups, presented as a 20-year overview that starts in the late 1980s. These are divided into sections, with brief explanations of the historical context of each period, punctuated with historical reference materials, such as artists’ notes, manifestos and ephemera from the early years of Chinese contemporary art.

Big name painters such as Zhang Xiao Gang and Fang Li Jun — whose works now sell for millions of dollars — are well represented, no doubt providing the first chance for many to see the actual paintings behind their hype. Both established themselves in the mid-90s amid the sensitive post-Tiananmen Massacre atmosphere that put direct pressure on contemporary artists. Their ambiguous tableaux — the melancholy calm of Zhang’s families and Fang’s sardonic laughing man — reflect the precarious nature of personal histories when confronting new social values.

At the heart of such changes was a rise in consumerism from the late ’80s that is iconically addressed by Wang Guangyi’s Pop Art “Great Criticism” series, as well as a crisis in humanist ideals that Huang Yong Ping tackled in his “process art.” Huang questioned established canons of Western and Chinese art through “chance” art-making as well as idiosyncratic readings of Dadaism, Taoism and traditional divination practices. His chance paintings are one of a bunch of rare materials which curators have done well to collect for the show.

Performance art played a significant role in contemporary Chinese art from the mid-’90s. Zhang Huan and Ma Liu Ming are represented by videos of seminal performances they realized in the “East Village,” an artists community then on the outskirts of Beijing. The curators have managed to obtain original videos of performances that are generally known through photographs, making this section one of the highlights.

Performance art from the period is the most direct expression of just how much was personally at stake for artists as individuals in the middle of an unpredictable social upheaval. Many were arrested because of their works, and even now performance art is taboo.

In “65 kg” for example, Zhang hangs from a ceiling horizontally, face down and naked, wrapped in chains and gagged. Blood drips from a tube inserted into one of his arms, onto a hot plate on the floor below. As it bubbles and burns, smoke rises from the plate. Rather than being merely grotesque, the heat of the small concrete room and the extreme physical pressure the artist endures are rendered symbolic by the carefully choreographed nature of the work and the video editing.

The other videos are similarly powerful expressions that impress as much for their rawness as their conceptual implications. Each is given its own curtained room, making for an intimate viewing experience.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, well-known for their use of real body parts and animals, are represented by a recent work, “Old Person’s Home,” featuring 13 incredibly lifelike geriatric wheelchair-bound figures dressed like former national leaders, bumping into one another as if they were decrepit bumper cars.

Of course, by claiming to represent an overview, the exhibition opens itself to questions as to why this or that artist was not included. Although NACT has tried to address the fact that contemporary Chinese art has not been dealt with properly by major Japanese institutions, the question remains why this was not attempted here five or 10 years ago when larger, more comprehensive exhibitions of Chinese art were at key institutions in Europe, America and elsewhere.

No, this is not a definitive overview; but then again, nor can there really be one. Claiming to be “Japan’s first all-encompassing, historically comprehensive introduction to Chinese contemporary art” is a little ambitious and only highlights the limited engagement Japan has with the contemporary culture of its giant neighbor. However, given the choice selection of artworks that it does show to great effect in its large spaces, “Avant-garde China” is one of the most interesting exhibitions NACT has put on, and will certainly tempt many Tokyo viewers to delve more deeply into the artistic expression of this complex period in China’s recent and ongoing change. And this can only be applauded.

“Avante-Garde China” is at the National Art Center till Oct. 20; For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.nact.jp

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