Considering my experience at BAM, I decide to enquire what SFMoma’s stance on pens might be. It turns out they take a fairly hard line. “If a security guard sees you holding a pen they will take it from you,” the woman at member sign in informs me in a hushed voice. I suddenly feel armed and dangerous, what with my contraband pens stuffed in every Dickies’ coat pocket. I head over to the information desk where they hand me a museum approved writing utensil: one of those stubby yellow pencils that come gratis with a copy of a board game like Clue.
It strikes me that if they’re really worried about someone defacing the art work, they should be screening for artists at admission. You see, an artist apparently engaged in an act of vandalism is often just making more art. A few years ago here at SFMoma, they collected all the scraps of food and garbage from a chichi dinner party, piled them up on a table, roped it off and displayed it on the top floor for those not rich enough to attend the event to view. Ah, but it wasn’t garbage at all, it was evidence of a performance art piece wherein the act of cooking pad thai was itself the art (which doesn’t really explain why they kept the garbage. People don’t pay to view the dumpster after a Broadway play ends its run). It’s like the old Saturday Night Live sketch with Jon Lovitz as Picasso, scribbling on a napkin and handing it to a waitress explaining “here! Put your kid through college, I’m Picasso!” A recent New York Times piece on emerging female Chinese artists noted how upset everyone was to discover that Xiao Lu had fired a pellet gun at a painting in London’s National Gallery, not to make a statement, but because she was angry at her boyfriend. Perhaps her refusal to declare it artistic sabotage was itself an act of defiance? I’m getting a headache. I’m going to have a smoke.
Okay, I’m back and now that we’ve put that sorry digression behind us (by the way, who watches the watchmen? Alright! I’ll shut up about the pen ban now!) it’s time to head upstairs and check out Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection. Greeting us at the entrance is a phalanx of cheery statues with broad grins. They are all men, their hands clasped in front before their groin in that curiously male stance. They are shoeless, and wear white shirts and the aforementioned wide toothy smiles that crease their eyes shut. They are the kind of reception you expect at a theme park or expensive hotel, but their attire suggests that they are the collective face of regular people who have had to wear an identical expression. After all, smiles all around for strangers is the kind of thing that has to be mandated by management. Why would ordinary people feel compelled or be compelled to adopt a frozen countenance? The picture to the right is a little deceiving because it is taken from an article about the Logans. Displayed here in the museum they are given more space between them and it takes a moment to note the odd man out. Farther back from the crowd, against the wall, one of the group has retired briefly to cradle an aching neck. Evidence that the strain is starting to show. The plaque on the wall explains that the sculptures make up Yue Minjun’s piece Contemporary Terracotta Warriors and now I’m intrigued. If you’ve read or seen anything about the legendary terracotta statues recovered from the environs of the tomb of the First Emperor of China, you probably came across the fact that one of the astonishing things about them is that they are all modeled after individuals, each unique in dress and mien. Something has gone very wrong with their contemporary counterparts. I reach for my pencil stub and jot down some notes on a piece of folded paper and the security guard shoots me a dirty look from force of habit.
The signage for the introduction for the exhibit asks “…what happens to artists when their society suddenly wakes up from its leader’s dream?” Well considering that heightened security for the Olympics led to the closing of art exhibitions in Beijing I wonder if we can call recent events an awakening. The general response among the Chinese people at home and abroad to the torch protests and pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies seemed to be an outpouring of pride and defensiveness. I remember standing for nearly two hours on the Embarcadero while being reassured by the cops that the torch was indeed coming, eventually. It was all a lie. It had been diverted without warning to South Van Ness long before and was making its herky-jerky way up the avenue surrounded by a squad of local police and preceded by my city’s first line of defense, the duck boat. Eventually it would head onto a deserted, cordoned off section of the freeway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. The whole incident had descended into unreality. It is no event when no one knows when or where it will appear. But for some reason Mayor Newsom and Olympic officials needed it to appear as though it had occurred. It is as much an example of a “collective hallucination” as the one the copy on the wall of the exhibit proclaims China had recovered from as the result of “psychological revolution” which had now given way “to the ghost in each artist’s head.”
Commentary on the “leader’s dream” at least is very much in evidence. Sui Jianguo’s The Sleep of Reason presents a dozing Mao surrounded by a swirling landscape of color. Closer examination reveals that the varicolored terrain is made up of thousands of toy dinosaurs aflame with automobile paint. It is a fairly obvious though brilliantly crafted improvisation of the Goya print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. More curious is the arrangement in the room directly off the entrance, a field of waving flags resembling at first glance something like a collection of wind horses. They are in fact tiny pennants each hand stitched with an image, affixed to pedestals shaped like red stars. Four electric fans keep the banners fluttering, an accommodation I thought to the space, but no, the identifying plaque assures the viewer that they are a component of the piece. Like proud but diminished flags kept afloat through artificial means, their signification needs closer inspection. Helpfully, a series of drawings on the west wall reproduce the embroidered images in greater detail. In one we find Mao greeting Kruschev, in another Nixon. In one called Keeps head above water, during swim we find the bodiless heads of several swimmers including Mao hovering against the negative space. In each one, Mao is clearly identifiable and yet faceless. Where is Mao? asks the title of Liu Hung’s arrangement of wooden masts with silk “sails” (all shaped incidentally like swim trunks). Everywhere it seems, even when he is not present at all.
Mao’s image and influence dominates the exhibit and so it is a relief to find pieces that seek to create a dialogue through indirect conceptions. Striking is a statue enclosed in a spherical cage, the entire arrangement painted a stark white. Zhang Huan’s Buddha Never Down presents his subject with hands pressed together in meditation, covered with feathers, cognizant of imprisonment yet seeking ultimate liberation. Our rational mind my cry out that feathers do not make a bird, nor fervent prayer a door where none exists, but Buddha knows better. A nice counterpoint can be found in the adjoining gallery, ensconced within the curve of a wall. A fiberglass female nude by Lin Tianmiao stands with arms open in supplication as at her feet an oversized frog pulls the silk veil from her bald head. I am not familiar with any particular legend or fairy tale that this arrangement might be associated with so I must tread lightly. There is some suggestion in the title of the piece Initiator which draws our attention to the more active of the pair, the frog, but the stance of the woman seems to indicate complicity. Perhaps the other way around? In any case, the ambiguity only made the piece more intriguing. I contemplated this one for quite a while and found myself all the more satisfied to leave it with questions unanswered considering the transparency of most of the exhibits.
A looping video in the next room displays a split screen affair called Daughters of China by Liu Hung. One the right side a black and white propaganda film of brave sacrificial soldiers plays out while on the left a paintbrush occasionally appears at the top of the screen to apply a swathe of paint that bleeds down the screen. If you believe a picture is worth a million words then art is always here to remind us that the symbolic can be if not more real, then more honest. I’m shocked to turn around and find Ai Wei Wei’s famous painted vases on a deserted little stand behind me. He’s the only name at the show that I’m at all familiar with and I’d imagine it’s the same for the majority of today’s visitors. Considering that the Olympic Stadium in Beijing is based on his concept, to the point where the name Bird’s Nest is probably better known than its official title and that he has been an outspoken critic of the Game’s handling by the government I’d expect a crowd of people to be defying the ban on photography and snapping away at these things. What can you say about them? Like Warhol’s Cambell’s Soup Can paintings the neolithic clay pots dipped in industrial paint are already iconic. They are a simple idea, simply executed yet scream with audacity. They are the idea and form all in one. They join the ranks of the “my kid could have done that” collection whose presence we can now no longer do without. Interestingly, Mr. Ai coined the phrase “pretend smile” to describe a kind of false or incomplete joy attendant with a celebration of the magnitude of the Olympics in an unfree society. The grinning welcoming we received at the start of the exhibit may indeed be less heartfelt or confident than it seems.
There are simply too many pieces worthy of comment at this show to address here but I want to briefly mention one more that was particularly moving. Zhang Xiaogang’s painting Big Family portrays the stylized image of three children, their gaze the disinterested and distracted expressions of any child forced before the camera by their parents. The effect is given a nice touch of verisimilitude by several dots which suggest water stains or sun spots from a photograph. The girl in the back, pink faced, appears the elder sibling of the two boys in front. All three sport neck kerchiefs or ties painted an arresting red. Mundane, it could be the picture of any family from any time in the twentieth century onward and of nearly any country. But the description on the wall describes how during the Cultural Revolution, families had to destroy pictures like these for fear of being accused of “bourgeois allegiance.” The bloody neckties with their Western associations become something akin to the nooses around the necks of The Burghers of Calais. Stories suggest themselves to the mind, dissimilar now to those of just any family, anywhere, but particular to the upheavals unleashed by Mao’s continual revolution: of relocation to remote farms for “reeducation,” of a family split apart, of denunciation or death at the hands of student revolutionaries. We find if we look closely enough a tiny red thread, the same one perhaps that binds lovers together but here indicative of familial love. It is stitched into each of their shirts binding them together.
As you reach the end of the exhibit, you find once more Yue Minjun’s eternally grinning statues, these four of the aching neck variety, who have retreated out of sight behind a corner. Away from the public eye so to speak, they seem to be taking a breather but still keep up their indomitable facade. A nice use of suggestive arrangement of works in the space I think. I’m tending to agree with them in any case, the number, diversity and quality of the pieces on display is exhausting and I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll need to make multiple trips to fully appreciate them. I decide to hang on to the pencil.