Posts Tagged 'Chinese art'

Subjunctive

The reader of The Classic of Mountains and Seas plays hopscotch from peak to peak, moving in leaps and bounds roughly according to one of the four cardinal compass directions. On each stop the traveller is given a Rough Guide equivalent of the major points of interest: natural resources, resident deity, flora and fauna. Some of the denizens are rather strange. A familiar creature may be used as reference for point of comparison, but deviations from the expected are dutifully noted: a multiplicity of legs, a single eye, a human face atop a snake’s body.

None are perhaps as strange as the “look-flesh” creature, helpfully described by translator Anne Birrell in the glossary of the Penguin Classic edition, quoting third century commentator Kuo P’u, as “a mass of flesh which looks like the liver of an ox: it has two eyes.” Coming across it again and again in the text, I’ll admit I found it rather hard to visualize hopping about the slopes of its territory. Farther east than the scholars could have imagined (and their imaginations were robust), further even than the country of the Blacktooth people across a vast ocean is a city at the foot of two hills, barely worthy of mention compared to the legendary peaks in the eighteen books. I only bring it up it because it’s here that I think I’ve finally got a glimpse of the “look-flesh,” far from its home.

Liting Liang is only one of the dizzying number of participants in the Chinese Culture Center’s current show Present Tense Biennial. Her ink on paper works immediately brought to mind the descriptions from the book (one of the joys of which is the many interpretations by artists throughout the ages of the creatures within). There is the crouched chimerical woman, lower body sheathed in rows of reptile scales. Another figure stands posed, cleaver in hand, snake wrapped around her neck like an alert scarf (snakes are often described grasped in the hands of deities or clamped between their jaws). Then there’s a curious lump of a thing, kind of like a potato or blowfish with legs, in stockings and heels. Is this the “look-flesh,” dressed to impress for the twenty-first century? It’s probably wishful thinking. Maybe a distant relation? Or is it something never before seen, field notes for an as yet unwritten nineteenth book? At the very least, the impossibilities inherent in her striking work offer a good entrance point for the show as a whole, because it gives me license to call her a favorite among a multitude of favorites in this diverse and absorbing show (a site dedicated to images from the center has proved a broken link in the last few weeks that I’ve tried to visit. But you can get an idea of how amazing her pieces are here:, it’s the first image in the review).

The bulk of the show is less concerned with mythology as a whole as it is with mythologizing, or to be more specific demythologizing. Curator Kevin Chen of Intersection for the Arts, with the aid of Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, have spread the net wide in the selection of contributors: 31 artists, not all of them of Chinese origin or descent. The diversity of the participants has borne fruit in a show with varied approaches and executions. I start with Liting Liang’s work not just because I love her ravenous eater and dismembered legs washed ashore but because the works are so singular. The raison d’être of the show has such a strong psychological pull that it’s easy to forget that Present Tense is not just an exercise in itself. The show offers many reminders that identity is a tricky thing, constantly embattled and contentious, and many of the pieces are meditations on that theme, urging the viewer to revise their assumptions. But the engine that drives that process is the uniqueness of each artist’s vision: they are well worth appreciating each for their own sake.

subjunct1Thomas Chang, for example, explores what’s left of a theme park in Orlando, Florida fallen into disrepair. The miniature monuments captured in C-Prints have a haziness in the details which only serves to draw attention to the haziness behind the enterprise itself. The brain child of the Chinese government, the amusement site was meant to foster interest in tourism with replicas of famous sites in 1/10th scale. A facsimile of Tengwang Pavilion however is now gutted, the front exposed like a doll house and overgrown with weeds. This official “imprimatur” of Chinese culture, made for export and based on sites of historic importance and grandeur, has an interesting counterpart in the export of Americaness in Charlene Tan’s work (more on that in a bit).

Across the room, Imin Yeh’s Good Imports, 2008 presents a laptop completely shrouded in patterned textile. In an online interview, the artist explained that the fabric is typical of that found lining boxes of souvenirs from China. Perhaps it is the usual taboo of “look but don’t touch” but the wrapping evokes a sense of prohibition at the sight of screen and keyboard enveloped, even while the design lends a mystique of value, despite both the material and the hardware being the result of mass production. There is a divide between the reaction to goods which reach our shores somehow imbued with a sense of China as a country of deep history and traditions and cheap consumer products whose cheapness would not be possible were they made State-side.

subjunct2Exploring the source of those imported goods whose provenance is invisible to most consumers, Suzanne Husky recreates a factory floor of tiny workers. As a group they are nearly indistinguishable in their spread armed poses and blue aprons, but the faces are taken from photographs of actual people, giving at least the illusion of individuality. Down on Kearny St., Husky has installed a sister piece in an empty store front that instills the eerie sensation of spying on actual factory workers through the glass doors (see below).

The portraits in Sumi ink by artist Nancy Chan are precisely observed. The sense that Annie is observing you above her clasped hands is palpable. The works were rendered on long sheets of paper calling to mind traditional prints and calligraphy presentation.
subjunct3
I’m watching Fang Lu’s music video Straight Outta HK when I see a familiar face. Alex Yeung is the front man of hardcore band Say Bok Gwai (and a coworker of mine) and the story behind the piece is coaching hip hop artist Kelda in a cover of one of their tunes, the trick being the lyrics are in Cantonese.
subjunct4
Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the show is the cornucopia built of wire and paper, spilling out facsimile cartons of McDonalds packaging. The name of the piece, The Good Life, 2009 reminds us of the associations that accrue to the powerhouse chain’s product, being such a ubiquitous American brand. But a close look at the photocopied boxes reveal the traces of glocalization. These particular boxes have been tailored for the Chinese market, while still retaining the signifiers (like the arched “M” logo) that entice a consumer hungry not just for food but the array of symbolic connotations that go along with it. Charlene Tan’s piece captures many of the absurdities: the ostensibly American meal would be prepared and served by Chinese workers employed by the franchise, and even the most American of offerings on the menu go through a process of vetting to make sure they’re attractive to the palates of the country of that particular outlet. The abundance of empty boxes inside the horn of plenty underscores that our exported idea of “the good life” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Even the “weave” of the cornucopia is just a photocopied texture.

Fans of painted chopsticks, bundled in groups of a hundred, form Arthur Huang’s demographic study of cities in which he has held residence. My Life as a Chinese American So Far (36 Years and Counting), 2009 breaks down the racial makeup of communities based on census data. Simply looking over the color key (“raw umber” for African Americans, “burnt sienna” for Latino Americans) reveals the quixotic nature of the enterprise. Huang has attempted to match the selected hues with an eye to them reflecting to some degree an approximation of actual skin color. In doing so he underlines the suggestive power of what appears at first glance to be objective statistical data. Even the selection of something as subtle as color coding can have a profound effect on our assumptions whether we are aware of it or not.

Yu Yudong’s One person’s parade series is a good end point for this glimpse of a show that negotiates ideas of shared heritage, tradition and experience even while critical of imposed collective identities. The four protest signs display photographs of the artist, bullhorn pressed to his mouth, sign in hand. In one, he stands in an empty street, midway between a crosswalk, beneath signage indicating that this is the city of Songzhuang, China. In another, he is atop a wall of painted brick, near the building’s corrugated metal roof. The works stand in stark contrast to the work of Hei Han Khiang just a few rooms away that focuses on the Tiananmen Square protests of Spring 1989. Although following the forms of the demonstrator engaged in a group action, Yu Yudong’s “protester” stands alone with an unknown message that goes unheard, at times in locations where his presence is assured to go unnoticed.

The Present Tense show actually continues outside the gallery, with a number of satellite installations located throughout Chinatown on Kearny St., Clay St., Columbus Ave. and Walter U. Lum Place. You can watch video of curator Kevin Chen touring a few of the window displays on this installment of Culture Wire.
subjunctmontage

Tomorrowland

Parting a curtain, a landscape is revealed seen from an incredible height. It’s a city built on water where classical architecture mingles with the most fantastic: sky needles and skyscrapers, a hollow cube that looks like an ode to the toy models of molecular structures. It’s a World Fair built to last, viewed seemingly with approval and a sense of ownership from the man at the window. All this can too be yours is the unspoken pitch from a broker no doubt waiting nearby for the vista to work its magic.
tomorrowland1
The inverse of Wizard of Oz revelation, in the prints from Liu Gang’s Paper Dream (2008) series, what lies behind the curtain, or off in the distance, is betrayed by the surface details which proclaim the artifice. Streaks of light mar the figure of the man at the high window, tell-tale crinkles of the glossy advertisements which form the source material for the prints. A bank of what looks like a rolled up carpet that the man stands astride is a bunched up fold of paper testifying to the essential two-dimensionality of the urban dreamscape.

In other works, rows of gilt edged books redolent of the library of the well-read and well-bred sag as if an unfaithful tack has come loose, exposing them as nothing more than an image painted on a tarp or tapestry. In a print where a jockey poses atop his horse in the foreground, the eye strays toward an impressive array of multi-story buildings of concrete and glass peeking above the tree line. A second glance confirms that the same buildings appear more than once and in the same sequence.

My favorite of the lot was a racetrack receding into the distance, to one side the spectator stands filled with party confetti-colored motes and on the other, a row of wobbly looking apartments. It’s so packed with empty promises that it’s embarrassing how giddy it makes you feel staring at the image. Not only is the future waiting for you if you can close the distance, you’ll be racing toward it as the crowds cheer you on (the expressways in Heaven are all forty lanes across and empty of traffic). The pavement, blown up from the original is a mass of scattered halftone the color of red clay. But although the lines of the road converge at the horizon, we know that parallel lines will never meet. And the towering apartment buildings to your right will pass by lap after lap, always out of reach.
tomorrowland2
Curator David Spalding has paired Paper Dream with Living Elsewhere, (1997-1999) a video projection by Wang Jianwei (together they make up the complete billing of the SF Camerawork show, dubbed Even in Arcadia…). The documentary follows the plight of a group of people in Sichuan Province who have taken up residence in deserted buildings that were or were intended to be upscale housing complexes. Where manicured front yards would have stood, they carve holes in the crumbly dirt in the hopes of bringing forth a subsistence crop. Inside the villas, wall-sized holes are open to the air, convenient for emptying foul water from a pot, but also indicative that they would have required mammoth sheets of window glass to cover the space. Doors propped with bricks form makeshift tables. No narrative is forced upon the residents: the director is content with following them and letting them tell their story, or watching them trying to eke out a living in a setting built for opulence but repurposed by necessity.

Vanishing Acts

It’s pretty raucous out on Mission St.: it’s hot and everyone’s soaking it up before the weather turns again. On the fourth floor of 2111 Mission St. though the din is barely audible and I’m watching row after row of books going through a thorough process of erasure.

When I cut through the room initially on my way to the other video projection adjacent to the windows overlooking Mission St., all I noticed at a glance was a static image of bookshelves. vanish1Passing back through the curtain and taking a seat it’s a while before it dawns on me: down in the lower left hand corner, one book at a time, the spines of the volumes are being whited out. It’s a little like watching the whitewashing of graffiti or the painting of a wall but somehow way more absorbing. It delivers that satisfactory sensation of completeness, the promise that each book will get the same treatment as the last in the process.

The shelves are divided into 24 sections meaning there is plenty of time to meditate on the exercise as your eye follows the relentless eradication of color and text. I think of our memories which also go through a steady, barely noticed degradation. Two things that seem to define the progression are its feeling of inevitability and the almost gentle nature of the obliteration. As a viewer there is nothing you can do to stop it and you feel mesmerized by the process itself. Shi Young’s Untitled, 2008 taking just short of 23 minutes to complete appears as part of a cross-gallery exhibition with SFAC called imPOSSIBLE! Aside from the two projections appearing at this location, Mission 17, the work of six other artists is on display at SFAC’s gallery on Van Ness. But I found that Shi Young’s work seemed to mine many of the themes to be found down the hall at a concurrent Mission 17 exhibit called Cantocore.

Cantocore is a shared exhibition between San Francisco and Guangzhou, China, with many of the pieces on display being reconstructions and reconfigurations of predecessors that appeared in the latter city late last year. “The collaboration takes its inspiration and its name,” the website explains ”…from the rapid economic, social, and cultural changes currently taking place in Canton province… Over the last 20 years, cities such as Guangzhou, the capital of Canton, have changed from having a uniquely Chinese culture into global cities influenced and informed by diverse forms of representation.”

Slipping back through the gallery’s entryway, past the elevator and through a narrow hallway where Huang Xiaopeng’s original red and yellow banner has been transcribed in monumental lettering brings you to Mission 17’s second exhibit space on this floor. High on the far wall directly across from the entrance, JD Beltran’s projection of plane footage captured in downtown San Jose sets the tone for the exhibit. Whereas the images are most likely of passenger planes, given the context of the show you can’t help but get the impression of commerce in overdrive as individual aircraft pass over in quick succession. Eventually they twin and diverge, their silence contributing to the allusion of a phenomena invisible to most of us until times of tumult, like the current worldwide economic crisis. Back in Detroit visiting family over the winter, people everywhere were proudly declaring their intentions to boycott goods from China while admitting how difficult a resolution it was proving to keep. Believing you can extricate yourself from a single strand of the tangle of world commerce is more daunting a prospect than it might seem. You may, for example, stick with the resolution to buy American when it comes to automobiles, but as Benjamin Barber points out in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, even if your car is a product of the Big Three, its components most likely have a global provenance (same goes for your home computer).
vanish2
Resisting the urge to approach the large Zen garden that takes pride of place in the center of the room, I check out David O. Johnson’s coffin-like sculpture to the right of the doorway. Made in China, 2008 is an approximation of a large wooden shipping crate shaped according to the contours of the State of California. Brimming over the top are styrofoam peanuts lit from below to give an orange glow redolent of smoldering embers. Shi Young’s projection still on the brain, I’m reminded of one of our most important and enduring imports from China: naturalized American citizens and their descendants. After a lengthy history of resistance to Chinese immigration, Americans relented with the unspoken caveat that acculturation would follow a progression not unlike the whiting out of the spines in the bookcase: an erasure of distinctive signifiers of heritage and tradition many centuries old. And yet, it was more often than not citizens, themselves of an immigrant past, who never ceased emphasizing perceived differences. To this day, smugglers ply routes to the California coast bringing Chinese seeking a new life or victims of the sex slavery trade, for whom a shipping crate may well prove a coffin.
vanish3
Nearby is Wang Ge’s installation: a series of monitors stacked on a shelf of bricks. In both the Guangzhou appearance of this piece and the current one in SF, local material has been used to prop up the television screens. I watched a bit of the video, and the woman working Mission 17’s desk popped in at one point and gave me a little more background on the piece (including cluing me in about the bricks). Wang Ge’s work exhaustively documents the story of Huang Pu Village, a place that is undergoing its own process of slow but deliberate erasure. A victim of the boom in urban development, while younger villagers may seek fortunes in the big city, older members of the community are left behind to watch as family shrines go neglected and more rural ways of living vanish by degrees.

Slow and seemingly inevitable, effects like these on individuals often goes overlooked or underreported, being less dramatic than the immediate aftermath of displacement or distress caused by natural forces or large scale conflict. Lin Fang Suo brings the point home with her video Exploitation where various vegetables with likable cartoon expressions get squashed by slow degrees by plates of glass and sandaled feet.
vanish4
It was just my luck that the piece I was itching to play around with happened to be out of service that day. Misako Inaoka’s Zen Garden, 2009 is an exploration of artificially created replications of natural objects complete with fully motorized fabricated rocks which (when operational) allow the visitor to employ one of two wooden paneled remote controls to create patterns in the sand. A nearby rake stands ready to bring order to the chaos. The playfulness behind the work (“kids love this thing” the gallery attendant observed) adds a nice consensual dimension to the meditations on rapid societal changes wrought by industry that the show examines.
vanish5
If pressure is being exerted due to economic factors, it is because there is a market somewhere or it’s in the process of being created. Especially when it comes to high tech gadgets, material is often dangerous to obtain, dangerous to dispose of, and comes with a high environmental cost in all stages of its life-cycle. Asian countries have often been the answer for companies seeking to sidestep reasonable working conditions and wages, to bear the waste produced through manufacturing and then accept the trash back as import for a fee. It’s a surety that eventually even if what we lose disappears from memory, what remains will become too difficult to ignore.

Skeleton Bath

I wasn’t able to find, either on Toomey Tourell Fine Art’s site or elsewhere on the web any of the images featured in their current show by Ying Yefu or Perk (a collaboration between Si Wei and Jin Ningning) that so blew me away during my visit. There is one ink jet print by Perk available for viewing, but it didn’t hit me as hard as their other works, one of a multiplying cartoonish child whose other selves recede into the distance comes to mind. It reminded me of the comic art of Frank Quietly in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles of a colorful time traveller who leaves behind after-images of her passing that trail behind like a great caterpillar.

The good news is that Ma Liang’s work from Shanghailand is well represented on the gallery’s site (the images reproduced here are much smaller so be sure to head over there to take in all the details). It was Peng and Ying Yefu’s work that caught my eye as I was passing by en route to a different gallery in the art megaplex that is 49 Geary St., but Ma Liang’s digital prints were such engrossing compositions that I settled in for a good long stare.
skeleton1
The Book of Taboo series is more playful than remonstrative. You won’t find the Seven Deadly Sins here, and if these are indeed reproaches of some kind, they take forms so absurdist and fairy tale-like that you can’t help but be charmed rather than alarmed by the obsessions of the characters. I’m not sure how the piano player, for instance, found himself in such a state in Book of Taboo 9, 2006, but I wish him a speedy recovery: the horses are restless.
skeleton2