Monday, February 11, 2019


“Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” is the expansive title of the exhibit, which originated at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2017 and will be on view at SFMOMA through Feb. 24. It includes works by 60 artists and artist groups living in China and abroad.  "Te show is an ambitious retelling of the development of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, from the quashing of democratic dissent at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to China’s ascent to the world stage as an economic equal with its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle that enlisted the talents of famous artists Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the fireworks extravaganza." DeWitt Cheng, from an article in The Space, Jan 2019. 

The visitor to SFMOMA is greeted, by a snake like object hanging from the ceiling in the foyer. The dragon - for that's what it's supposed to be  - is not the gorgeous red dragon of Chinese culture, but an 85-foot-long snake shaped object, made of rubber inner tubes from bicycles, with the "dragon’s" belly encrusted with tiny cars.  You could not ask for a better visual for China's leap into the 21st century with its destruction of ancient culture and it's replacement by the slag heap of costly, ugly. and destructive industrial materials. If the pain reflected in some of the works is any indication, the destruction included many humans as well. 

Two of the works were pulled from the show at the Guggenhiem and never made it to SF. Naturally the cry went up of censorship but I don't think that shows that reflect another culture's callous disregard for animal cruelty should be shown here. We have enough cruel practices of our own. No need to import others.  One video, “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” shows four pairs of pit bulls on nonmotorized treadmills, trying to fight even as they struggle to touch. Another video, “A Case Study of Transference,” shows two pigs mating in front of an audience. And an installation — “Theater of the World,” a central work of the show — features hundreds of live crickets, lizards, beetles, snakes, and other insects and reptiles under an overhead lamp. The installation was to feature us watching them attack, destroy and eat each other. 

Qiu Zhije, “Map of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,”
 The exhibit is divided into several sections. from the Chinese avant-guarde to China's increasing contact with the outside world (and the art world in particular). My favorite piece was Qiu Zhije's enormous, wall sized map of China with mountains, rivers, valleys, merging traditional Chinese landscape painting with a wide ranging historical timeline. I don't remember if the museum put a bench in front of the piece; if they didn't, they should have. It is so huge and so impossibly complex that a roll out map that the visitor would sit and pour over would really be a good idea. 

But many of the pieces directly reference cruelty, a sense of displacement and disorientation. One room contains Xu Zhen video “Rainbow” (1998), which records only the sounds and the welts of repeated beating of his naked back, increasingly bloodied, editing out the hand that strikes him. Kan Xuan, one of few women represented in the show, is represented by  her 1999 video “Kan Xuan! Ai!” It pictures her running through a busy subway corridor, sounding an alarm consisting of her own name, with an urgency created only by her presence. What's coming? We don't know. 

Some critics loved it, some were bored. Most didn't get "it" but then, that's not surprising. The show never came to life - possibly due to the cultural chasm, possibly to the "sadomasochism" which was referred to by Mark van Proyven in his review in Square Cylinder, some may be due to the meager background on the artists and some certainly is due to the inadequate wall texts. 

The show is enormous. Even edited down from the works that were originally shown at the Guggenheim, it easily contains enough material for a master's thesis. Or a PhD thesis. The works are disturbing, in many cases difficult or impossible to understand even if the the viewer has some understanding of Chinese politics and the way Chinese artists reflected and reacted to the enormous changes since 1989. Nevertheless, go, read, learn and see how the artists in one country are reacting to changes that are almost beyond comprehension.

For those who want a more detailed review, DeWitt Cheng's is the best:

Through:  Feb. 24; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Tuesday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
Admission: $19-$25; free for visitors 18 and younger;

1 comment:

Carla Ives said...

Sounds like it was interesting, but not something I would enjoy. I don't enjoy cruelty, artistically depicted or not.