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Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum
Xu Bing, born 1955, The Living Word, 2001. Installation: carved and painted acrylic characters. Image courtesy of Goedhuis Contemporary, New York.

JERUSALEM.- Six years after the success of its China: One Hundred Treasures exhibition in 2001, which displayed Chinese treasures covering 5,000 years, from neolithic bronzes to Ming porcelains, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, presents the newest chapter in the history of Chinese art. Made in China: Contemporary Art from the Estella Collection includes both established artists and rising stars from the world of international contemporary art, among them: Ai Weiwei, Chen Shaoxiong, Huang Yan, Ma Liuming, Qiu Zhijie, Wang Ningde, Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang.

The Estella Collection from New York is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art. The fifty-seven artists in the exhibition were born in the years before, during or immediately after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the highly politicized climate of that period, together with the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989, were formative for their art. While some of these artists work and live in China, many are members of China's artistic diaspora, living in the US, Europe and Australia. The works displayed in the exhibition use a wide range of mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installation and performance art.

"The incredible variety of expression reflected in the works of these artists attests to the fertile creativity that can emerge from any sociopolitical setting," states Israel Museum director James S. Snyder. "Each work in this exhibition reflects the dialogue between the artist and issues emerging from life in China during this dramatically transforming time."

The Mao Legacy - The legacy of Chairman Mao pervades the work of many artists in the post-Mao era. Although thirty years have passed since his death, Mao's incalculable influence on contemporary Chinese culture and the imprint of his image on Chinese society's collective memory continue to be felt. During Mao's time, artistic creativity was subject to official oversight and mandated to serve social and societal objectives of the state. The glorification of the worker, the soldier, and particularly Mao himself, was typical of the social-realist style of the time and served to enhance Mao's popular profile. Images of Mao were mass-produced throughout the years of the Cultural Revolution. Several works in Made in China respond to this cult of image and personality: Yue Minjun's Liu Chunhua – Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan takes one of the most widely reproduced images of Mao, set against a typical Chinese landscape, and removes Mao himself, leaving only the landscape; Legacy Mantle, a sculpture by Sui Jianguo, presents the Chairman's jacket,emblematic of his regime, as a hollow shell; Yu Fan's Sacrifice of Liu Hulan depicts the well-recognized communist martyr of the revolution, not standing defiantly in her Mao suit, as she was regularly depicted in heroic sculptures and propoganda posters, but rather as a young girl brutally cut down, with the dignity of an individual rather than as the prototypical martyr.

Dialogue with Tradition - During the Mao era, social-realist painting took the public place that had traditionally belonged to calligraphy, after Mao condemned the classic Chinese arts as symbols of the elitism of conservative China. In the years since Mao's death, many Chinese artists have reestablished a dialogue with this traditional art form, whether through the creation of pseudo-calligraphic works or by using untraditional tools and surfaces. For example, Xu Bing’s installation The Living Word consists of over 400 Chinese characters hovering in space – characters from different Chinese periods for the word bird – showing how Chinese writing has developed from simple representations into more and more abstract signs. In Zhang Huan’s Family Tree, the artist directs three calligraphers to write texts chosen by him on his face until the meaning of the calligraphy is lost through repeated overwriting, just as the features of Zhang’s face disappear. Chinese art was once also closely associated with landscape, until this tradition was suppressed during the Revolution, and contemporary artists now relate to this tradition in a variety of ways. Rendered on the surface of artist Huang Yan's body, Chinese Landscape – Tattoo reasserts the life force, or qi, that was always present in the landscape in traditional Chinese painting and signals how China's cultural legacy has left a deep mark on its people. Liu Wei's manipulative photomontage Landscapes No. 1-6 refers to the ongoing presence of tradition while engaging in a humorous dialogue with China's strong taboo against depicting the naked body.

Toward a New China - The extensive reforms underway in China today, and the relentless speed with which they are implemented, are central to the work of many artists. Old China is being torn down almost overnight, while the country transforms itself into a global economic power, and traces of the past are rapidly disappearing. In one example, Ai Weiwei's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn takes an historical work of art and destroys its nominal value, as the urn falls and breaks, while creating a contemporary conceptual artwork. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen's Assembly Hall series is an attempt at preserving a disappearing fragment of the past, illustrating the halls that were once used for local political meetings and that now serve very different purposes or stand quietly in decay.

With the disappearance of a state-mandated collective identity, contemporary Chinese artists address issues of individuality and new identity. In his Exchange Series, Cang Xin raises fundamental questions inherent in the attempts of young people in China to forge an identity for themselves that is strikingly different from that of their parents. By changing clothes with people in various occupations, the artist questions the role of external appearances in defining one's identity.

Made in China has been organized by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, and curated in Jerusalem by Suzanne Landau, the Israel Museum's Yulla and Jacques Lipchitz Chief Curator of the Arts and Landeau Foundation Curator of Contemporary Art. It is accompanied by a 100-page, full-color catalogue in English, with a Hebrew-language insert. The exhibition is made possible by the Sam Weisbord Trust, Los Angeles. A full schedule of public programs and events will be held at the Museum in conjunction with the exhibition.

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