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Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection To Open at BAM/PFA
Huang Yan, Chinese Landscape: Tattoo No. 6, 1999, Color photograph, 1 ft. 7 in. x 2 ft.

BERKELEY, CA.- The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) announces a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, on view at the museum from September 10, 2008, through January 4, 2009. Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection is drawn from the collection of Uli Sigg, a Swiss collector whose long and close ties to China have enabled him to build a collection that is unrivaled in quality, scope, and size. The exhibition will feature a selection of approximately 120 works by 92 artists, including exceptional paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, video works, and installations spanning four decades.

The BAM/PFA showing of Mahjong represents the first time that a significant number of works from the Sigg Collection have been seen in the Americas. (A version of the exhibition has been seen in Berne, Switzerland; Hamburg, Germany; and Salzburg, Austria.) The exhibition is coordinated at BAM/PFA by Julia M. White, senior curator of Asian art, and is co-curated by Ms. White and Lucinda Barnes, chief curator and director of programs and collections.

Ms. Barnes states, “We are delighted to be presenting this very significant exhibition at BAM/PFA. Mahjong ideally complements both this institution’s history as a leading center for exploring contemporary artistic and cultural practices, and UC Berkeley’s position as a national leader in research relating to China.”

Ms. White states, “The breadth of the Sigg Collection offers a window not only onto the stunning changes in Chinese art in the past decades, but also onto the equally stunning changes that have taken place in Chinese society and culture. We are thrilled that Uli Sigg has made his collection available for this landmark exhibition.”

Mahjong takes its name from the centuries-old Chinese game enjoyed by millions worldwide. Relying on rules and chance, mahjong revolves around collecting matching sets of tiles; the skill lies in recognizing the best opportunities for making high-scoring combinations. The exhibition, like the game, is made up of groupings of works that, when combined in different ways, create new and stimulating opportunities to view and appreciate contemporary Chinese art.

The Exhibition - Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, which occupies nine of the museum’s ten galleries, surveys the development of contemporary art in China from the 1970s to the present day, illuminating the political, social, and cultural forces that have shaped it. Beginning with Socialist Realism, the exhibition moves on to illustrate the avant-garde movements of the 1980s and early 1990s, and also includes works by a generation of artists who have emerged following China’s social and political reforms of the past decade. The work addresses such issues as Mao, the Cultural Revolution, consumerism, disparities between the cities and the countryside, and the tensions between the individual and society, among others.

All of the major developments in contemporary Chinese art are represented in the exhibition by pivotal works, some of which are now well known in the West. Featured artists include Liu Wei, Huang Yan, Ai Weiwei, Weng Fen, Yue Min Jun, Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Bing, and Zhang Huan, as well as a number of artists still largely unknown outside of China. As a whole, the exhibition provides audiences with an unparalleled opportunity to view China as a closed society in the 1970s and early 1980s, and to observe the changes in cultural expression that have occurred as Chinese society has become increasingly open.

The Socialist Realist paintings that open the exhibition were created in the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. Provided as historical background, these are works that might have hung on the walls of schools or other public buildings, conveying their messages through drama or sentiment.

Following this is a range of works from the late 1970s to early 2000s. Many of these focus on Mao—depicted in more familiar than awe-inspiring terms—or the Cultural Revolution, as well as, somewhat later, Tiananmen Square. In Li Shan’s 1995 portrait of Mao, for example, the leader’s facial features have been refined and softened to the point of androgyny, and he holds a lotus flower in his mouth. The Cultural Revolution is invoked in a number of works, including two of Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s intensely saturated color photographs of the assembly halls that were used for indoctrination of the masses throughout China during that period.

Tiananmen Square is the subject of Yin Zhaoyang’s pair of 2003 paintings, one showing the Square during the day, the other at night. The former, called simply Tiananmen Square, shows the Square teeming with anonymous figures, depicted from a centralized, symmetrical viewpoint, in an unmodulated light. In the nighttime version, titled Ode of Joy, the Square is depicted from an almost raking angle, and is alight with celebratory fireworks. Together, these two works are a vivid expression of Tiananmen Square’s complex history and the contradictory feelings it evokes.

A separate gallery of the exhibition is devoted to works from a group known as Stars (Xingxing), founded in 1979. These artists, who were largely self-trained, wanted to create work that was free of political propaganda, and that had room for the “bourgeois” emotions associated with Western art. They were thus forced to work underground. (On September 27, 1979, the group held an unofficial exhibition that drew large crowds, but was quickly shut down by the government, which deemed it an unauthorized public meeting.)

By 2000, with capitalist reforms and globalization well underway, and the market for Chinese art firmly established, artists were freer than ever to express a range of personal ideas and emotions. They increasingly did so in works that take on an openly questioning, even challenging tone. Shi Jinsong’s installation Office Equipment Prototype No. 1 (2004), for example, appears to comprise a stainless-steel desk, chair, flat-screen monitor, a lamp, and a variety of other office accoutrements, all of them with the gleaming, streamlined look of a modern office. Yet upon inspection, it becomes clear that each object is actually an instrument of torture: the monitor is a guillotine, screws protrude through the back of the chair, the lamp emits electric shocks, and so on.

Several works in the exhibition take Chinese identity, as expressed in its families and faces, as their topic. For one of these, Zhang Huan’s Family Tree (2000), three calligraphers spent a day writing texts related to Zhang Huan’s family history on his face. The nine photographs that document the process show Zhang Huan’s face increasingly obscured by the calligraphy, until it is covered in black.

Not surprisingly, commercialism is central to a number of later works in Mahjong, evidencing the tensions between the socialist ideals that are still officially operative and the consumerism unleashed by capitalist reforms. A monumental untitled work of 1999 by the three Luo brothers, for example, combines lacquer technique, Chinese folk art, and advertising images in a brash and ironic composition.

Other works make use of traditional Chinese art forms, if only to subvert them. At first glance, Liu Wei’s hauntingly beautiful It Looks Like a Landscape appears to be a classical Chinese landscape of hills and mist, while in actuality, it is a composite of photographic close-ups of knees, backs, arms, and other body parts.

The increasingly stark contrast between the urban and the rural in China is addressed from varying perspectives. Seen together, Weng Fen’s lush color photographs (2002) of a young girl straddling a wall as she gazes at a large city evoke both the similarity among China’s rapidly growing

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