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Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection
BERKELEY.- Chinese art has undergone enormous changes over the forty-year period from the Cultural Revolution to today. This transformation, at times glacially slow and at other times explosively fast, is represented at BAM/PFA this fall in artworks from the Sigg Collection, on view in the BAM Galleries, and in the films of Jia Zhangke and Ning Ying at the PFA Theater.

In 141 works by ninety-six artists, the exhibition Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection represents the historical span of art from the 1970s to today in China and demonstrates the dramatic evolution that has occurred, with artists exploring new materials and concepts far from what might have been imagined by even the most clairvoyant. As Chinese art emerged from the boundaries of state-sponsored and state-defined aesthetics to the complex initiatives of individuals with new intentions and motivations, it is possible to see the growth and development not only of art but of a nation.

The broad range of the work in Mahjong demonstrates the evolution of contemporary Chinese art and artists from an adaptation of Western realism in the Soviet style through many twists and turns to its current international idiom. A very few years ago, artists included in the exhibition would have been known only to specialists in the field, yet today a good many of them are recognized broadly both in China and throughout the United States and Europe. Much of this recent recognition can be credited to the Swiss businessman and art connoisseur Uli Sigg and his persistent attempts to encourage Chinese artists and present their works on an international stage. In addition to collecting, in 1997 Sigg founded the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) for artists living in China.

Many of the artists featured in Mahjong have been instrumental in bringing about significant changes in Chinese art. The early artistic leaders of the late 1970s and the 1980s were not only creating art, they were creating an environment for a new way of thinking about art. The exhibitions, public performances, and ongoing dialogue among these artists brought considerable resistance from the government, which in some instances endorsed or allowed exhibitions to go forward at state-controlled sites only to later cancel, and occasionally close them within hours of opening.

Among the first exhibitions of nontraditional Chinese contemporary art held in China, the so-called First Exhibition of the Stars Group, held outside the China National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1979, proved to be a watershed event for the emergence of a new kind of art in China. Two of the principal architects of that event were Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, who also brought about the formation of the Stars Painting Society (Xingxing) in 1980. The group, led by Huang and Ma, enlisted the involvement of Wang Keping and Ai Weiwei; all are represented in the Sigg Collection. Exhibitions of works by these and other artists of the early 1980s challenged existing boundaries, as well as informed the art world of what could—and could not—be shown in exhibitions in China. The First Stars Exhibition was immediately shut down.

The images of Huang Rui’s small oil on canvas Yuan Ming Yuan and Ma Desheng’s untitled woodcut prints from the late 1970s are examples of new art trends that posed very different issues in an entirely different mode than the state-favored realist images of the Academy-trained artists. Typical of the work of the Stars group, these artists were interested in exploring Western artistic movements such as surrealism, postimpressionism, and Abstract Expressionism. Wang Keping’s sculptural images in wood, such as Chain from 1979, were the most politically charged works of the Stars group.

Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, and Wang Keping, like many of the Stars group, were self-trained artists not affiliated with any art school—Ma in fact had been refused entry due to a physical disability. Both Huang and Ma were young, just in their late twenties, and Wang was only thirty at the time of the Stars Exhibition. A number of the artists in the Stars group became, because of their actions and artwork, part of the diaspora of artists who left China, at least for a time. Huang Rui went to Japan but returned to live in Beijing and helped to found the now-famous Factory 798. Ma Desheng left China for Europe, as did Wang Keping, while another of the early organizers, Ai Weiwei, moved to the United States in 1981, returned to China in 1993, and now seems comfortable in both worlds. (Ai Weiwei is an artist in residence at UC Berkeley this fall).

Out of this initial foray and over the next ten years, artists were emboldened to create new art associations, providing exhibition opportunities for artists like Huang Yongping, Wang Guangyi, Gu Wenda, Zhang Peili, Xu Bing, and Geng Jianyi, among many others. Wonderful examples of early works by these artists are an important and unique aspect of the Sigg Collection. This generation was not anti-academic (the key aspect of the Red Guard art of the 1970s); rather, they were fascinated and absorbed with creating works that reflected their newfound knowledge of Western art. They were typically graduates of some of the top art schools in the country, such as the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, and they also tended in these early years to identify themselves as part of larger groups, such as the Hangzhou Pond Society. The vocabulary of Huang Yongping’s Six Small Turntables in mixed media from 1988 foreshadows the Dadaist approach to installation art (he was one of the founders of Xiamen Dada in the mid-1980s) that has made him an artist of high stature; his work has been included in international biennials in Venice and most recently in Istanbul, and has been shown frequently in Europe and America. Wang Guangyi’s Death of Marat from 1986 borrows only the basic form from the eighteenth-century French work of the same name and reduces it to a gray oil of postclassical proportions. In the same year the artist produced one of the most politically charged works of its time, an oil of gray hues picturing a photorealistic portrait of Mao overlaid with a red grid, which redefined the cultural icon in a way that challenged both viewers and authorities. Geng Jianyi’s array of four faces entitled The Second Situation from 1987 and Zhang Peili’s 1988 series of paintings of a pair of gloves are both somewhat troubling images for their underlying ambiguity about the human condition.

This decade of progress, through exhibitions, discussions, conferences, and articles, culminated in the exhibition China/Avant-Garde, organized in 1989 by art critic Gao Minglu and seemingly destined to open and close within a few days at the China National Art Gallery. That same year several Chinese artists, including Huang Yongping, were invited to participate in an exhibition of 100 artists at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; this would be the first time Chinese artists were exhibited along with other international artists. Huang Yongping went to Paris to install his work and never left, making his career and reputation in an international forum.

The exposure of new Chinese art to an international audience in Paris was just the beginning, an opening that was quickly followed by other significant firsts, with inclusion in such international arenas as the 45th Venice Biennale (1993) and the First Kwangju Biennale (1995). Group exhibitions in Europe and the United States, occasionally organized or curated by Chinese artists living abroad, introduced contemporary arts of China far beyond its border, making those outside of China more informed about the arts than those inside China. Yet there was resistance to this outside influence on art and artists. Yan Lei (in collaboration with Hong Hao) reflects this in The Curators (2000), an image of real Western curators arriving in China to assess the “art scene.” Through a false invitation to Chinese artists to appear in a fabricated section of Documenta X, Yan and Hong conspired to shed light on the influences these foreign arbiters of taste had on Chinese art. In other words, not all artists were thrilled that a Chinese artist’s reputation had to be built first and foremost on foreign acceptance.

At home, Chinese artists repeatedly tested the limits of expression and succeeded in presenting numerous exhibitions that included a wider range of arts than had ever been seen before. What became immediately clear from these exhibitions was that Chinese artists were not working strictly as painters; by the late 1980s and early 1990s, many were exploring video, performance, and installation. Artists challenged the mythology of the past or icons of history in new media such as Song Dong’s 1996 performance Breathing, in which a simple, everyday function was turned political by the placing of his act and his art in the center of Tiananmen Square in a demonstrative fashion. Ai Weiwei’s Whitewash (1995–2000) used Neolithic storage jars in an installation that infers that the past can be eliminated by whitewash; in his 1995 Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo he goes so far as to rewrite the past with a ubiquitous emblem of commercialism. In Wang Jin’s 1997 The Dream of China, the classical Chinese imperial robe is remanufactured not with silks but with the very reproducible plastic polyvinyl, a translucent material that may refer disparagingly to the past or to the present consumer-oriented world. Wordplay and the historically valued tradition of Chinese calligraphy are offered new interpretation utilizing old media in the hands of an artist like Xu Bing in his nonsensical 1989 Book from the Sky, or in Gu Wenda’s Myths of Lost Dynasties from 1999, with its mysterious made-up character.

One of the most dramatic forays into new media came in 1992 with Zhang Peili’s staged video Water: Standard Pronunciation Ci Hi (Sea of Words), which questioned the expectations of the viewer by appearing to present a real newscast but actually offering only the “talking head” reading a dictionary. Digging deeper into the question of what is real in the everyday, artists Ou Ning and Cao Fei created the 1999 video work San Yuan Li, which takes the viewer for a close look at the backstreets of an ordinary town. Wang Jianwei’s Living Elsewhere (1999) and Song Tao’s The Moment of One Shoot Another Dead (2004) expose the gritty side of urban life.

The artists of the 1990s and 2000s have expressed their work in a much more personal manner having to do with the challenges presented by a rapidly changing world. Artists like Zhang Xiaogang in his oil-on-canvas Red Child (2005) and Wang Jinsong in his 1996 photo series Standard Family explore the evolving nature of family. Personal and societal demons haunt the world of many artists, from Fang Lijun’s anguished figures from the mid-1990s to the repetitive laughing man of Yue Minjun’s painting and sculptural work. A sense of how the dehumanizing state of contemporary life bears down on the individual in the workplace is created by Shi Jinsong in his torturous Office Equipment—Prototype No. 1 of 2004. Urbanization, commercialization, and the struggle for identity are ever present in Weng Fen’s photographs of a changing environment that picture a youth gazing into a real world, but one that is mutating so fast as to be beyond imagining. These are the challenges and realities of modern China, which became the subject of the artists of the 1990s up to today. The earlier concerns of style, or of Westernism or modernism, fade away as the artist struggles to express his or her own reality.

The presentation of films by Ning Ying and Jia Zhangke alongside works from the Sigg Collection provides the opportunity to assess the developments in Chinese art in a continuous array of visually exciting avenues. From the saccharine-sweet heroic images of the Soviet Realist–style paintings and the ubiquitous “happy worker” of the Cultural Revolution to the rapidly expanding world of emerging artistic developments of more recent times, China and its changing social, political, and economic realities are brought into focus. Clearly, the only constant is change.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art



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