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Contemporary conceptual Chinese art urges inquiry

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Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World” and “The Bridges,” installations originally with living animals that prompted protests at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, are on view in “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” at SFMOMA. (Courtesy Huang Yong Ping/David Heald)

Provocative and conceptual Chinese artists from three turbulent decades address globalism and other issues that have affected life in contemporary China in an ambitiously conceived exhibition on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” continuing through Feb. 24 at SFMOMA, contains more than 100 works by dozens of Chinese artists active during the period stretching from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Some live in China, and some abroad; most, for reasons attributed to past art-education opportunities, are male.

Displayed most recently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the multi-curator-organized show aims to expand narrow notions of Chinese art and introduce Western viewers to some of contemporary Chinese art’s most significant figures.

Its San Francisco incarnation examines, through artists’ eyes, China’s transformation into a major global power, the consequences of that change, and the role of artists as global creative voices.

The comprehensive seventh-floor presentation begins with “Theater of the World” (1993) and “The Bridge” (1995), Huang Yong Ping’s controversial two-part installation about brutality. In New York, after protesters intensely criticized the work’s live-animal component, the Guggenheim displayed the installation without the animals and included an artist statement with the altered version. The decision has triggered debate relating to censorship and cruelty.

SFMOMA, too, is showing the installation, along with two other works initially featuring animals, in “deactivated” form.

Hanging overhead in the atrium near the museum’s Third Street entrance is Chen Zhen’s 85-foot-long found-object dragon sculpture, “Precipitous Parturition” (2000). Bicycle parts and toy cars are elements of this work, which addresses China’s conversion from a pedal-pushing to a sophisticatedly industrialized nation.

Zhang Peili addresses the Tiananmen Square massacre in “Water: Standard Version From the ‘Cihai’ Dictionary” (1991), a video featuring a state-TV newswoman whose reportage on the tyrannically violent act never mentioned that the government committed it. In this satirical work — an exhibition highlight — she is speaking only about water.

The never pretty exhibit also features extreme-performance art, including that of Huan Zhang, known for his naked appearances and masochistic performances. He addresses overpopulated living conditions and asserts control over his own body in “12 Square Meters,” a 1994 project documented in an exhibit photograph.

Works by well-known activist artist Ai Weiwei include the three-piece photograph “Dropping Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) and the clay “Han Dynasty Urn With Coca-Cola Logo” (1995). Both scoff at the exorbitant values attached to historical objects.

Featured photographers include Zheng Liu, whose interest in socially stigmatized subjects has prompted comparisons to Diane Arbus.

Xu Tan looks at the tackiness of Asia-manufactured goods in “Made in China” (1997-1998), an installation reconstructed here.

Coming in January: “Turn It On: China on Film, 2000-2017,” a free program of 20 documentary films selected by Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Wang Fen.

IF YOU GO
Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World
Where: Seventh floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays); through Feb. 24
Tickets: $19 to $25; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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