Chinese Artists Interpret the Great Wall | News

Chinese Artists Interpret the Great Wall

By Sheila Melvin International Herald Tribune

BEIJING 'The Wall," a major retrospective of Chinese contemporary art from the past 20 years, is a thought-provoking exhibition that explores the many walls - physical and metaphorical - that both unite and divide Chinese society.

The show, which runs in Beijing until Aug. 21 and opens in Buffalo, New York, on Oct. 1, includes installations, performance art, video, photography and painting. These are displayed, fittingly enough, in the maze of circling walls and hidden cul-de-sacs that make up the exhibition space of the Millennium Monument Museum. Although "The Wall" is a retrospective, it is organized by theme rather than chronology, and much of the work is recent.

Unsurprisingly, given its title, many of the works on display concern China's famous Great Wall. Indeed, the exhibition is an offspring of the fascination of its curator, Gao Minglu, with the dichotomy between the Great Wall as an emblem of Chinese nationalism and its representation in contemporary art.

"The Great Wall as a symbol of the nation first emerged in the early 20th century," Gao said. "But the avant-garde has taken a very different perspective toward it - more skeptical, more ambiguous. They are mourning the Great Wall rather than celebrating it - this is very different than under Mao or in the World War II era."

The ambiguous nature of this view is evident in several pieces, including Gu Wenda's remarkable 2004-05 work "10,000 Kilometers," which at first resembles a minireplica of a section of Great Wall - until one realizes that the 15-centimeter-thick, or 6-inch-thick, bricks are made entirely of matted human hair. Behind the wall hangs a diaphanous curtain of swirled hair and glue that resembles filigree, or wisps of smoke. If the hair wall is somewhat nauseating, the hair curtain is inexplicably beautiful, and together the two pieces evoke both the horror of the Great Wall - the countless conscripts who labored and died building it - and its transcendent majesty.

Zheng Lianjie's "Big Explosion" performances of 1993, documented here in photographs, falls into the category of art that mourns the wall, its symbolism, or both. Indeed, as part of his series of performances Zheng worked with other artists and hired local villagers to carry 10,000 crumbling bricks from the bottom of the wall to the top; photos show the bricks wrapped in red crosses and strewn across a ruined section of wall. So as to erase any doubt regarding their intentions, Zheng and his colleagues then staged a funeral ceremony for the Great Wall and flung fake money over the "dead" bricks to send them off to heaven.

Even within the supposed security of the Great Wall, China has long been a nation of walls - cities were walled and the preferred architectural style for houses were those with walled courtyards. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the city walls came down, and in the past 20 years countless other walls - of homes, theaters, temples and teahouses - have fallen to the blows of sledgehammers wielded by migrant-worker armies. This rapid redevelopment and attendant urbanization of once-rural suburbs and people - the absence of walls - is a second major theme in the show.

Wang Jingsong's 1999 photography work "A Hundred Chai" shows the Chinese character for "condemned" spray-painted on a hundred different buildings. The encircled characters are all the same, but their color, style and background are unique. The work is a moving evocation of the many individual sacrifices that have been necessitated by the march of urban development.

Mounted nearby is "Urban Fiction," a series of chromatic prints made by Xing Danwen in 2005. The prints show developers' models of the massive apartment complexes that have sprouted across Beijing in recent years, but are wistfully humanized by the imposition of fragments from real life - a woman on a balcony watering flowers, a couple in a passionate embrace, a lonely figure crying in a window.

Many of the works in the exhibition focus on the migrant laborers who demolish and construct the nation's walls and the ordinary workers who find themselves rendered unemployable by the economic reform process. Wang Bing's digital video "Tiexi District" is an exhaustive nine-hour documentary that explores the lives, loves and losses of factory workers in one of China's rust-belt areas. Zhang Dali's "Chinese Offspring" is a striking installation comprising dozens of naked human figures hung upside down from the ceiling. The figures, plaster body casts of migrant workers hired for the project, are in every imaginable position - bending, squatting, reaching, lolling - but all have their eyes closed tight. Suspended and shut-eyed, they produce a sense of vertigo and an overwhelming sympathy for the millions of men and women whose lives have been turned upside down in the torrent of modernization.

The invisible boundary that is perhaps most closely considered in "The Wall" is that which separates women from men; the exhibition attempts to surmount this divide by displaying a number of works by female artists. Because Chinese women often use needle, thread, laundry and the like in their art, Gao posits that such domestic materials may be meant to address their subordinate position. But if the pieces shown here by women artists do indeed use traditional "female" materials, the works themselves seem more celebratory than rebellious.

Yin Xiuzhen's "Supermarket" of 2002 is a light-hearted, compelling installation that consists of two ceiling-high shopping carts, eight pedal-operated sewing machines and 16 patchwork quilts on which elderly seamstresses stitched three-dimensional vistas. Some of the quilt vistas are urban, replete with high-rises, bridges, cars and trucks, while others are rural, with country houses, ponds, ducks and donkeys. All are made from old clothes and each can be viewed as an effort to stitch back together the nation's rapidly changing physical and cultural patchwork.

Yu Hong's 2005 "Memory Dress" is a series of oversize printed T-shirts hung from metal hangers, with each T-shirt representing a year from the life of the artist and the nation. The shirt from 1969, for example, shows Yu's painting of herself as a 3-year-old in Beihai Park; on the back is a 1969 propaganda photo of a family singing "The Quotations of Chairman Mao." Viewing the T-shirts, one becomes privy to Yu's personal progression from child to mother and artist, and at the same time is reminded of the massive changes the country has undergone in her young life. One is also confronted with the limits of these changes, since the T-shirt depicting 1989 was removed; all that is left to represent that momentous year of anti-government protests is an empty hanger.

The final wall evoked by this exhibition, albeit obliquely, is that which separated contemporary art and artists from China's mainstream culture for most of the 1980s and 1990s. This wall has been largely demolished in the past five years and contemporary art has entered what Gao aptly calls the Art Museum Age. Chinese artists are sought by collectors and curators from around the world, and major museums across China vie to hold the most attention-getting contemporary art exhibitions.

There is much good to be said about this breaching of the wall, for artists and audiences alike, but Gao also fears it has caused artists to compromise their work to fit curatorial interests and the demands of the market. Indeed, he rather ironically looks forward to the day when the hallowed walls of museums and galleries will lose their appeal.

"I hope some artists will rebel against the museum exhibition and criticize the institutional art world and the curatorial system," he says. "I want to be criticized! But right now artists have no time to criticize - they are just enjoying."