Lu Xun (1881–1936) was not the first writer to pen tales in vernacular Chinese, but he spurred the literary form in ways that were unseen before his time. Under his pen (or brush), nothing was sacrosanct, and nobody was untouchable. A group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Tales of Our Time,” took its title from Lu’s last collection of short stories, Old Tales Retold (1936), in which the celebrated author riffed off eight folk myths to critique early 20th-century Chinese society. The show introduced new commissions by seven artists and artist groups from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. With an accompanying catalog that emulated Lu’s prose style, curators Xiaoyu Weng and Hou Hanru paid literary tribute to the father of modern Chinese literature—and made a notable attempt to reposition Chinese narratives and culture in the Western art world.
Video installations were aplenty. Sun Xun’s Mythological Time (all works 2016) takes the viewer on a journey through his hometown of Fuxin in northern China, a coal-mining center that faces depletion of its economic lifeblood. In Sun’s animation, fantastical creatures are encased in crystal—a placeholder for processed coal chunks that still contain fossils even when they are about to be burned for winter warmth—linking his city’s current decline with its eventual dystopian, postindustrial landscape. Elsewhere in the museum, Zhou Tao took the viewer south with Land of the Throat, to the Pearl River Delta. The artist shows us the site of a major tragedy in Shenzhen, a metropolis that is still ballooning in every direction. In the video, we visit an industrial zone where a landslide was caused by the over-dumping of construction waste. To Zhou, science fiction has caught up with reality—the land has tolerated humanity’s recklessness long enough, and is reasserting itself in monumental moves, leaving us with a melancholic, quiet aftermath teeming with life as greenery takes over again.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s monumental installation, Can’t Help Myself, is an industrial robot arm attached with a broad brush. It constantly reaches out, each time in a different direction, to stop a blood-like liquid from running off, dragging it back but barely containing the crimson puddle. Visitors are compelled to halt and watch as the robot performs its absurd, surreal dance. The artist duo’s installation is apparently a metaphor for “contemporary issues surrounding migration and sovereignty,” but it was unsuccessful in linking up with the other works in the exhibition.
“Tales of Our Time” fell into a common trap found in major art institutions in the West. It failed to shed a definition based on geography, and hence was loaded with preconceptions—misconceptions and fetishizations, even. The show’s roster was diverse, designed to tender seven facets of Greater China, but remained entangled in the repetitive paradigm of emphasizing sociopolitical conditions that motivate Chinese artists, who thus were saddled with the burden of proving themselves to be not only conscious of, but also vocal about, the societal sicknesses in their homeland.
Most of the artworks in “Tales of Our Time” spoke to concerns or controversies torn from news headlines, and certainly did retell those tales. But Lu Xun once described his own writing as “slick,” in the sense that he never took anything too seriously, and oozed tart sarcasm over his targets. At the Guggenheim, that slickness was missing.
Among a scattered ensemble that clamored for attention, however, was one exception. The Yangjiang Group’s quiet, participatory installation stood out in that it bore no relation to contemporary social ills. Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken included tea sets, tables and chairs, as well as a pastiche Chinese garden set up on a terrace overlooking Central Park. Visitors were encouraged to stop for a cup of tea, relax and converse with other participants. Is the title a reference to the unwritten power of traditions and verbal communication? In any case, the heavy, critical themes found elsewhere in the exhibition were absent, and it was a welcome respite from what was otherwise a glossary of tectonic shifts in a globalized China.
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