SHI XHINNING, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, 2000–01, oil on canvas, 3.3 × 3.3 ft. Copyright Sigg Collection.

“Mahjong” & “Half-Life of a Dream”

USA China

Chinese contemporary art has had an irregular history in the West. After a flurry of major exhibitions in the late 1990s, large-scale exhibitions featuring Chinese artists dwindled to the sporadic earlier this decade, left to a few dedicated galleries, collectors and curators. This brief interlude has been interrupted by a storm of headlines—some positive, some instructive, some plainly baffled—following the explosion of the contemporary Chinese art market, especially in high-profile international auctions.

Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area had the opportunity to view two remarkable Chinese contemporary art exhibitions this September at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The pair of shows was a welcome return of this movement to US institutions and signaled a revived interest in developing a critical understanding of China’s massive post-Mao cultural transformation. 

BAM/PAF mounted “Mahjong,” selections from Uli and Rita Sigg’s encyclopedic collection of Chinese art since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Organized by the museum’s senior curator of Asian art Julia M. White and chief curator Lucinda Barnes, “Mahjong” offers the broader view. The installation represented the first exhibition of the Siggs’ famous collection in North America, with nearly 150 works on display.

The exhibition was structured around gentle thematic arrangements, highlighting conceptual and technical trends: the appropriation and deconstruction of traditional iconography, the repurposing of political propaganda as Political Pop and critical views of China’s new consumer culture or the one-child policy. The unique open floorplan devised for the exhibition and the museum’s interlocking, cantilevered spaces forged surprising connections among artworks. Seeing Yue Minjun’s installation of 25 smiling, standing figures 2000 A.D. (2000)—contemporary Terracotta Warriors—beside Ai Weiwei’s Whitewash (1993-2000), 132 Neolithic vases arranged in rows, many of them wantonly covered in white paint, enriched both works. Their proximity highlighted how each artist subversively appropriates cultural icons beloved in China.

Other artists offered perspectives on political changes from a more personal angle. Auction darlings like painters Zhang Xiaogang, famed for his grey-toned family portraits, and Zeng Fanzhi made their inevitable appearances, but their relative star power in the art market does not overwhelm the artwork of their contemporaries in this top-notch collection. More interesting for the historical enthusiast were the few rare pieces from China’s first self-identified avant-garde group, the Stars Painting Society (Xingxing). These raw and DIY works, notably Huang Rui’s proto-modernist paintings and Huang Yong Ping’s early Dada-inspired objects, reminded viewers of the tremendous outpouring of creativity that took place almost immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution, led by artists undaunted by the lack of a sympathetic public and unaware that their work might be worth something one day.

Across the bay, SFMOMA’s “Half-Life of a Dream,” curated by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s Jeff Kelley, was drawn mainly from Kent and Vicki Logan’s substantial gift to the museum. The Logans have one of the most high-profile, cutting-edge collections of contemporary art in North America, and they were among the first major collectors 
to demonstrate a serious commitment to Chinese contemporary art. The exhibition of approximately 50 works was smaller in scale but more thematically focused. The works selected by Kelley highlight the Logans’ stated predilection for postmodern portraiture and have a decided focus on the subjective identity of the artist and a heightened sense of individualism in crisis.

Fang Lijun’s monumental painting Series 3, No. 15 (1994), featuring the artist’s own neon-orange likeness drowning under deep blue waves, was emblematic of the sensuous surfaces and waking-nightmare impulses linking much of the show. Paintings and installations of figures sleeping or in surrealist settings dominated the galleries, contributing to an overall feeling of disequilibrium. Works such as Zhang Huan’s Buddha Never Down (2003), a white, life-sized cast of the artist covered in feathers locked in a spherical cage, and Yang Shaobin’s Untitled (1999), multiple images of the artists’ likeness struggling violently with himself, presented a view of artistic expression as one perpetually at odds with an invisible adversary. The more politically minded works on view, such as Sui Jianguo’s installation of a sleeping Mao surrounded by an array of colorful dinosaurs, The Sleep of Reason (2005) or Hung Liu’s Where is Mao? (1988-2006), images of famous moments in Mao’s career embroidered onto silk shorts, lend themselves even more to the presumed friction between creative expression and political authority.

While “Mahjong” aimed to be inclusive and instructive, locating China’s new wave of creative practice within a social, cultural and historical context, “Half-Life” came across as a contemporary art exhibition that happened also to be China-focused. The difference between the two visions pointed to the dominant dialectic of mainland Chinese art: profoundly engaged with the concerns confronting a nation in transformation, while trying to find its place in the world.