“Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters,” at Para/Site Art Space, presents a look into the lives of four Chinese artists living in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s, who have never before been exhibited together. The exhibition assembles pieces from the oeuvres of Ai Weiwei, “Frog King” Kwok Mang-ho, Tehching Hsieh and Martin Wong, who are each recognized for their individual artistic careers, but who also all shared the experience of a city in flux.
Another curator could have looked at the fame and renown these artists have gained and put together an interesting, but almost superficial, exhibition about the Chinese diaspora experience and its influence on their later works. The curatorial team, A Future Museum for China, however, creates a much more subtle show, based on “actual and concrete, as well as tenuous or even possibly non-existing connections.” For example, Ai Weiwei and Martin Wong are known to have visited Kwok’s gallery. Frog King Kwok aided Teching Hsieh during his One Year Performances, and even provided photos and video of Hsieh from his own collection for display in the exhibition. Hsieh also appears in Ai’s photographs, while Wong’s FDNY was provided by German-based Vietnamese Artist Danh Vo. Though these brief encounters and possible relations are repeated on wall text and in the program, the separation of the artists’ works in the space removes any suggestion of such interconnectedness when walking through the gallery. While the curators tried not to force preconceptions or suppositions on the viewer, by doing so they may have failed to select works that adequately reflect the underlying relationships meant to sustain the exhibition concept.
Along one wall of the main exhibition room are photos, posters and a video from Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981-1982 (1981–82). During that year, Hsieh lived outdoors in New York without entering any buildings or indoor spaces. The video reveals the often grueling, physical challenges experienced during the performance, a perspective of New York City few in the art world have probably imagined.
Near the entrance hang some of Frog King Kwok’s photographs, a series of portraits of the other artists in the exhibition, as well as the likes of singer David Bowie, and Chinese Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, each donning “Froggies,” Kwok’s signature pair of ornately decorated glasses. Kwok is commonly regarded as one of the first Chinese performance artists, as well as running the Kwok Gallery in New York’s Soho for two years—where he met Ai, Wong, and many important cultural figures of the era.
The exhibition also presents a selection of photographs from “Ai Weiwei: New York 1983-1993.” Ai Weiwei arrived in New York in 1981 with the intention of attending Parsons School of Design. He soon dropped out, but stayed in the East Village, creating, in thousands of photographs, a tumultuous chronicle of 1980s New York. His photographs captured protestors, Bill Clinton waving from a car, before he was president, and a smattering of artists and visionaries, including Allen Ginsberg and, of course, Tehching Hsieh.
In a back room are a collection of Martin Wong’s paintings, drawings and graphic designs. While FDNY (1998), Wong’s painting of a grungy manhole cover, dominates the main room, in the back room the viewer gets a more personal look into the late artist’s life through Portrait of Little Brian (1982), a pen-drawn sketch of a man on the open pages of a William S. Burroughs novel—as well as in the peculiar inclusion of a digital photo slideshow of his mother’s home, where Wong’s works clutter the walls. Chinese American Wong moved from San Francisco to New York in 1978, where he produced paintings inspired by Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Wong also gathered one of the largest collections of New York graffiti art before returning to San Francisco in 1994, having been diagnosed with HIV.
The numerous photo series create a feeling of archival documentary, rather than creative exploration. However, “Taiping Tianguo” is distinct in its ability to capture the shared experience of independence. While each artist came to New York to live and work alone, they all found themselves in a singular time and place, engaged with each other and the city around them. Though the lack of apparent narrative or connective strands seem at first to present a disjointed or fragmented exhibition, intentionally or otherwise, the curation succeeds in its ability to highlight the collective while preserving the independent.