Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York City; October 6, 2017-January 7, 2018

Review by Kerr Houston, Maryland Institute College of Art

Installation view of Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017-January 7, 2018 Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017.

It’s entirely possible that the Guggenheim’s ambitious survey of contemporary Chinese art will be remembered largely for the removal of three controversial pieces before the opening of the show. And, certainly, the museum’s decision to accede to the demands of protestors (many of whom were animal-rights activists) is worth thinking about in detail. But it would be a shame if the flap obscured the exhibition, which offers – even in its slightly abbreviated state – a revelatory overview of a seismically important set of developments.

The show (which was organized by Alexandra Munroe) concentrates on the period between the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In short, as we walk up the Guggenheim’s ramp, we trace the emergence of China as a global superpower – and a primary force in the contemporary art world. Indeed, the shape of that transition is occasionally discernible in the work on display, as tentative experiments in video and surreptitiously produced Xeroxes give way to sprawling installations and technologically sophisticated works that benefit from an active system of support.

That’s not to say that the earlier works are unaffecting. A 1991 video in which Zhang Peili attempts, repeatedly, to wash a chicken with soap is a wry mixture of Dadaist nonsense and plaintive social commentary: extending a governmental hygiene campaign to absurd lengths, the work also suggests the impotence of the individual in the face of larger forces. Song Dong’s 1996 Stamping the Water is another high point. Standing in the Lhasa River, Song repeatedly impresses the surface with an unwieldy wooden stamp: a vacuous exercise in bureaucracy that also reflects the growing interest of mid-1990s Chinese artists in performance art and duration.

Much of the work evinces an interest in subtle political critique. That’s a curatorial decision, of course – this show eschews the Pop-inflected work that was common in the 1990s – but resistance was evidently a consistent animating force in much Chinese art of the period. A dense, black painting by Qiu Zhijie feels vaguely moody, until we learn that it is the result of the artist’s repeated, dutiful copying of a classical poem: a mockery of rote training. And, a 1995 video by Lin Yilin, in which he navigates a perilous highway by moving a wall of cinder blocks, is both an engagement with Minimalist tradition and a remark on the inhospitability of the modern Chinese cityscape.

And yet, this show is never simply about China. Rather, there is a consistent attention to international contacts: a theme clearest in a section on the work of Rem Koolhaas in southern China in the mid-1990s, and in Ai Weiwei’s Fairy Tale, in which he marshalled a group of 1,001 Chinese to Kassel for Documenta 12. Fascinatingly, though, several works convey a wariness about the recent international embrace of Chinese art, critiquing the global culture apparatus and the ways in which it has framed work by Chinese artists.

Ultimately, then, this powerful show suggests that Chinese art is no longer simply Chinese: rather, it is an essential element in a broader global conversation.

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Kerr Houston is a professor of art history, theory and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he has taught since 2002. He is the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (2012) and of numerous articles on contemporary art; he is also the editor of SECAC’s Art Inquiries.