October, 2008, China Gold @ Musee Maillol
White Hot Magazine
Exhibition Review, Paris
China Gold: Chinese Contemporary Art; June 13-Oct 13
The Musee Maillol perhaps seems like the most unlikely Parisian museum to host an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. The intimate building, resembling a home (in both its size and shape) more than museum, indiscreetly stands on the corner of a small passage-like rue in Paris’s boho-chic seventh arrondisment; an unlikely space for a ‘traditional’ museum, yet even more so for a contemporary display. Musee Maillol, one of Paris’s slightly less known spaces, represents the permanent home for the great impressionist masters: Matisse, Renoir, Monet, and Rodin, to mention a few; however, from June 18-13 October a temporary exhibition displaying the recent panorama of thirty-five contemporary Chinese artists successfully transforms this space into a cultural kaleidoscope of cutting-edge artwork.
Curator Alona Kagan describes the unprecedented metamorphosis of contemporary Chinese art, which was still prohibited towards the end of the Moa era, as an “unpredictable cultural revolution”. Rarely has an art market witnessed such a dramatic surge of interest and growth, driven in part by the artists’ constant visual contemplation of the many paradoxes defining contemporary Chinese society. According to Alona Kagan, Chinese contemporary art faces huge challenges, in particular as “the aesthetic future of a world [becomes] radically transformed”. Artists will have to find new ways of expressing the collective and individual experiences generated by the modern world, while simultaneously fusing ‘alien themes’ (such as the naked body) with the cultural traditions of calligraphy and silk painting.
The thirty-five artists chosen represent a variety of works recently produced in China (2005 to present). The themes range from predictable and obvious to subtle and innovative, while the variation of styles and mediums represent the exhibition’s real strength. For those viewers relatively unfamiliar with the developments, styles, and themes dominating contemporary Chinese art, China Gold successfully provides a succinct overview the country’s current cultural production. While the exhibition remains relatively ‘safe’ in its chosen pieces (no explicit nudity, overt violence, or interactive installation pieces), it nonetheless displays some interesting works that address the diversity of topics currently dominating modern China.
One of most captivating and stylistically innovate works appears at the beginning of the exhibition. Zhang Dali’s, AK-47 (B3)/AK-47 (B4) 2007, acrylic on canvas diptych depicts a young male and female portrait, reminiscent (from a distance) of an old somber passport photo. The female, painted in neutral tones against a dark background, gazes solemnly towards an unidentifiable point; her male counterpart, painted in blue-grays, conveys a similar somberness. Each portrait, upon closer examination, is painted in a composite of varying ‘AK-47’s, an optical illusion created by the slight variation of colors. The lettering, a direct reference to the soviet army, suggests a virtual cynicism based on its ‘molecular-like’ fragmentation. Both the effect and subject matter, neither of which is particularly innovative in conception (once again a commentary of past political events) nevertheless reveals a contextual subtlety and artistic mastery that is refreshingly different.
Around the corner in a smaller room, mounted upon the wall, is a life size ping-pong table painted in navy blue. Li Qing’s, 2008 Ping-Pong 2 represents an actual table (net included) with organic, unidentifiable cutouts carved throughout (yellow plastic balls glued sporadically within each indentation). The underlying message of this sculpture seems less obvious than the innovative quality of its material; however, perhaps the artist’s commentary was more in response to the Olympic games, a common theme represented by many artists throughout the exhibition.
Another sculptural interest appears in a fiberglass series (five total) of enlarged Wrigley chewing gum sticks. Jiao Xingtao’s 2007 Night Butterflies displays contorted sticks, each an exact replica of the highly manufactured commodity. Although an American product, the back of each stick is written in Chinese characters, perhaps a reality of the sticks as distributed in modern China. The realistic quality of each sculpture, as if a commodity in and of itself, analyzes the effect of mass production’s role on contemporary art. In depicting art as a modernized product (a semi manufactured form of itself), the art, in fact, becomes what it is scrutinizing: a commodified commentary of contemporary Chinese society.
A retrospective Contemporary Chinese exhibition would not be complete without at least one Mao depiction. Zheng Lu’s steel, 2007 Mao Always Standing, stands approximately ten feet tall. The only artwork placed just outside the museum walls, this silver statue, reminiscent of an enlarged bowling pin, seems to almost represent an homage to Mao (he stands erect and dignified); however, its shape and color remind of us of underlying sarcasm found in modern depictions of past political figures.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief