|Huang Yong Ping, Thousand Armed Guanyin (detail), at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing|
photograph Luise Guest
So, here is my entirely personal list of the ten best art experiences of 2014. It was a year of art as spectacle, in many memorable instances, and of art dominated - sometimes entirely suffocated - by theory, in other far less memorable and disappointing instances. It's MY list, so naturally there is a major focus on China - what else would you expect? I had originally intended it to be the typical "Best and Worst of..." list, but then decided I would much prefer to write about what I loved. Yes, I was disappointed in Christian Boltanski at Carriageworks in January - despite my admiration for this artist I found the installation underwhelming. The current exhibition curated by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at three major Beijing galleries, Pace, Galleria Continua, and Tang, disappointed and annoyed me. "Unlived by What is Seen" (um, what?) reveals a triumph of rather obvious and frankly half-baked theory over any visual, visceral or rigorously intellectual engagement. I loved Qiu Zhijie's 2012 Shanghai Biennale but this year's iteration curated by Anselm Franke was a dry theoretical exegisis that made me not want to see it. And the exhibition of figurative painting at Shanghai's Long Museum curated by Xu Zhen (of whom more later in this post) was just plain incoherent. I loved Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales but I did wonder, in this massive survey of the influence of Pop on artists through the 1980s and beyond, where were the Chinese Political Pop and Cynical Realist artists? But enough of the complaints - on with the Shock and Awe! And there was plenty of that, and spectacle, too, to delight and surprise me in exhibitions from Beijing to Shanghai, from Brisbane to New York. Not so much in Sydney, sadly, with the notable exception of the White Rabbit Gallery.
The title of my blog also gives the game away. For me so much of the excitement of contemporary art comes from introducing my students to particular artists and works. This was the year of Xu Bing for my senior high school students. To see them enthralled by "Phoenix"; to listen to their impassioned discussions of the way in which his choices of materials embody complex meanings; and to read their critical writing, with interesting links to works by other artists ranging from Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro, to Liu Zhuoquan, and to Fiona Hall was wonderfully exciting for me. With my resourceful assistant I spent a long time tracking down permission to show them a fantastic documentary made by Daniel Traub which deserves a general release. Traub very generously allowed me to show it to my students as long as I promised faithfully never to disclose the password - to anybody, ever. The kids, of course, loved that bit of cloak and dagger secrecy. I have since discovered that it is now available for purchase by educational institutions and I highly recommend it - here is the link to Magic Lantern Films.
|One of Xu Bing's Phoenixes soars over Beijing, outside the Today Art Museum|
In September I saw the work for myself. Xu's two giant Chinese phoenixes, Huang and Feng, are entirely constructed from the junk and rubbish he collected from building sites in Beijing's rapidly transforming CBD, the detritus left behind by the migrant workers who are the unsung (and often openly despised) heroes of China's transformation and growing wealth. When Xu Bing was commissioned by the developers of new financial towers, connected by a glass atrium, he visited the site and was shocked by the conditions in which these rural migrants lived and worked. He saw them as heroic, and decided at that point that his work would be constructed to honour their labour, The glass atrium reminded him of a birdcage, and the Phoenix of course is redolent with symbolism in Chinese history and culture. The developers were not too impressed with giant sculptures made, essentially, with rubbish, and asked the artist to cover them with crystals. Xu Bing refused, and then the project languished for years, in part due to the global financial crisis. Later purchased by a millionaire after its rejection by the Hong Kong developer who had just wanted an auspicious symbol for his building (oh, the irony!) it is currently still installed in the magnificent echoing nave of St John the Divine Cathedral on New York's Upper West Side, a sacramental space which provides new layers of meaning for the work. Describing his process, Xu Bing said, “The method is unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns. At the same time it is also in keeping with the Western concept of ready-made assemblage. The entire process of creation forms an interactive relationship with the environment and Chinese society.”The two monumental birds "bear witness to the complex interconnection between labor, history, commercial development, and the rapid accumulation of wealth in today's China." In the cathedral, they evoke the back-breaking labour of poor workers globally, who provide the comforts and material goods that we in the developed world take entirely for granted.
|Xu Bing, 'Phoenix' 2008 - 2011, in Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, image source www.xubing.com|
My second most awe-inspiring art experience this year took place just two weeks ago, in Beijing. Zhang Xiaotao credits Xu Bing as his most significant influence, his "master" in the old Chinese scholarly tradition. Zhang Xiaotao was trained as an oil painter but now heads the New Media Department of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, and Xu Bing is his PhD advisor. His extraordinary animations shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale in the China Pavilion's "Transfiguration", curated by Wang Chunchen, were on exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing's Caochangdi. It was there that I spent a couple of hours with Zhang, discussing his works and his ideas about contemporary art and culture in China. "Sakya" (2010-2011) represents the struggle to retain spirituality in today's China, and is focused on a major Tibetan temple which was partially destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
|Zhang Xiaotao, still from Sakya, image courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts|
|With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his work "Liang Liang" at Pekin Fine Arts, December 2014|
Xu Zhen is a key figure in Shanghai's art scene and his individual identity is now subsumed by his “contemporary art creation company” MadeIn Company which he founded in 2009, as well as his newly launched brand “Xu Zhen.” A witty comment on the inevitability of branding in the contemporary (especially the Chinese contemporary) artworld and the triumph of marketing and globalisation everywhere. The exhibition was curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari and UCCA Chief Curator Paula Tsai and it was nothing if not spectacular. I reviewed the show for The Culture Trip: Beijing’s Best Spring Exhibitions: City of Artistic Spectacle
|Xu Zhen, installation view, UCCA Beijing, Photo Eric Powell courtesy UCCA|
The thousand arms of the Goddess of Mercy protrude like mannequins in a shop window bearing unlikely objects – a tortoise, a broom, an apple, a skull, a mop, a book, a lantern. Despite being dismissed by Arts Asia Pacific as an ‘old monster’ the result is mesmerising. The artist himself has said that when invited to participate in a Sculpture Project in Germany he cane across an astonishing statue of Christ in Munster Cathedral, which had lost both its arms during WWII. A line scribbled next to the statue read "Your hands are my hands." Responding to the armless Christ, Huang decided to make his "Guanyin of a Thousand Hands", a Buddhist deity, 18 meters high (although here shown in three separate segments due to the height of the ceilings.) The artist said, "I have 'reproduced' the famous work in Western art history [the bottle rack] into an Oriental Buddhist Guanyin. The sense of detachment and indifference associated with the ready-made Bottle Rack is complicated and shrouded by various figures and symbols."
I did wonder, "What is it about Chinese artists and Taxidermy?" as I encountered Cai Guo-Qiang's installations "Head On" and "Heritage" in Brisbane last summer. I wrote about this experience for The Art Life and Daily Serving.
‘Falling Back to Earth’ consists of three monumental installations. Two new projects were inspired by his immersion in the Australian landscape and in his themes of humanity’s connection to the natural world. The third has a different resonance in an Australian context. ‘Head On’ was originally created for an exhibition in Germany, inspired by the dramatic, divided history of Berlin. ‘Heritage’, with its 99 replica creatures (polystyrene casts covered in hyper-real fur made from goatskin) gathered around a waterhole was inspired by Cai’s visit to the pristine environment of Stradbroke Island, and the fact that he considers Australia to be a kind of paradise. The title of the exhibition – his first solo show in Australia – evokes the traditional Chinese literati scholars’ yearning for nature and was inspired by a fourth century poem by Tao Yuanming. Why 99 animals? In Chinese numerology and in Taoist philosophy the number 9 is highly significant, representing completion, perfection and regeneration. 99 to Cai represents something that is yet to be completed.
This is the first time that the entire 3000 square metres of GOMA ground floor space has been given over to the work of a single living artist, and due to Cai Guo-Qiang’s global reputation international media – in particular Chinese language media – were targeted by the gallery, so expectations were high. ‘Heritage’ is the big drawcard and it is as spectacular as the gallery’s publicists would have us believe. There is a stillness that somehow transcends the crowds with their strollers and fidgety small children, and a feeling that you have entered a fairy-tale world where natural enemies can peaceably coexist. The enormous waterhole is surrounded by every conceivable kind of animal – zebras, giraffes, a horse, pandas, kangaroos, tigers, a lion, antelope - all creatures great and small. Their relative sizes and forms are exaggerated, enhancing the sense of unreality. They are rendered equal in their vulnerability as they drink, heads bent, from a huge pool of water. As you circumnavigate the pond, watching the animals and their reflections on the surface of the water, you slowly begin to think about the implications of this impossible scene. Cai has moved from the extra-terrestrial to the terrestrial, and invites us to think about our relationship with nature.
In ‘Head On’ 99 replica wolves appear as if in a freeze frame, arcing through the space in a graceful curve, only to hit the glass wall and slide to the floor, slinking back to begin the process all over again. In its original German setting this work had very particular connotations. Shown here, in conjunction with ‘Heritage’ it could be seen as an allegory of heroism, or as terrible misguided foolishness – a warning that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, perhaps. I thought about climate change deniers and the disastrous consequences of human decisions made in the interests of political expediency or short term greed. ‘Eucalyptus’ relocates a vast native gum, earmarked for clearing, to the gallery. Placed on its side it fills the architectural space and forces us to contemplate at close quarters its ancient, gnarled surface. Roots and branches stretch out like capillaries, touching the walls and inviting the visitor to walk underneath and look more closely at what we often take for granted. Cai visited Lamington National Park and was inspired by the giant Antarctic beeches and the primeval power of the landscape. Like the Chinese literati painters who found solace and a sense of the sublime in nature, Cai suggests there is both a moral and a spiritual dimension in our relationship to the land. We need to consider our place in the universe, our interconnectedness, and “fall back to earth.”
Cai Guo-Qiang China b.1957 Head On 2006, 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall. Wolves: gauze, resin, and hide
Photo by Yuyu Chen, courtesy Cai Studio.
|Lu Xinjian, City DNA Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm, |
image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
|Wang Qingsong, "Follow You" 2008 C-Print, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery|
|Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin, Chelsea, installation view|
|Liu Bolin Head Portrait’ 2012. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
|Liu Bolin, Security Check No.2, 2014, 205x95x55cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
|Liu Bolin ‘In Junk Food No.5, 2014. Acrylic on copper 36x36x26cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin|
Li Tai Po, 1987.10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 color TVs. 96 x 62 x 24 in. (243.8 x 157.5 x 61 cm). Asia Society, New York: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold and Ruth Newman, 2008.2. Photo credit: © 2007 John Bigelow Taylor Photography, courtesy of Asia Society, New York
I must confess a particular affection and partisanship here. Nam June Paik’s collaboration with cellist Charlotte Moorman was my introduction to the playful possibilities of contemporary art, and its debt to Duchamp, when I was a young art student. Who can forget a nude Moorman playing a cello made of Perspex TVs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales? Or wearing them, in ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’? And this at a far more prudish time, in 1976, when vice cops had only relatively recently removed copies of Michelangelo’s David from David Jones Department Store on a charge of public indecency!
‘TV Buddha’, also seen in Sydney in the 1970s (thanks to John Kaldor) and in other versions since, has always seemed to beautifully encapsulate his mix of seriousness and play; absurdity and moral purpose. There is a version here at the Asia Society and amidst more theatrical works, later readymades, and video footage from the 1980s (which does, it must be said, look seriously dated) it retains a compelling power and stillness. A closed circuit television camera and a seated Buddha figure face each other on a white plinth. The Buddha is engaged in silent contemplation of himself. Walk into the frame and you too become a part of the work’s circular navel gazing. Past and present, East and West, sacred and secular, stillness and busy-ness. A Zen wake-up call to mindfulness? It echoes Paik’s interest in Zen philosophy, shared with his friend and collaborator John Cage. Unlike some of the other works in the exhibition such as the roughly hand-painted TV sets of the artist’s late practice, charming though they are, ‘TV Buddha’ lingers in the mind.
The New York show provides a new context for these works, and adds a contemporary spin to all the well-known details of his life and work: the collaborations with John Cage and Joseph Beuys; the philosophies of the Fluxus Movement and the blurring of boundaries between art, performance, music and what was called “electromedia” back in the ‘70s, in those heady days of experimentation. ‘Becoming Robot’ suggests that Paik predicted the kind of world we now inhabit; our constant interaction with screens of various kinds, the relentless connectivity, the overload of information, and the tension between controlling technology and being controlled by it. Paik himself said, “Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.” Click HERE for the full review of the exhibition.
Transistor Television, 2005.Permanent oil marker and acrylic paint on vintage transistor television. 12½ x 9½ x 16 in. (31.8 x 24.1 x 40.6 cm). Nam June Paik Estate Photo credit: Ben Blackwell
|Xiao Yu "Ground" 2014 image courtesy Pace Beijing|