The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shock and Awe: my ten best exhibitions of 2014

Huang Yong Ping, Thousand Armed Guanyin (detail), at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing
photograph Luise Guest
It is that time of year once again, when every form of media is filled with lists. What to buy, what to see, what to do, what to read, how to lose all the weight gained from what you ate, how to restore your finances from the impact of what you spent, and now, of course, what was good and bad in 2014. Why should this blog be any different? 

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
#1: Xu Bing, "Phoenix" in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, NYC, September 2014
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
#2: Zhang Xiaotao "In the Realm of Microcosmic" at Pékin Fine Arts , December 2014

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
 "The Adventures of Liang Liang" (2012-2013) is particularly charming, as he and his team animated the fantastic drawings of his eight-year-old son to create a sweeping allegorical adventure which blends Chinese traditional folk tales and mythology with video games and cartoons, and a child's-eye view of the world, from horrendous traffic jams to  transiting through airports (represented as a zone of hell) as he accompanies his father on his travels.His command of the new language of 3D animation creates an experience which is entirely immersive. Spectacular, yes, but never for its own sake, as his works are profound and thought-provoking. Like Xu Bing, the artist whom he most admires, he says that the conceptual intentions are the most important thing, and the technologies, whether of oil painting, photography, video or 3D animation, are just the tools with which an artist can convey his or her ideas.

With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his work "Liang Liang" at Pekin Fine Arts, December 2014
#3: "Xu Zhen, a MadeIn Company Production" at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, April 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 4 installation view photo Eric Powell image courtesy UCCA
Installation view of Xu Zhen, Photo by Eric Powell | Image courtesy of UCCA
An extraordinary diversity of installations, performances and objects across multiple platforms and media makes for a very powerful experience, sadly not always the case in the contemporary art museum. The exhibition as a whole, and individual works within it, pack quite a punch. Surprise, delight, awe at the artist’s sheer inventiveness is the initial audience response, followed by a growing awareness of Xu’s thoughtful representation of some of the big issues of our times. The Duchampian wit and irreverent Pop sensibility is underpinned by the artist’s critical gaze on both Chinese society and the international art world. The UCCA show included more than 50 installation pieces, 10 videos, 40 painting and collage works and several performances (including slipper clad grandmothers who followed audiences around the gallery.)

Xu Zhen 2 Installation View
Xu Zhen, Installation View, Photo by Eric Powell | Image Courtesy of UCCA
One enters the museum to encounter a monumental sculpture in which the heads of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses have been replaced by inverted Buddhist statuary. In Xu’s hands this literal overlapping of East and West, the continuing concern of so many Chinese artists, becomes parodic. A multi-coloured Goddess Guanyin presides over the ‘ShanghArt Supermarket’, a replica of a convenience store, staffed by cashiers at the cash registers, in which the contents of every package have been removed – and are for sale. This is the literal embodiment of consumerist emptiness. In an interview with Ocula the artist said ‘We consider that exhibitions nowadays are a product, and that art is being sold…’ You wander through rooms containing museum vitrines showing the cross-cultural connections of bodily gestures, or witty replica oil paintings complete with carefully rendered camera flash. Courbet’s notorious La Source with camera flash obscuring – of course – the very source of the painting’s controversy cleverly skewers the phenomenon of art tourism whereby people experience artworks only through the lens of their camera. Images like these may be found in many vernacular Chinese photographs of the 1990s as citizens took up the opportunity for travel outside China.
Smaller versions of Play, the architectural construction of black leather, ropes and bondage items now in the collection of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery reveals another aspect of the work of Xu and his art corporation. These works, and the upside down be-feathered tribal people hanging, bound, in contorted poses from the ceiling above us, are deeply sinister and to some extent defy interpretation. Their sheer physical presence is enormously powerful. They suggest the ways in which religion and tribal identities are merely another brand in today’s world.

Xu Zhen, installation view, UCCA Beijing, Photo Eric Powell courtesy UCCA
#4: Huang Yong Ping at the Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, December 2014
Huang Yong Ping is a member of the Chinese diaspora who has lived in Paris since 1989. This exhibition, in the vast almost deserted spaces of the Red Brick Art Museum is called 'The Conclusion of Tales from the Taiping Era - the Arrival of the Circus', a title which alludes to the notion of spectacle and also includes suggestions of cruelty and control. I have been interested in Huang's practice since  encountering "Leviathanation" at Beijing's Tang Gallery in 2011 and being completely overwhelmed by the scale of his ambition, and then again awe-struck by his Thousand Armed Guanyin at the 2012 Shanghai Biennale. At the same time Shanghai's  Rockbund Museum showed 'Two Baits', an installation of giant fiberglass fish lures with enormous stainless steel hooks protruding from their mouths. Hidden in the cavity cut into the belly of one fish are books, in the other, a large knife. Writing about the exhibition for The Art Life, I said: 
"The work does not give up its meaning easily, but it evokes a sense of unease and of impending disaster, a sensation which lingers. Huang questions prevailing norms and social systems, including art ‘systems’ such as the organisation of the museum and curatorial practices. In the 1980s, as a member of the radically nihilist "Xiamen Dada"group, he carried out a series of actions in which works of art were damaged, burnt and reconfigured, posing some big questions about the necessity for works of art to exist in a physical form. Once in Paris, his work became concerned with the deconstruction of history, religion, myth and philosophy. Click on the link to read the complete article, "Time Travelling in Shanghai" Before I went to the Red Brick Art Museum I read a review in a Beijing magazine which described his "Thousand Armed Guanyin" as a disturbing work consisting of severed, amputated arms, evoking mutilation and violence. This is clearly nonsense. The work is beautiful, meditative, deeply spiritual, and also witty and irreverant - quite a feat. An intentional homage to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bottle Rack’ blown up to Brobdingnagian dimensions, the work is also a nod to Tatlin’s unfinished ‘Monument to the Third International’, and a lament for the notion of a failed socialist Utopia.

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 was much less enamoured of "Circus" which appeared less refined and resolved than other works. Two giant wooden hands - one hanging from the ceiling and the other broken in pieces on the floor - reference marionettes and social control. A circus of headless animals encircle the space. The artist, always elusive and given to gnomically ambiguous utterances, has suggested that the work is about faith. It is also about control, and free will, or the lack of it.

#5: Cai Guo Qiang at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art "Falling Back to Earth", January 2014
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.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Heritage, 2013. 99 life-sized replicas of animals, water, sand, drip mechanism; installed dimensions variable;
commissioned for the exhibition Falling Back to Earth, 2013; proposed for the Queensland Art Gallery collection with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.
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.
#6 and #7: "Reformation" and "Commune" at White Rabbit Gallery
My 6th and 7th selections are two shows at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. Perhaps this is cheating, but too bad, I am making up my own rules. "Reformation" early in the year, followed by "Commune" in the latter part of 2014 presented us with entirely different, and entirely fascinating, views of contemporary China. In writing about Reformation for The Art Life I noted the clever - and unexpected - "salon hang" of paintings from the collection. 
"The first thing you see is a dramatic “salon hang” of 37 paintings from the collection, a visual feast hanging ceiling to (almost) floor in the atrium. Wang Luyan’s Global Watch is a giant’s timepiece bearing the flags of China, the United States, Iran, Korea and other nations in a wry comment on the inevitability of global conflict. Above this hangs a 2006 work by his wife, Qin Fengling, Red, with her characteristic technique of tiny sculpted figures covering the entire surface, referencing submerging of individual desires to the collective, the overwhelming mass of the Chinese population. Lu Xinjian’s City DNA Beijing, part of a larger series representing numerous world cities, emerges from an examination of aerial views from Google Earth, revealing the sameness of the contemporary urban hub. A seemingly flat pictorial space, and a surface that appears to be an impenetrable code, or a diagrammatic representation of a flickering electrical charge, on closer examination reveals some of the distinguishing features of each singular place. In this work, the grid of Beijing, with the Forbidden City at its central meridian, merges into an incoherent jumble like every other place in the developed and developing world. Mondrian’s Modernist grid has become the language with which to expose the homogenising impact of globalisation." 
Lu Xinjian, City DNA Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm,
image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
As an antidote to works exploring the stresses and strains of the contemporary world, Shi Zhiying’s glorious monochrome ocean vastness, her sea sutra, evokes the sublime, a meditation upon Buddhist notions of emptiness. Ma Yanling’s delicate portraits of Shanghai actresses of the 1930s, including Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) reveal her interest in the hidden history of women in China. Other works are more personal. Bingyi’I Watch Myself Dying, painted after the artist suffered an appalling accident resulting in serious burns and multiple surgeries, is a compelling, raw work which reveals her interest in European painters such as the Symbolist Odilon Redon as well as Chinese ink painting masters. Bingyi described her painting practice to me as “Intensely primal. It raises questions about our fundamental being – what is pain, what is suffering, what is loneliness?” Other highlights in this show were Wang Qingsong's cinematic allegorical staged photograph, "Follow You" and the evocative and clever paintings of young Beijing artist Huang Jingyuan.
Wang Qingsong, "Follow You" 2008 C-Print, image courtesy White Rabbit Gallery
Huang Jing Yuan "I Am Your Agency" 2013, image courtesy the artist
For me, the major highlight of "Commune" was the opportunity to see once again Gao Rong's extraordinary embroidered installation, a hyper-realist simulation of the simple house of her beloved grandparents, with whom she grew up in Inner Mongolia. This lifesize simulacrum, "The Static Eternity" is a way of freezing memory and stopping time.

#8: Liu Bolin, Jenny Holzer and Do Ho Suh
Cheating here (again) I am listing as number 8 three shows that I saw in one magical afternoon in Chelsea. Liu Bolin at Klein Sun Gallery, Jenny Holzer at Cheim & Reid and Do Ho Suh at Lehman Maupin gave me hope that globally, contemporary art is not moribund, despite what we might sometimes think after a visit to commercial galleries. And after some previously very dispiriting visits to the Chelsea galleries, this was a joyful experience despite the somewhat dark subject matter of some of the works. In the same afternoon I saw works by Mona Hatoum and Ai Weiwei. Do Ho Suh's fragile and evanescent recreations of his New York and Korean homes are just so damn beautiful. For this show, "Drawings" the artist used an intensive process of rubbing to record the physical space of every inch and every detail of his West 22nd Street apartment.  Art in America said, "By rubbing the skinlike surfaces with blue pencil, he creates a ghostly imprint of the most minute architectural details. The results fill both the gallery's venues, accompanied by a recent series of works featuring quasi-surrealist figurative images made of colorful threads embedded into paper."  
Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin, Chelsea, installation view
Jenny Holzer's "Dust Paintings" were a whole other story. As is usual for Holzer, the works are textual, but the source of these sensually luscious paintings is declassified, highly redacted government documents recording acts of brutality and barbarism carried out by US forces in Afghanistan. Most of the text comes from  witness statements, transcribed with misspellings and other grammatical mistakes, concerning Jamal Naseer, an Afghan soldier who died in American custody. It is possible to lose oneself in the beauty of the painterly surfaces, to be brought up short by a sudden realisation of the import of the lushly painted brushmarks. Painting as document and as abstraction. Liu Bolin, too, is motivated to document aspects of his contemporary world, navigating the tricky terrain of avoiding polemic whilst taking a moral stance. 
Liu Bolin Head Portrait’ 2012. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
Best known for his ‘Hiding in the City’ series, in which he literally paints himself into various backgrounds, in cityscapes as diverse as Beijing, New York, London and Paris, Liu Bolin is sometimes called “The Invisible Man”. He is a master of a complex trompe l’oeil technique which allows him to examine the paradoxes and slippages of the contemporary world. Wearing a specially designed suit, the artist is painted by a team of assistants, in a painstaking and sometimes physically challenging ordeal, to merge almost seamlessly with his background. A disappearing trick; the artist as conjurer. No mere pop culture gimmickry, Liu Bolin’s process of erasure examines issues of contemporary culture and social justice, never more so than in his most recent exhibition in New York, at Klein Sun Gallery, ‘A Colorful World?’ In the lyrics of pop diva Cece Winans, “It’s a colorful world, it’s a beautiful world that we live in/ It’s a colorful world…” Well, perhaps, but Liu Bolin is interested in what happens when saccharine sentiments are juxtaposed with contemporary realities. Here we see works from the ongoing ‘Hiding in the City’ series, and new works created for the show. Liu also involved New Yorkers - 100 volunteers - who spent many excruciating hours being painted by the artist and his assistants for a new ‘Target’ series. Camouflaged into backgrounds of new $100 bills and a traditional Chinese ink painting, they were required to hold poses inspired by Renaissance paintings. The artist questions the ways in which people are made the passive recipients of consumerism, and the victims of political forces beyond their control. Underlying ‘Hiding in the City’, too, is the omnipresent smog and haze of pollution in Chinese cities, which Liu sees as rendering their inhabitants partially invisible, both literally and metaphorically.
Liu Bolin, Security Check No.2, 2014, 205x95x55cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
More recently, Liu’s concerns have become global in their scope. A key image from this show is a life-size standing sculpture, cast from the artist’s own body and covered with brightly coloured food packaging logos. The figure assumes the submissive pose required by airport security in the full body scanner. The posture is one of surrender, capitulation. What is more symbolic of the contemporary world (and the international world of the contemporary artist, in particular) than the airport, that liminal zone of ever more authoritarian surveillance juxtaposed with ever more shiny shopping opportunities? What pose could be more appropriate for the current moment? Klein Sun assistant director, Willem Molesworth, pointed out to me that the pose is also the bitterly ironic “Don’t shoot” stance of black youth protesting in Ferguson, a viral internet phenomenon and a new cultural trope which instantly traversed the globe. In subsequent weeks it was to be echoed by the Occupy Central demonstrators facing police teargas in Hong Kong. Click HERE for the full review of this exhibition.
Liu Bolin ‘In Junk Food No.5, 2014. Acrylic on copper 36x36x26cm. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, NY. © Liu Bolin
#9: Nam June Paik 'Becoming Robot' at Asia Society NYC
In the same week in New York I saw the Nam June Paik retrospective Becoming Robot at the Asia Society. The exhibition charmed and delighted me, suggesting that Paik was a kind of cultural boundary rider, an inter-galactic hitch-hiker.  New York Times critic Holland Cotter describes him as an “existential floater”, a visionary more comfortable with sound waves and satellites than with any terrestrial matters. The man who fell to earth, perhaps. He is often described as “the father of video art” and certainly he was one of the first artists to see the possibilities of working with very new technologies in a post-Dada re-framing of the readymade.
AS 048
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.
2. NJP Transistor TV
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
#10: Xiao Yu, "Ground" at Pace Beijing, April 2014
Xiao Yu "Ground" 2014 image courtesy Pace Beijing
My final choice is very different. Xiao Yu's "Ground" (which might also be translated as "Earth") was literally as described. The vast space of Pace Beijing's 798 gallery was filled with earth, the smell of rich loam and the earthiness of the farmyard. During the installation it had been ploughed by farmers with teams of cattle. but only the earth remained, with photographic documentation of the time-based performative elements. There are inescapable echoes of Walter de Maria’s ‘Earth Room’, yet in a Chinese context, at this time in history, there are other interpretations. The enormous divide in wealth and opportunity between rural and urban China is a growing source of tension and social unrest, and the contempt with which city-dwellers regard the countryside always surprises foreign visitors. Alienated from cycles of growth and renewal, fearful of food safety scandals and toxic contamination, Chinese consumers have come to regard their food, and the soil and water which produces it, with fear and suspicion. Is this a metaphor for the ‘nothingness’ within the artworld as pointed as Xu Zhen’s supermarket filled with empty packaging? It takes us full circle to Xu Bing and his admiration for the skilful labour of rural migrants, transplanted into big Chinese cities in search of a better life for their families. And to an idea, unfashionable in some circles, that art actually can and should matter.
In the interests of full disclosure, as they say, some of the artists in the exhibitions referred to above will be included in my forthcoming book "Half the Sky: Women Artists in China", published by Piper Press in 2015. Shi Zhiying, Bingyi, Huang Jingyuan, Ma Yanling, Qin Fengling and Gao Rong were all interviewed for that project, along with 25 other contemporary female artists.