28 Chinese


28 Chinese

By Jing Cao June 24, 2015

28 Chinese at the Asian Art Museum features works by three generations of contemporary Chinese artists, produced between 1994 and 2014, on loan from the Rubell Family Collection. Anchoring the exhibition are pieces from the contemporary canon, for instance Ai Weiwei’s A Ton of Tea (2007), a cubic sculpture of compressed tea leaves, and Zhang Huan’s To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), a photograph of an attempt to use human bodies to raise a body of water by one meter. These works, displayed on the second floor amid traditional ink landscapes and blue and white porcelain, represent iconic experiments by Chinese artists engaging with modernist sculpture and performance art.

The exhibition’s newer works, which dominate the first-floor galleries, vary somewhat in quality and lack a clear, unifying theme. Organized by medium, with oil paintings in one gallery, video art in another, this portion of the show mirrors the fractured state of China’s current art landscape and asks viewers to draw their own connections. Several works within this group explore materials in new and interesting ways.

Qiu Zhijie’s Memorial for Revolutionary Speech (2007) is a cement cube that Qiu built up, layer upon layer, by repeatedly carving political slogans onto square tablets and then pouring cement over each inscription, creating the ground for a new layer of text. The sixteen slogans that Qiu carved and then concealed are displayed as ink rubbings on the wall behind the cube. The slogans date from the third century BCE to today and are all written in historically appropriate script. The result is an object both exceedingly plain and ideologically weighty.

A clear metaphor for history, Qiu’s work is also, more subtly, an assertion of the language of things—specifically Walter Benjamin’s notion that all things, even inanimate objects, have their own language through which they declare their essence, or name.1 Although Qiu’s inscriptions are concealed and no longer separable from the cement block, his memorial persists in speaking its “name.” Whereas Ai’s aforementioned A Ton of Tea thrusts contemporary Chinese artists into conversation with contemporary Western sculptors (for instance Larry Bell) and minimalists (such as Sol LeWitt) through its use of a recognizably “Chinese” material, Qiu’s engagement with the material world goes further, suggesting that even the most ordinary object contains within it an index of past material conditions.

He Xiangyu’s Cola Project—Extraction (2009–11) is a conceptual work that involved He and ten assistants boiling down 127,000 liters of Coca-Cola to “extract” a solid black residue.2 A case of this coal-like Coke residuum is displayed along with photographs of the industrial-scale process that created it and a wooden case of empty, time-stamped two-liter Coke bottles. One chromogenic print depicts workers shoveling residue with bandannas tied across their faces; another shows rivers of industrial waste flowing like lava. A Dutch still-life painter might represent Coca-Cola by observing a bottle and meticulously representing its form, shape, and color. Andy Warhol would likely reproduce its universally recognizable logo, forgoing the likeness of the physical bottle to capture what he regarded as the iconic essence of the thing. He Xiangyu’s Coca Cola Project suggests that Coca-Cola is neither essentially the thing itself (the sugary liquid, the bottle containing it) nor the sign of the thing (the label), but rather the flows of human labor, power, and capital that produce it. If Zhang’s To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond objectifies human bodies, using them as volumes that simply serve to displace water, He goes one step further, exploiting their labor and exposing his workers to potentially hazardous conditions in the name of art. Both artists show how easily bodies become material inputs into systems of regulation and production.

Zhang Huan. To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997; chromogenic print on Fuji archival paper; 40 ¾ in x 60 ½ in. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Zhang Huan.

Liu Wei’s Liberation No. 1 (2013) and Zhu Jinshi’s Boat (2012) also engage meaningfully with materiality. Liberation No. 1 is a monumental oil painting featuring vertical and horizontal lines of various widths and colors. Designed using computer software and evocative of glitch art, it encodes the visual culture of screens and pixels in a traditional Western medium. The result is an anachronistic image caught between a digital future and an analog past.

Architectural and organic, Boat is a hanging installation, roughly 10 feet tall and 50 feet long, constructed from thousands of sheets of overlapping xuan (calligraphy) paper. Folded over bamboo rods and suspended from the ceiling on thin cotton threads, the translucent xuan paper forms a semipermeable membrane that sways in a breeze and lets light pass through. While Liberation No. 1 thrusts the future into the past, Boat suggests a way forward, borrowing forms from nature to suggest that contemporary cultures must also allow for permeability if they are to survive and thrive.

Art serves two functions: to capture the essence of objects in the external, material world, and to materialize things from the internal, immaterial world. A herd of buffalo becomes a cave painting; a feeling of love becomes the Venus de Milo. The best works in 28 Chinese take as their subject this tension between material conditions and ideological constructs—between things and meanings—to offer new ways of observing the contemporary condition.

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28 Chinese is on view at Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco, through August 16, 2015.


  1. Walter Benjamin suggests in his “Language of Man” that all things—even inanimate objects—have their own language, through which they speak their names, but that only humans use a language that also names other objects. For example, a table asserts its “table-ness,” a house its “house-ness.” These “names” contain within them material histories of how objects came to be. Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996), 62–74.
  2. Born in 1986, He Xiangyu is part of the youngest generation of artists represented in the Rubell collection. Born after the Cultural Revolution, this generation grew up in a radically different cultural, social, and economic environment than the one before. Whereas the earlier artists’ works frequently engaged with themes of social, political, and psychological trauma, He’s generation is less bound by its historical moment, engaging instead with issues of a rapidly changing and industrializing China.

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