Shotgun Review

From Montreal: Like Thunder Out of China

By Shotgun Reviews April 8, 2013

Located on a former shipyard and dry dock, the newly opened Arsenal Montreal seems an unlikely place for a major group exhibition of Chinese contemporary artists. Yet the setting, with its large industrial spaces and lack of pedestrians, is reminiscent of the experience in the once-peripheral Beijing art districts of Caochangdi and Dashanzi, where many of the eighteen artists in the show exhibit.1

Contemporary Chinese art in North America tends to attract viewers eager to sniff out subversion and suppression, seeking a clandestine peek into what they imagine is a repressive art world. Well, it isn’t, or not all the time, and simply repeating these clichés is problematic and facile, preventing a more nuanced understanding of how global and diverse the contemporary Chinese art world is. 

The Gao Brothers confirm stereotypes of subversion in Miss Mao (2006), a grotesque, mercurial sculpture whose silvery surface is as alluring as her vampire teeth and swollen breasts are repellant. She does little to add nuance to our understanding of contemporary Chinese art. Yes, the sculpture is banned in China, but it is still seen in China. Mocking Mao by making him a woman is kitschy and short-circuits any opportunity to provoke insights into contemporary China. Miss Mao, like much of the Gao Brothers’ practice, is pure spectacle; the sculpture’s breasts are far less shocking than the thousands of dead pigs floating in Chinese rivers.

But something is stirring behind Miss Mao’s back. Han Bing’s series New Culture Movement (2006) is a set of six photographs of a man, woman, or child clutching a brick.

Han Bing. New Culture Movement, 2006; C-print; 28.5 x 18.5 in. Courtesy of Arsenal Montréal, Montréal.

Han a makes a clever satirical switch by replacing the expected prop, Mao’s little red book, with a big red brick. The central position of the figures, all in stoic poses with feet firmly planted, recall the oversized workers in Cultural Revolution–era (1966–76) propaganda posters. Now, though, the dream of socialism’s bright red future has been replaced by blaring market reforms made manifest across China with the breakneck pace of construction.

Han Bing visualizes the government’s notion of modest prosperity (xiaokang shehui) in the form of red bricks, symbolizing economic mobility even at the lowest social level. But bricks, as the film director Wang Xiaoshuai portrayed at the end of Beijing Bicycle (2001), are also useful weapons.2 In Han’s photographs the rough weight of bricks fills the people’s hands: might they realize the power they hold?

 

Like Thunder out of China is on view at Arsenal Montreal, in Montreal, Canada, through July 27, 2013.

 

Elizabeth Parke, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, examines the relationships between contemporary Chinese art, urban planning, and visual culture. Her dissertation, “Infrastructures of Critique: Art and Visual Culture in Contemporary Beijing (1978–2008),” establishes urban planning’s influence on Chinese art production by drawing parallels between artistic practice and the capital’s historical and contemporary infrastructure. Parke is a finalist for the ACAC Writing Fellowship.

 

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NOTES:

1. Dashanzi and Caochangdi are art districts in northwest Beijing, home to such major international galleries as Pace, Gallery Continua, and Urs Meile. For a quick overview of such districts, see Donald Morrison, “A Hundred Galleries Bloom,” New York Times, July 27, 2008.

2. Beijing Bicycle depicts the struggles of two boys, one a migrant worker from the countryside and the other a native of Beijing, whose lives intersect over a bicycle. Gui, the migrant, finds a job as a bicycle courier, and after weeks of work he is able to pay for the bicycle that is quickly stolen and resold at a secondhand market to Jian. The narrative tracks their joint ownership of the bicycle, revealing the uneven development of a changing Beijing, the ennui of urban youth, and the harsh realities of migrants’ lives in the city. 

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