Chen Zhen’s fantastical dragon looping through the Guggenheim’s rotunda accompanies you on the way up the museum’s spiral ramp, through the thickets of pain, protest and resistance that are the exhibition “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.”.
“Precipitous Parturition” Chen’s punk dragon, its head made of jammed together bicycles, and a body of tires and tubes, its belly bloated with plastic toy cars is never far from your shoulder, as you make your way through the art of the Deng Xiaoping generation.
Young artists who were encouraged to “liberate their thought” and to find “freedom in creativity”, this is a generation who were offered the freedom to confront the diverse elements of the twentieth century; individualism identity, liberation, cultural renewal and globalism but were plunged into the darkness that was the horrendous Tiananmen Square massacre.
Their survival and their refusal to be silent is a heroic story and makes for an exhibition that is rich, complex and challenging.
The artists are wildly diverse.
Qiu Zhijie using traditional techniques brush and ink on paper in his work, “No.1: Copying the ‘Orchid Pavilion Preface’ 1000 Times (1990 – 1995)” has copied a classic work of Chinese calligraphy.
But rather than copy the calligraphy as an exercise to perfect his command and style Qiu has copied the text over and over, a thousand times on the one sheet of paper.
The result is not a copy which celebrates control and beauty but rather a sheet black as night, plotted with ink.
Nearby, Cai Guo-Qiang has another dragon.
Cai’s is a calligraphic dragon, ‘Ascending Dragon: Project for Extraterrestrials 21st.
It is, literally, an explosive landscape painting that employs traditional materials, brush and ink, but also gun powder, a Chinese invention set off to scorch the paper and create the image.
You can see Ai Wei Wei’s deadpan calibrations in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995” which is probably the most famous single image in this exhibition. It is, still, painful to view.
It is not easy to see the intentional destruction of an object with deep cultural meaning without seeing images of Nazi book burning and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha statues.
The artists in this exhibition have questioned and challenged with a passion, skepticism and, often, an absurdist’s dark sense of humor.
At the end of the journey up the Guggenheim ramp is the museum’s Tower 7 gallery. It houses two works of such overwhelming power that it is hard not to think of them in Goyaesque terms.
Yang Jiechang’s “Lifelines 1” an ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, is a powerful, seemingly abstract gestural painting fraught with drama and foreboding.
When you read on the accompanying wall plate that the composition is based on the diagram made by Li Xianting of the clashes he witnessed at Tiananmen Square and the paths taken by volunteers carrying injured freedom protesters to safety, the realization surges through your heart and soul as a revelation.
The second work installed in the gallery of Tower 7 is Gu Dexin’s frieze of thirty-five wooden panels painted white with vermillion red calligraphy in the style typical of official signage and public political announcements.
The text reads, “We have killed people, We have killed men, We have killed women, We have killed old people, We have killed children, We have eaten people, We have eaten hearts, We have eaten human brains, We have beaten people, We have beaten people blind, We have beaten open peoples’ faces.”
This text is based on Lu Xu’s 1918 masterpiece “Diary of a Madman”. Gu Dexin’s frieze is both a sweeping indictment of humankind and a personal revelation that the “we” is us. It is always easy to indict. It is much more difficult to acknowledge that we are complicit.
Art in China after 1989: Theater of the World is a provocative challenge on both a personal and a global level. We are challenged to think more globally, to engage with the struggle for artistic and individual freedom. And, on a personal level, to wonder if we would ever have the moral and personal strength to take on such battles.
This is particularly relevant now, in a world where individual freedom seems ever less secure.
David Rankin, Special Features Correspondent New York, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
On Show until January 7th, 2018.