Breaking out

A surprisingly rich, subversive array of Chinese art.

SMALL WONDER THAT most people's conception of Chinese art is limited to old vases, scrolls, and ink-brush paintings of mountains and water. Since a certain droopy-faced tyrant rose to power in the '30s, artistic freedom in China has been all but nonexistent. That's why "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" is so groundbreaking. The exhibit, organized by New York's Asia Society and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the first to take a broad-spectrum look at new work from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan that addresses issues relating to Chinese identity and traditions.

Inside Out: New Chinese Art

Henry Art Gallery and Tacoma Art Museum through March 5

"Inside Out" is a big show—so big that it had to be split into two venues, the Henry Art Gallery and Tacoma Art Museum. The work mentioned here is only a small fraction of the exhibit, and it's imperative to visit both museums to experience the show's full scope.

The duplicity of language is a common theme among several artists. At the Henry is Wenda Gu's Temple of Heaven (1997), an installation of giant calligraphic scrolls made entirely of glue and human hair. Wonderfully delicate, the scrolls look like rice paper, clear and speckled with bits of black, brown, and gold hair that the artist collected from barbers around the world. The pieces of hair are shaped into what look to be rounded, ancient Chinese characters as well as Western words. Yet all of the markings and words are nonsense—perhaps a critique of the Chinese government's manipulation of outside information. The pseudo-Chinese characters also remind one of Mao's simplification of the Chinese language—ostensibly a good thing that allowed more common people to learn the language, but ultimately a shrewd isolationist tactic that prevented generations of Chinese from comprehending texts generated in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In any case, Gu, while working within the confines of censorship, eloquently dismisses the state of language under such control. As if that message weren't loud enough, his scrolls, hung from the ceiling, house a long wooden table and chairs that look to have been made for an official tea party, but each seat contains a video monitor showing moving clouds in the sky. Museum visitors are invited to sit on the chairs—basically, that is, set their butts on heaven.

TWO ARTISTS DISPLAYED at the Tacoma Art Museum continue the critique of language. Xu Bing's Book from the Sky (1991) consists of a canopy of large white scrolls printed with, again, what look to be Chinese characters. Below are hundreds of open books laid out on the floor. The work, which refers to classical Ming Dynasty texts, looks very reverential, yet all of the characters have been invented by the artist, who spent years carving more than 4,000 pseudocharacters into wood blocks and hand-printing them onto the books and scrolls. Upstairs at Tacoma, language receives a punchy treatment by Zhang Peili, who hired a prominent Beijing anchorwoman, Xin Zhibin, to perform in his video Water (1989). Zhang had the newscaster, who was one of the first to announce the events at Tiananmen Square, read a dictionary definition of water repeatedly throughout the 22-minute video. Incredibly, the journalist never got the irony of the piece (or didn't let on), and she reads officiously, as if she were delivering a report, thus adding more thrust to Zhang's subversion.

Lack of freedom of expression forced many artists to retreat to confined spaces, often exhibiting their work at home. Hence, a part of "Inside Out" is devoted to the phenomenon of "Apartment Art," which cropped up in Beijing and Shanghai in the mid-'90s. At the Henry, Wang Peng's Form of Reality shows several 1950s photos of newlyweds in Communist uniform. Standing rather coldly, the couples look more like fellow soldiers than people in love. However, Wang introduces intimacy via headphones that allow you to hear sounds of lovemaking. The work is much more than simple voyeurism: Wang seems to be reminding us that the uniforms, and all that they represent, intrude as much in the couples' lives as the intimate recordings.

This examination of intrusion is even more apparent when one compares Form of Reality with Wang Jingsong's Parents (1998), displayed at Tacoma, which shows color photographs of elderly couples in their homes. Like the uniformed couples in Wang Peng's work, the couples are seated as much as a foot apart from each other, often with an object, such as a plant or a vase, between them, but these images convey great warmth. All of the couples are smiling, their comfort with each other apparent. They're all at home, surrounded by colorful things—flowers, bird cages, posters, musical instruments. As gaudy as some of these objects are—one couple sits in front of a large poster of a tropical beach—they reduce elements of Communism to a dull, barely registered gray.

Unfortunately, only a handful of works by women artists are included in "Inside Out," but two of them, both on Tacoma's third floor, are knockouts. Hong Kong artist Phoebe Man's Beautiful Flowers is a striking installation consisting of maxipads coupled and folded so that they look like four-petaled lotus flowers. It's a universal work, simultaneously referring to women's taboo objects and their external flowerlike beauty. Each maxipad has a brilliant red eggshell, which in Chinese culture signifies gifts given upon the birth of a baby—traditionally, the birth of a son. Man has also installed a chair, tipped precariously to one side. It's hard not to see this work as a reference to pressures on women to breed, and the eggs, dropped in the centers of the pads, "wasted" potential to produce an heir to the family name.

Lin Tian-miao's Bound and Unbound, another example of Apartment Art, consists of hundreds of household items—pots, pans, utensils—meticulously wrapped in white cotton thread. A video projection above reflects the thread's color and lines, but it also presents a jarring tension, showing a row of thread being cut with scissors. While Lin's domestic objects are scattered on the floor, taking up a good amount of the exhibit space, the large image above seems to negate the labor with one easy slide of the scissors. Is Lin referring to the futility of her work and the state of Chinese art in general, that effort can be so easily undone? Whatever the artist's message, her work, along with that of others included here, turns our preconceptions of Chinese art inside out.

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