First the good news. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” now appearing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 7, samples China’s most fertile and challenging post-Mao period of art production in ways that are stimulating for specialists and general viewers alike. Organized by three experts intimately involved in the history they present—Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian art; Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing; and Hou Hanru, artistic director of MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art, in Rome—the exhibition eschews a strict chronological format. Instead, it strives, through savvy and sometimes unexpected selections, creatively mixed, to convey the ferment of a time in China when liberation was in the air, anything seemed possible, and avant-garde artists, at first little appreciated (and sometimes persecuted) at home, sought to take their place in the global art system. The realization that those times have sadly changed is due in equal measure to a cultural revanchism in the People’s Republic of China and a resurgence of moral provincialism in the United States.
The organizers’ first smart move was choosing to examine the transformative years between 1989 (the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 2008 (the triumphant Beijing Olympics, the financial crash in the US and Europe). For experimental artists in China, this period marked a heady escape from Socialist Realism, an adoption of many Western techniques and aesthetic values, the establishment of a tacit bond between progressive art and progressive social ideas, and the birth of a contemporary art market that soon became voracious. We must recall the new-found boldness that roiled Chinese cultural life in those years in order to appreciate what we are now steadily losing to careerism, nativism (on both sides), and moral provincialism in the US.
The curatorial team’s second crucial choice was to largely avoid spectacle in favor of more soberly conceptual work. “Gaudiness,” “crudeness,” “vulgarity”—whatever term naysayers prefer—is the stick that Western skeptics have repeatedly used to beat contemporary Chinese art back into its proper Second World place. There could be no more “striking” example of this than the critical reception of the Guggenheim’s Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective in 2008, when some commentators cringed at the sight of six full-size, light-tube-sprouting automobiles dangling in the museum’s rotunda and a pack of stuffed wolves caught in mid-suicidal leap against a glass wall on its ramp. The only echo of such visual extravagance in the current show is Chen Zhen’s Precipitous Parturition (1999), a relatively modest (only about sixty-five-foot-long) dragon composed of bicycle parts and woven inner tubes. Suspended high above the atrium and pregnant with toy cars, the work serves as a metaphor for the PRC’s generational shift from pedal power to gas-guzzlers.
One consequence of this curatorial move is a rather strange dearth of the art form that, beginning with the internationally touring show “China’s New Art, Post-1989” (1993–97), most consistently represented the new China to the outside world—namely, semi-cartoonish figurative painting, especially of the Big Face variety. Anyone who imagined that “Theater of the World” would bedeck the Guggenheim spiral with looming visages by Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Feng Zhengjie, and others need hope—or fear—no more. The few paintings actually on offer (ranging from linear abstractions by Liu Wei and Ding Yi to social observation scenes by Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong) are somewhat recessively integrated into a more diverse story of artistic exploration.
That narrative, conveyed through works by some seventy individuals and teams (only nine of them female, accurately reflecting the boys’ club atmosphere of the day), begins near the base of the museum’s winding ramp with a Huang Yong Ping piece bearing a self-explanatory and now inadvertently nostalgic title: The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987/1993). The pulpy mass that resulted from Huang’s action is a physical reminder of the East-West cultural synthesis produced in China in the 1980s, which artists in ensuing years shaped into myriad forms and subjects.
They often did so, many displays on the ascending walkway make clear, as members of loosely affiliated groups—a vestige both of old-style communist work units and of the successful model offered by the Stars, a plucky band of artists who in 1979 hung their innovative works, uninvited, on the fence outside the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, their gesture echoing intrepid activities at the short-lived Democracy Wall.
Thus we find a video showing ten denizens of Beijing’s performance-oriented East Village art slum (further evoked in nearby Rong Rong photographs) as they undress and pile up naked for the self-assertive photo To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995). From the Northern Art Group, based in Harbin, we have Wang Guangyi’s grisaille portrait of Mao seemingly caged behind a red grid. Wang argued that such works, which reveal how squaring up had produced monumental Great Leader portraits (like the one that still presides over Tiananmen Square), robbed that falsely heroicizing process of its power. His 1988 call for artists to “purge humanist enthusiasms” from their works encouraged such developments as the New Measurement Group, the Tactile Sensation Group, and the Analysis Group, whose members translated sensory experience into abstract signs, schemas, and diagrams. Here globalism is deeply pervasive, with the influence of Constructivism, Minimalism, semiotics, and structuralism unmistakable. (Omitted from the show are Wang’s own later paintings, with which he made a quick fortune by juxtaposing Cultural Revolution propaganda images with luxury-brand logos from the West.)
Lin Yilin, a founding member of the Big Tail Elephant Working Group in Guangzhou, is seen in a performance video titled Safely Maneuvering across Linhe Road (1995), moving a small wall across a street, despite traffic, as he matter-of-factly repositions one concrete block after another. Yin’s colleague Chen Shaoxiong appears in a color photograph, sitting in front of a local bar with a tube in his mouth that is connected to a stick-figure cow sculpture made of wood and fluorescent tubes (also in the show). Such works, in their emphasis on workaday materials, procedures, and sites, reflect the metamorphosis of Guangzhou (formerly the Silk Road city of Canton) into a global manufacturing center—the type of high-speed urban transformation typical of the era, especially after Deng Xiaoping’s enterprise-blessing tour of the south in 1992.
CULTIVATED BY scholar-critic-dealers like Beijing’s Li Xianting and Hong Kong’s Chang Tsong-zung (aka Johnson Chang), a number of art movements—notably Cynical Realism (typified by Fang Lijun’s bald slacker figures yawning at the thought of social responsibility) and Political Pop (with its Sots Art–style mockery of official iconography)—also had a tremendous influence in China and a high profile abroad. However, once Chinese experimental work entered the world marketplace, an individual art-star system was inevitable.
“Theater” consequently has a healthy smattering of commercially golden names. Among its numerous Ai Weiwei works are the photographic triptych in which he dramatically breaks with tradition by dropping a Han dynasty urn, and his stark installation recording the names of all 5,386 schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. A small room holds Xu Bing’s cryptic Chan Buddhist inscription in 9/11 dust from New York. Cao Fei’s video Whose Utopia (2006) documents both the daily reality and the
fantasy lives of workers in a Guangdong lighting factory, while RMB City (2007)—the acronym refers to Chinese currency—features her futuristic Second Life avatar, China Tracy. From Zhang Peili (the generously mentoring founder of new media studies at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou), there is a truncated version of 30 x 30 (1988). China’s first-ever experimental art video, it was originally an unblinking three-hour close-up of a square mirror being shattered and then glued back together—a work attuned both to China’s measurement-and-analysis groups and to Western durational works like Andy Warhol’s Empire.
Unavoidably, top-selling painter Zeng Fanzhi is also represented—though not by any of his recent gazillion-dollar landscapes or earlier “Mask” works portraying young urban arrivistes in smooth white-face guises, but by Meat (1992), a deadpan view of two men clad in nothing but underwear and shoes as they stand casually among the carcasses in an abattoir. In light of the animal-treatment controversy ignited by the Guggenheim exhibition, the image reads as an omen.
Overall, “Theater” is a revivifying mélange of the well-known and the novel. The familiar works include examples of meditative repetition and philosophic mind-play like the photo grid of Song Dong sequentially stamping the surface of the Lhasa River in Tibet with a wooden block carved with the character for “water,” and a stage-by-stage video of Qiu Zhijie writing and rewriting a venerable calligraphy-practice text, the “Orchid Pavilion Preface,” on a single sheet of now midnight-black paper that accompanies the film.
But there are also formal and historical surprises. Zhang Hongtu (subject of a recent retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York) contributes several works on paper and a brochure spread illustrating his painting Last Banquet (1989), in which all the figures, from Christ to Judas to the baffled disciples, are versions of Mao. The culture-merging artist is included even though he chose self-exile in the US in 1982, seven years before the period under study. Chen Chieh-jen, born and still based in Taiwan, offers his grim industrial-shutdown video (Factory, 2003)—a reminder that, according to the One China policy that the PRC foists on the US and other major trading partners, the de facto island-nation, once prosperous but now struggling to compete with the Mainland, is officially just a recalcitrant province.
Another unexpected touch is a digital photocollage triptych (shown minus one panel) depicting pulled-out desk drawers that include human body parts among the stored everyday items. The work is by Jiang Zhi, a much-awarded, Shenzhen-based artist better known to Chinese-art cognoscenti than to the larger viewing public. Photography generally gets short shrift in “Theater.” Is the medium too insistently visual for the show’s curatorial agenda? If so, it’s hard to fathom how the social documentation images by Liu Zheng—eerily incisive shots of convicts, sideshow performers, a Peking Opera actor—qualify as more “conceptual” than the cunningly staged scenes of such absent artists as Wang Qingsong, Hai Bo, and Chi Peng. Film and video fare better, with Yang Fudong examining youthful angst in An Estranged Paradise (1997–2002), Xu Zhen focusing on a human back progressively reddened by invisible slaps, Feng Mengbo presenting a chance to interact digitally with his family photos and documents, and Wang Gongxin showing photographs of an 11½-foot hole dug in the floor of his Beijing apartment in 1995 to hold a monitor that played footage of the blue sky in Brooklyn.
“THEATER OF THE WORLD” is a paean to globalist thinking and open US–China relations, as befits an institution that in 1998 mounted “China: 5,000 Years” and “A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China,” and in 2007 sent “Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation” to the People’s Republic. The Guggenheim launched its Asian Art Initiative in 2006, its five-year, eight-show UBS MAP Global Art Initiative in 2012, and its three-show, ten-million-dollar Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative in 2013.
The curators are likewise noted champions of the one-world approach. Munroe made her reputation by, in effect, teaching Western viewers how to see postwar Japanese art with “Scream Against the Sky,” a 1994-95 landmark exhibition that toured Yokohama, New York, and San Francisco. She expanded that purview with “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989” in 2009. Tinari, two years before assuming his UCCA post in 2011, founded Leap, an art magazine then virtually alone in China in its adherence to international standards of critical independence. Hou was responsible—in tandem with Hans Ulrich Obrist—for both the itinerant, continuously morphing exhibition “Cities on the Move” (1997-2000) and the second Guangzhou Triennial (2005); in addition, he exercised solo artistic oversight of biennials in Shanghai (2000), Istanbul (2007), and Lyon (2009), to name only a few of his international efforts.
The premise that pervades these curators’ work, individually and collectively, is that the earth’s diverse cultures are steadily converging, enabling disparate groups to learn from and enrich one another as they gradually become more mutually dependent, more uniform, and more intimately enmeshed in interlocking systems of governance, business, and culture. Eventually their discourse, if not their polities, will be unified, with only local inflections—or, at most, local dialects—distantly recalling the world’s former Tower of Babel confusion. It is a vision closely related to the post-Cold War world order (sometimes described as the “end of history” in an apotheosis of liberal democracy), based ultimately on the notion of a common human nature and a shared set of human values, formalized in the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet there is a caveat. In their catalogue essays, all three curators—most pointedly Hou—argue that true globalism, true multiculturalism, must not be simply the triumph of Western models and mores, casting all nations on a scale of relative “development” or “progress” in some neo-Hegelian fashion. That would be all too close to the elitist globalism vilified by Steve Bannon and the alt-right. Rather, genuine pluralism must be reciprocal, a true blend.
And there’s the rub. If we are to be genuinely global and multicultural, to what extent do we accept culturally specific practices that we find deeply troublesome, even repugnant? Is the Saudi veil OK? Or Mormon polygamy? Sati in India? The consumption of horsemeat in France or dog flesh in Korea? Multiculturalism, so benign in theory, quickly proves to be a minefield in practice. Yet much of its value lies precisely there: the identification of genuine differences, fostering prejudice-breaking dialogue and collective social progress.
That old globalist dream was already under assault on two fronts—nationalistic and moralistic—even as the “Theater” catalogue went to press and the exhibition was being installed. As a result, some of the most poignant items on view are slide-show images of the no u-turn signage that festooned the National Art Museum during the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition—the 186-artist culmination of the ’85 New Wave phenomenon throughout China. Despite being closed down twice—once when artist Xiao Lu fired a pistol at her own installation, once due to a bomb threat—that show has been regarded as a harbinger of the Tiananmen Square uprising four months later and an inspiration for experimental artists who thereafter played cat-and-mouse with officials throughout the 1990s, until the government finally, in the early 2000s, came to see them as potential wealth generators and an international soft power asset.
Those photos are almost painful to look at now, because in recent years—especially since the ascension of President Xi Jinping in 2013—the PRC has undergone a retraction if not quite an outright U-turn from the openness and experimentation that “China/Avant-Garde” represented. In part, the reasons are financial. The 2008 economic crisis caused Western museum curators and art buyers to be much more cautious about acquiring Chinese contemporary art, especially once they realized that its content often remains culturally and psychologically alien, while its monetary value fluctuates wildly because normal market rules are virtually nonexistent in China. As a result, efforts like the massive push that brought 350 Chinese artists to Venice during the 2013 Biennale—many of them inflecting their work with traditional formal and thematic elements—have come largely to naught.
The reasons for mutual disengagement are also in part governmental. Today in China, experimental art is left more or less on its own (except for being haphazardly monitored by censors), while official approval and funding go much more readily to ink painting, academic realism, calligraphy, and even—as the Chinese pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale attested—folk arts like paper cutting, embroidery, and shadow puppetry.
That shift is symptomatic of rising nationalism in the PRC, as the country embraces President Xi’s vision of the Communist Party as the great protector of traditional Chinese culture (which it previously strove for thirty years to destroy) and of Asian economic and political autonomy via the One Belt, One Road policy (which—just incidentally—assures China full access to markets and natural resources from Indonesia to Central Asia to Africa). But don’t be too quick to point a finger. Far from being a Chinese peculiarity, this maneuver is entirely consonant with other global-community-busting trends: the rise of the Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, the Brexit vote in Britain, the Catalonian succession movement in Spain, Putin’s reassertion of Russian dominance over the former USSR, and President Trump’s blatantly xenophobic America First policy in the US. The contemporary world is becoming re-balkanized on the macro- and, as we shall soon see, micro-cultural level as well.
AS IF THESE geopolitical factors were not daunting enough, the Guggenheim found itself subjected on the eve of the show’s opening to a massive assault from the American animal rights movement. In a pattern now all too familiar—following recent campaigns against Kelley Walker, Dana Schutz, Jimmie Durham, and Sam Durant—what began as more or less valid civil protest soon exploded, primarily via social media and online commentary, into fierce moral vigilantism against a museum, specific artists, and art itself.
The Guggenheim fracas erupted when Stephanie Lewis, a New Orleans resident working as a health care software consultant, saw an Instagram message from New York Bully Crew. The nonprofit group, dedicated primarily to saving pit bulls from abuse, had indignantly posted a Guggenheim press shot of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), a performance video in which tethered dogs face off in vain on opposing treadmills. Lewis—who, according to Newsweek.com, describes herself as “not a professional animal rights activist but . . . a vegan who loves animals, as well as an artist”—quickly authored a petition on Change.org, asserting that the exhibition would feature “unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art.” Lewis also indicted Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993), a tortoise-shaped terrarium in which live lizards feed on various insects, and—rather mystifyingly—Xu Bing’s video A Case Study of Transference (1994), which shows a male pig imprinted with nonsense English words vigorously rogering a female pig imprinted with fake Chinese characters.
Animal protection groups such as PETA, the ASPCA, and the American Kennel Club quickly weighed in with supporting statements. (Familypet.com, ironically, included a link to the seven-minute Dogs video, which is supposedly too awful too watch. The footage is also available on YouTube.) Protest endorsement was voiced by such prominent commentators as Holland Cotter, Jerry Saltz, and Stephen F. Eisenman (author of two books on animal rights), their reactions all based on the hard-to-refute premise that dogs are sensate, thinking, emotional creatures, somewhat like ourselves.
Within days, more than half a million people had signed the online petition—the number is now over 800,000—and the stage seemed set for a rousing Culture Wars–style confrontation between sidewalk protesters and resolute museumgoers, free speech advocates and moral crusaders. In classic fashion, critical pushback came swiftly from the National Coalition Against Censorship and from a few writers and artists such as JJ Charlesworth and Ai Weiwei.
By then, however, the debate had already been hijacked by pro-pet radicals who went so far, according to an official statement from the Guggenheim, as to threaten physical violence if the offending artworks were not removed. In this second, more disturbing case of irony, human lives were explicitly menaced in the name of dog, pig, and insect welfare. That threat had to be taken seriously in a country where mass shootings are now commonplace, as a massacre in Las Vegas—some 500 wounded and 59 killed—reminded us just five days before the Guggenheim opening. Faced with this furor, the museum swiftly caved, announcing it would modify or withdraw the three disputed works.
Thus, in short order, the vaunted wisdom of the crowd—if there really is such an oxymoronic thing—quickly gave way to the fanaticism of the few. This shift comes as no surprise to those who remember how, at a much slower pre-digital rate, the antiwar movement of the 1960s was commandeered by its own lunatic fringe. That sinister group dynamic—which enables a fervent, organized minority to override and “lead” a more temperate majority—is one of the principal reasons that the founders of the United States opted for representative government rather than direct democracy. If the greatest enemy of any good cause is a zealot, imagine several thousand of them, now mobile device enabled. You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way a mob goes. In this instance, fewer than one million impassioned petitioners, elected by no one, determined what 323 million of their fellow US citizens now can—or, more ominously, cannot—view at the Guggenheim Museum.
To be fair, it’s perfectly true that many animals live and die in horrible ways in order to nourish a world population of 7.6 billion human beings. Peter Singer has spent much of his academic career examining the ethical ramifications of that wrenching development in primate evolution. And the enjoyment of predation, even at the insect level, was one of the sins St. Augustine agonized over in his Confessions.1 Of course, Augustine’s frame of reference included deadly “hunts” in the Roman amphitheater, a distinctly more horrific affair than anything in “Theater of the World”—though no messier than the mechanized chicken, pig, sheep, and cattle slaughter that currently produces the lunches over which many of the Change.org petitioners undoubtedly launched their outraged posts. (According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, more than 96 percent of the US population eats meat and/or fish.) For those of us who cannot hope, alas, to attain the purity of Singer, PETA, or the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, it’s difficult to understand why pigs shouldn’t screw and lizards shouldn’t gulp bugs—on videotape or in a museum—as they do anyhow, every day, all over the world.
Moreover, it’s clear from various comment threads that a large number of the most highly incensed petitioners did not understand what the Guggenheim actually intended to present: video of an art performance that took place fourteen years ago on the other side of the world, not live dogs panting and yelping under Frank Lloyd Wright’s oculus on Fifth Avenue. Would grasping that fact, or seeing the actual video, or attending the original event have made a difference to the protesters? I can only say that it did to me.
When Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s treadmill piece was shown in Beijing in 2003, it resembled nothing so much as a high-end doggie spa. In a pristine exhibition space, the dogs barked at each other for a while, as dogs will do, then seemingly realized that they were getting nowhere fast and so settled into a brisk running workout. The artwork was then, as it is now, more a matter of media manipulation than physical confrontation. A few large posters and building banners had been put up in key art areas, bearing pictures of a snarling dog or two. Snippets of text and well-cultivated rumors alluded mysteriously to a canine standoff with sociopolitical implications. The press was alerted. (Some reporters may have been paid to attend, which is common practice at exhibition openings in China.) Given that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu were, at that point, best known for their work with human body parts and dead fetuses, a certain degree of trepidation was easily aroused.
Back then in China, the 1997 “Sensation” show and the Young British Artists generally—defying limits with works like Marc Quinn’s bust in frozen blood and Damien Hirst’s split cow or whole shark afloat in formaldehyde—were widely considered models to be emulated and surpassed. The Guggenheim’s curators, for better or worse, have again been notably restrained in their presentation of work from this period. Along with the more alarming performances (a naked Zhang Huan hanging in chains from the ceiling of his studio, being bled by doctors, etc.), they have almost completely elided visual reference to art involving whole or partial corpses, a key aspect of exhibitions like “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusions” (1999) in Beijing. Probably the single most controversial work yet produced in post-Mao China is a 2000 photo sequence in which the artist Zhu Yu purportedly dismembers, cooks, and dines on a human fetus. It is not in the show.
Viewers do find, however, Gu Dexin’s unpunctuated red-character wall text from 2009, which translates as:
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 blind we have beaten open people’s faces
This work, Gu’s last before he renounced art-making at the age of forty-seven, was created for the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square and alludes to “A Madman’s Diary” (1918), a story in which pioneering modernist writer Lu Xun enters the consciousness of a man who believes that his entire society is pervaded by cannibalism.
The “eating” of people under Mao’s regime was both figurative—denunciation, exile, imprisonment, execution—and quite literal in many villages during the 1959–61 famine artificially induced by the so-called Great Leap Forward. (Death estimates center around forty million). How can artists convey the collective anguish of a nation that, within living memory, fought an eight-year war with Japan (1937–45, five million Chinese dead), bracketed by fourteen years of civil war (1927-37 and 1945-49, seven to eight million dead), and followed by the lethally autocratic rule of Mao Zedong (1949-76, forty-four to seventy-two million dead)?2 What conclusion about human nature is one to draw from such a history? Geckos devouring crickets? Dogs woofing at each other on treadmills? It all seems symbolically apt—and comparatively mild.
The fact that the censored works are so metaphoric—the dog piece was originally called Controversy Model—may have led artists and presenters alike to overemphasize their theatrical “violence.” Certainly, the Guggenheim issued a deceptively ferocious-looking Dogs press photo (angled to make the canines look closer together than they ever actually were, highlighting on one what is either spittle or a bared tooth) and stating in some material that Huang’s Theater critters would engage in merciless attrition over the course of the show, while maintaining elsewhere that their health and living conditions would be carefully monitored by specialists.
Whether the decision to censor the three works, which seems to have been made over the curators’ heads, was truly motivated by public safety concerns or primarily by public relations and donor-sensitivity issues, we may never know. What matters most, either way, is that Guggenheim, like the Walker Art Center four months earlier, found itself unable—or unwilling—to justify the ways of art to ideologues. Instead, all living creatures were removed from Huang’s installation, leaving only its haunting, oddly shaped vitrine; Xu’s pig video was shut down; and the monitor for Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s piece now shows only the work’s title. Whether the three works will be restored to the show when it travels to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has not been announced.
One upshot of this travesty is that Chinese people now have reason to wonder if this was in part a racist reaction: Would a Guggenheim show by an animal-using European artist like Pierre Huyghe have drawn the same fire? If so, would the institution have yielded so readily? At the very least, the Chinese government now has one more reason to dismiss as hypocritical any US complaints about censorship in the PRC.
But most ironic of all the situation’s many ironies is that this seething struggle between globalists and single-issue devotees, the art faction and the pet faction, confirms the very point made by the works assailed. Yes, people and animals share a fundamental nature, but tragically—when needs and wants conflict, or when minds savagely contend—that nature is often red in tooth and claw. In that sense, China’s contemporary struggle-of-existence pieces, even unseen, are still doing their job as avant-garde artworks—still challenging assumptions, stirring passions, sparking debates, exposing systems, and revealing half-hidden human truths. These abused Chinese cultural objects are, indeed, a theater of the world—past, present, and future.