Here in the West, we all have our own ideas about contemporary art from China. An image of an art scene that has been orientalised, fed to us through exhibitions that pop up from time-to-time, conflated with ideas about a booming Chinese art market, and that conform to a very narrow stereotype about life and politics in a country that is almost as big and as populous as the United States. In a new exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery, curator Victor Wang presents an exhibition that aims to subvert the understanding of contemporary art in a Chinese context in Afterimage: Dangai Yishu – the Chinese phrase for “Contemporary Art”.
Spanning two locations, Wang’s exhibition brings two generations of Chinese artists into conversation with one another. A group of artists born during the 1960s Cultural Revolution, along with those who came of age in the 1990s under the socio-political reforms of Deng Xiaoping, where China exerted its economic prowess, with their artworks in dialogue with each other seamlessly.
Afterimage is an immersive exhibition, with walls and floors completely covered in art. Lin Tianmiao’s Protruding Patterns (2014) invites the viewer onto a carpet covered in pink, red and orange words, protruding out of carpets made using the traditional Chinese practice of thread weaving. In front of the carpet, a woman dressed in black, with white make-up covering her face, lights a cigarette as she strides into the exhibition. The sculpture, by Xiang Jing, is entitled Whole Dark (2005) and seems to be an extension of the carpet piece. The textile is covered in text – which appears in both English and Chinese – including phrases like “Beauty Queen” and “The Toxic Woman” – evidently with some heavy female connotations. On the wall beside it, another work, Interconnectedness 1 and 2 (2019) – is also made up of textiles. It is more minimalistic, less fabric heavy, and free of test, though what it is trying to communicate is not as clear. Though I read it as a sign advocating for a more relaxed approach to ideas of femininity and beauty.
The pattern and layering in Tianmiao’s carpet is also seen around the corner in aajiao’s 404 (2007), where the artist invites its audience to ink-roller the number “404” in black ink onto a white wall. “404” is the message that appears in your Internet browser when you have been blocked from a website, and the work is a comment on the heavy use of Internet censorship in China. From this room infested in numbers, viewers peer outside to see the remnants of Li Binyuan’s Breakdown (2019) performance, a pile of bricks that had been smashed by the artist for six hours with a hammer. While the message is not clear, seen in conjunction with the Internet firewall, it may signal that what we have been blocked from may have already been destroyed.
The mass-repetition of Tianmiao’s 404 is also replicated in Wang Youshen’s Newspaper/Interior decoration (1993-2019), a recreation of the covering of an entire section of the Great Wall of China with newspaper pages. A commentary on the power of words, the result is striking, especially when exhibited beside photographs of Youshen’s in-situ installation in China.
This element of history being repeated in the newspaper installation carries through to Yu Hong’s on-going self-portraiture series Witness to Growth (1999-ongoing). Across a number of diptychs, the artist presents an image of herself – be it painting or photography – beside images from a newspaper story of the same time. In one image, a 26 year-old woman can be seen cutting her hair alongside a photograph of a scene from a film, whilst in another a young girl is pictured alongside an image of what looks to be a military parade.
Other memorable works include Zhao Zhao’s video portraits of Uighur families in Xinjiang. The film Xinjiang (2018), sheds light on a Muslim ethnic minority living in North-West China, and is also a quiet reminder – without explicitly saying so – of the one million Uighurs currently being held in internment camps in the region.
As we were greeted into the show by Xiang Jin’s woman dressed in black, we are later faced with another woman collapsed on a bed. Slipping, Ticktock, Ticktock (2005) shows the figure, exhausted, in modern dress. But what has caused her to be so tired? Perhaps it is in reaction to the confused understanding of what Chinese contemporary art is. Victor Wang’s exhibition aimed to show that Chinese artists can no longer be defined by geography, insisting that transnational identities should be considered within an expanding global art network. In an exhibition that touches on politics, media and gender, Wang succeeds in his endeavor to present contemporary art from China as layered, nuanced and dare I say, complicated.
Afterimage: Dangdai Yishu is on display at Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street and 67 Lisson Street, London until 7 September 2019