China Grapples with its Past, Present and Future, at SFMoMA

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Last month marked the opening of Art and China After 1989:  Theater of the World, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  The prodigious exhibit is littered with three-dimensional objects, videos, maps, paintings, and other items.  Setting aside the crisp, white-walled institutional setting, wandering the galleries prompts a feeling of touring a community garage sale located on a long, fast-gentrifying, city block that’s (temporarily) occupied by squatters, creative bohemians and intellectuals.  The mood is more anthropological or sociological than of high-end art.

The cacophony of expressions reflects the time in which the objects or videos were made, the post-Tiananmen Square protest period marked by a chunky avalanche of Chinese change.  Xu Tan’s Made in China offers a diorama of capitalism, consisting of a sofa, desk, plastic chairs, bathtub, Kodak slide projectors, and other cheap objects that reflect the shiny, shallow and ultimately ugly pull of American-style consumerism, as gobbled up by a population that not too long ago almost starved to death.  Wu Shanzhuan’s Today No Water deploys paper and ink to courageously mock inept bureaucratic messages and management in a country where, even today, criticizing the government can be a grave offense.  Huan Zhang’s 12 Square Meters grotesquely speaks to a profound shift from a world in which Chinese bodies essentially belonged to the state, to one in which each individual can do what they want with their bodies, a liberating, terrifying, mystifying freedom.

The exhibit’s centerpiece, evoking the lurching transition from a nation powered directly by its people to one in which fossil-fueled industrialization, with all of its messy roar, dominates the economy, is Chen Zhen’s Precipitous Parturition.  The piece consists of an 85-foot long writhing dragon created from found materials – bicycle inner tubes and parts; toy cars – choking down bike pieces as it floats in the air.  Eyeing the sculpture as it looms overhead, viewers might wonder whether it will deadweight fall on top of them, felled by a deep case of fast-food indigestion; abruptly vomit up toxic plastic bits; or soar even higher, pedals to the metal.

Ultimately, the exhibition is vaguely depressing, filled with confused, chaotic references to things lost, some of them quite unpleasant, a sudden absence without redemption.  Collectively, it asks a question for which there doesn’t yet appear to be an answer:  what does it mean to be Chinese?  We Americans, in the midst of our own crumbling, creative, crushing culture, may well pose the same question about ourselves.

Art and China After 1989:  Theater of the World runs until February 24, 2019.