Jar­ring works trace China’s changes since Tianan­men

Even with blood­shed re­moved, ex­hi­bi­tion has dis­turb­ing air

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - By Charles Des­marais

The over­ar­ch­ing sense cre­ated by the ex­hi­bi­tion “Art and China Af­ter 1989: The­ater of the World” is that a rau­cous party, to which you were not in­vited, has taken place. It has a morn­ing-af­ter feel to it: some­what il­licit, and more than a lit­tle icky. opens The Sat­ur­day, show, which Nov. 10, and runs through Feb. 24 at the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, be­gins with a screen-en­closed bridge about 40 feet long. It rises over a table­top cage, roughly 6 by 9 feet. No­to­ri­ously, in other pre­sen­ta­tions, th­ese struc­tures have con­tained liv­ing crea­tures — “spi­ders, scor­pi­ons, crick­ets, cock­roaches, black bee­tles, stick in­sects, cen­tipedes ... lizards, toads and snakes,” ac­cord­ing to the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log — that fight it out over the course of an ex­hi­bi­tion. The crea­tures had but

two cour­ses of ac­tion: de­vour or be de­voured.

Here, how­ever, the cages are empty, as they were at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in New York, where the ex­hi­bi­tion orig­i­nated. They are in­con­gru­ous and creepy; like man­a­cles glimpsed hang­ing on the wall of a bondage fan’s boudoir, they stoke the imag­i­na­tion with­out any need for de­scrip­tion.

Ac­ti­vated with the in­sects and rep­tiles, the cages com­prise two works called “The­ater of the World” and “The Bridge” by Huang Yong Ping. Huang and the ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tors orig­i­nally planned that view­ers, too, would be lim­ited to two choices — to watch or to turn away. They hadn’t counted on a third pos­si­bil­ity: that those of­fended by the sug­ges­tion of such a spec­ta­cle would make enough of a ruckus to shut the piece down.

Af­ter en­dur­ing protest marches and un­told emails, phone calls and let­ters, as well as an on­line pe­ti­tion that even­tu­ally gar­nered more than 800,000 sig­na­tures, the Guggen­heim de­cided not to show the work in its orig­i­nal form. SF­MOMA has cho­sen to fol­low suit.

Two other works, videos of ear­lier per­for­mances, have also been al­tered in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artists, their images re­placed by short texts. Both sug­gest mo­tifs of cul­ture in con­flict. One, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Dogs That Can­not Touch Each Other” (2003), orig­i­nally showed fight­trained pit bulls chained to tread­mills, fe­ro­ciously strain­ing to at­tack one an­other. The other, “A Case Study of Trans­fer­ence” (1994) by Xu Bing, recorded pigs, one cov­ered in non­sense English texts, the other in fake Chi­nese, cop­u­lat­ing as an au­di­ence looks on.

As tit­il­lat­ing as they may be, th­ese works are not out­liers in a more sober sur­vey of Chi­nese art in the years be­tween the Tianan­men Square protests of 1989 and the 2008 open­ing of the Bei­jing Olympics, the stated scope of the ex­hi­bi­tion. To­gether, they might be the core of the pe­riod’s art, as an­a­lyzed by the show’s in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected cu­ra­to­rial trio of Alexan­dra Mun­roe, Philip Ti­nari and Hou Hanru.

They de­scribe a scene throb­bing with a dark en­ergy, rib­boned with themes of dis­ori­en­ta­tion and dis­rup­tion. Much of the most vi­tal work of the time con­sisted of ac­tions that ex­ist to­day only in sec­ond­hand doc­u­ments.

It is, for ex­am­ple, the pe­riod in which Ai Wei­wei, the Chi­nese artist best known to Amer­i­can au­di­ences, had him­self pho­tographed in a de­lib­er­ate act of cul­tural des­e­cra­tion, “Drop­ping a Han Dy­nasty Urn” (1995). It’s the mo­ment when Xu Zhen made the video “Rain­bow” (1998), which records only the sounds and the welts of re­peated beat­ing of his naked back, edit­ing out the hand that strikes him. (We are spared Xu’s “I’m Not Ask­ing for Any­thing” from the same year, show­ing the artist “re­peat­edly throw(ing) a dead cat onto the floor un­til he gives up from ex­haus­tion.”) It is the time when Kan Xuan, one of few women rep­re­sented in the show, made her 1999 video “Kan Xuan! Ai!” It pic­tures her run­ning through a busy sub­way cor­ri­dor, sound­ing an alarm con­sist­ing of her own name, with an ur­gency cre­ated only by her pres­ence.

There are less unlovely works, but even th­ese might be drawn on pa­per by ig­nit­ing gun­pow­der (Cai Guo-Qiang’s 1989 “As­cend­ing Dragon: Project for Ex­trater­res­tri­als No. 2”) or painted in an aca­demic style on a can­vas tilted right by 45 de­grees (Zhao Bandi, “Young Zhang,” 1992). The ex­hi­bi­tion has about one-third fewer works than the New York pre­sen­ta­tion, with fewer than the orig­i­nal 71 artists in­cluded. Even at that, how­ever, it would take a study of sev­eral days to delve into all the works on view and the con­tent of the in­dis­pens­able cat­a­log. For those who might wish to de­vote a se­mes­ter to a mas­ter’s the­sis on the topic, a large room is lined with books and ephemera to aid in the re­search.

Af­ter all that, you would only know bet­ter than you do now how much you missed. It’s not an al­to­gether bad thing to be re­minded that the world and its his­to­ries can, and do, pro­ceed with­out us. You might leave the mu­seum feel­ing left out, be­cause that might be ex­actly what you should feel.

© Ai Wei­wei 1995


Above: “As­cend­ing Dragon: Project for Ex­trater­res­tri­als No. 2” by Cai Guo-Qiang is a 1989 work made with gun­pow­der and ink on pa­per. Top: Ai Wei­wei is pho­tographed “Drop­ping a Han Dy­nasty Urn” in 1995, a de­lib­er­ate act of cul­tural des­e­cra­tion.

David Heald / © Huang Yong Ping 2017

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes Huang Yong Ping’s 1993 struc­ture “The­ater of the World,” and “The Bridge” from 1995, which are pre­sented with­out live an­i­mals.

© Liu Dan / Cour­tesy A. Ya­mazaki and J. Yang

“Splen­dor of Heaven and Earth” is a large ink on pa­per work done by Liu Dan in 1994 and 1995.

© Cao Fei 2006

A still from Cao Fei’s 2006 video “Whose Utopia.”

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