Looking Back at Future Returns

Yunchang Sculpture

Casting (No. 1), 2004. Performance at Beijing Tokyo Arts Projects (BTAP), Beijing, China, Courtesy Galerie Urs Meile Beijing

While intermittently living, studying, and traveling in Southeast Asia and Japan, I discovered that Western Culture understandably gets reduced to a mere handful of names and faces: Beckham, Gaga, and Bono, for example. But, such cultural distillation works both ways, and it’s regrettably easy to let a rich and voluminous fugue of 1.5 billion voices become reduced to superstar soloists like, say, Ai Weiwei. 

Which is why, as much as I love Ai, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum made the right choice in showcasing 21 lesser-known (in America, at least) rising stars of China’s contemporary art scene. Future Returns features a varied array of multimedia work by 21 contemporary Chinese artists which find ways to explore the often conflicting themes of globalization and national identity.

Yunchang Sculpture

He Yunchang, Nirvana: Flesh, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Future Returns inevitably includes its fair share of aggressively punchy social commentary, generally directed toward the government, which, even after several decades of gradual liberalization, is far less transparent than many of China’s citizens would like. Sculptor Sui Jianguo’s minimalistic One Cubic Meter of Darkness, for example, is a menacing and foreboding iron cube containing a small opening to allow viewers to peek inside, revealing only darkness. Here, Sui Jianguo conscientiously evokes the description of China as an “iron house: without windows or doors,” a metaphor made famous in China writer Lu Xun.

Performance artist He Yunchang uses more flamboyant ways to get his point across. Reacting against the centuries-old Confucian (and later Communist) ideology that systematically valued the individual as less important than the collective whole, He Younchang pushes his body to the extreme limits of its endurance in a series of gritty performances  which, even when here reproduced in photographs and video installations, are excruciating to watch.  Viewers are inevitably forced to consider the intrinsic value of the individual human body even as He, in some instances, literally tears his apart (certainly look him up, but advisedly on an empty stomach).

Sui Jianguo Sculpture

Sui Jianguo, One Cubic Meter of Darkness, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

But the show is not just about social commentary. Some works inventively synthesize traditional technique with modern media, such as Xia Xiaowan’s sculptural three-dimensional renderings of Song Dynasty watercolor landscapes. Painted in successive back-to-front layers on a series of glass panels all carefully aligned and backlit, looking at the image straight-on suddenly reveals the striking three dimensional effect, and viewers look into, not just at, the paintings.

The show is broad, varied, and eclectic, and it’s admittedly difficult to make out a cohesive theme amidst the beauty and the chaos, despite the efforts of the show’s explanatory notes. But perhaps it’s best that way. Future Returns demonstrates the utter futility of compartmentalizing a culture into a series of bullet points, and if viewers leave the show astonished at the diversity of contemporary Chinese art, and they will, then that’s certainly mission accomplished.

Future Returns runs through March 8, 2015.  Additional information and images can be found on the Broad Museum’s website and the website of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art.

By Jonathan Rinck

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