Once during a 2015 performance, Chinese artist Hu Jiayi precariously sat atop a ladder, her body strapped with potentially lethal knives and hatchets; little wonder that she says viewers typically find her work “sharp.” But “sharp” could just as easily describe many of the other artists in the exhibition Fire Within: A New Generation of Chinese Artists, on view at East Lansing’s Broad Art Museum, a space which, since opening in 2012, continues to host reliably muscular exhibitions of contemporary art from all over the world. Fire Within, which debuted at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, brings together an eclectic group of twenty-seven emerging Chinese female artists (most in their 20s and 30s), continuing the Broad’s tradition of showcasing socially-conscious art while fostering cross-cultural dialogue.
Curated by Wang Chunchen (who also recently curated the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale), the exhibition is arranged under the three themes of Body, Tradition, and Identity. Much of the art is strikingly intimate and unnervingly personal. For example, after undergoing facial bone-reduction surgery (an increasingly common cosmetic practice in China), artist Pei Li created a cast of her newly restructured face; this sits like a sculpted marble bust on a wooden base, and metaphorically speaks to the ways women are expected to adhere to ideals imposed by society.
The topic of conformity is addressed more whimsically in Mi Yuming’s interactive Performing the Third Gender, a playful installation in which visitors are invited to inflate balloons until they thunderously burst (the sound considerably amplified by a Plexiglas box), scaring the wits out of all unsuspecting visitors in adjacent rooms. Inspired in part by Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the installation allows visitors to metaphorically shatter societal expectations and, more literally, shatter the customary polite silence of the gallery space.
Other works grapple with political issues, such as government surveillance or China’s one-child policy (the latter movingly addressed by Zhou Zinshan’s series of abstract acrylic and pen Letters to Heaven). But not all the works here address such weighty content. Gao Sihua’s painted dreamscapes are pure joy, their paint applied so thickly as to resemble a decorated cake. Playfully re-defining what constitutes a painting, Ju Ting applies so many layers of thick acrylic paint onto her canvasses that her paintings become sculptural in every sense; her work transposes color-field painting into three dimensions.
This exhibition is kaleidoscopic and varied in both media and subject matter. A handsome exhibition catalogue (well worth the price, its text is in both English and Chinese) features interviews with all the artists, helpfully elucidating the ideas behind some of the more cryptic and personal works on view. Fire Within is both substantive and challenging, and visitors will encounter a vast array of media ranging from pen and ink to resin and menstrual blood. But whatever the medium, these emerging artists are uncannily honest and refreshingly unpretentious.
Fire Within runs until February 12, 2017. More information can be found on the website of the Broad Art Museum.