A few weeks ago I had a chance to see Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont. It was photographer Liu Bolin’s The Invisible Man series that compelled me to make the drive and to add the show to my list of summer arts highlights during a recent appearance on New Hampshire Public Radio.
Liu did not disappoint. His self-portraits, which depict his camouflaged body blending into various settings around Beijing, were the highlight of the exhibit. With the Hiding in the City series, Liu takes landscape photography to a provocative new place. Whether he is standing in front of demolished building, a piece of Chinese propaganda, or grocery store shelves lined with soft drinks, Liu (with the help of his assistant) finds creative ways to disguise his body with paint and other materials in order to make himself “invisible.”
In 2005 the Chinese government destroyed Suo Jia Cun, the artist village where Liu’s studio was located. In response Liu started the Hiding in the City series as a way of protesting artists’ troubled relationship with the government and their physical surroundings. Through his elaborate photographs, he raises intriguing questions about identity, activism, consumerism, and government concealment in modern-day China. Photographs of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, the Great Wall, and shelves of toy panda bears make clever use of China’s national symbols and raise pointed questions: What does it mean to be Chinese today? Is outer conformity also a reflection of inner conformity? What is the price of a nation comprised of individuals who can observe, but cannot act because of government control?
I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Chinese artist Cai Xi, who lives in Brattleboro and happened to be at the museum showing The Pink Slip Project / Our Meal Table to some friends. Using text, paper, fabric, slippers, garments, wind sculpture, and audio-video collage, Xi has turned the difficult experience of job loss, specifically of receiving a dreaded pink slip, into an art installation and community-based project.
The work has many elements and it can take some time to understand how they relate. As I listened to the audio and read the official letter criticizing Xi’s job performance as a teacher (now transformed into collaged wallpaper, bowls, placemats, etc.), the parts and pieces of the installation slowly came together.
Xi’s own explanation of the project was also helpful. She told me that when she first moved to the U.S., any mention of “pink slips” sounded like “pink slippers” to her. “How cute,” she thought. “It’s like a fairy tale.” Only later did she discover the true meaning, but by then, the association was lodged in her mind. This account from her website articulates what she told me in person that Sunday at the museum:
Pink slippers…also relate to two aspects of Chinese customs: ‘Being given small shoes to wear’ refers, in Chinese, to being treated badly by the boss. On the other hand, ‘Hanging up shoes on the wall’ auspiciously protects the dwelling
An important component to the Pink Slip Project is Our Meal Table, “an ongoing confidential gathering over a meal for participants to share personal troubles about their workplace.” (Anyone interested in attending Our Meal Table gatherings in Brattleboro, Vermont, can find out more here.)
“As an immigrant coming to settle in a foreign country, there was the feeling of being a social outsider,” says Xi. “This feeling was ongoing until the experience of being rejected through the ‘pink slip’ communications. Paradoxically, the rejection was the catalyst for at last becoming recognized as a part of the society. There was never so much attention during previous work years as this past year of ‘pink slip’ experiences. It was as if being invisible for years, and now, becoming visible through the rejection process.”
My favorite part of Xi’s installation was the outdoor “wind sculpture,” which the artist created out of delicate slips sewed from bright pink fabric. While the collaged letters and video provide some explanation about the project, the simplicity of the pink slippers and pink slips were the most effective visually. You can see a glimpse of Xi’s piece, currently hanging outdoors at the Brattleboro Museum, in this video, which I shot during my visit…
Also in the South Gallery, the remarkable craftsmanship of Li Hongbo and Wang Lei are not to be missed. Li Hongbo’s Cultured Man (2012) constructed entirely of newspaper, makes clever use of found materials. The sculpture is more striking when standing, but unfortunately, an upright pose doesn’t allow the viewer to appreciate the startling volume and intricate work that comprises Cultured Man.
Wang Lei’s Colorful Clothes, made out of woven rice paper, were also memorable. They were so beautifully constructed that it was hard to believe they weren’t made of fabric. Touching the garments might have provided a clue to the unusual quality of the material, but since this wasn’t allowed, I relied on the text panel to tell me that, “Yes. Despite appearances, these intricate garments really are made of paper.” This left me wondering if the pieces might have been even more effective, though less beautiful, if the paper were more recognizable. Regardless, Wang’s garments, constructed of rolled, twisted, paper yarn, are a nod to imperial robes once worn by Qing dynasty emperors and their elites. Also, in China paper clothing is made and burned as an offering to the dead. Wang’s striking works create a compelling dialogue between contemporary and traditional Chinese art.
Zhuang Hui was another artist who caught my eye. His Group Portrait Series was particularly fascinating. It’s the strange juxtaposition of vintage photographic format with contemporary subject matter, combined with the sheer expanse and detail of these portraits, that held my attention. I only wish there had been more information about the series available to museum-goers. While the photographs were powerful in and of themselves, I was eager to know more.
After the show, my online research uncovered this description of Zhuang Hui’s work:
In 1997 Zhuang began a series of group portraits with an antique banquet camera that requires arduous preparation and that produces an elongated horizontal image. The groups he photographed were sometimes as large as 350 people. Each photograph was inscribed with the name and location of the group as well as the date of the photograph. Shuangyuan Energy Source Construction Company, 26 March 1997 shows hardhatted workers posed in front of a nuclear reactor. In each of these photographs the artist himself stands at one end of the group, helping to confound the boundaries between group portraiture and self-portraiture.
Other high points from the exhibit included Han Yajuan’s pop-art painting and sculpture, Cui Xiuwen’s Existential Emptiness No. 8, and Wang Quingsong’s Beggar, which shows the artist’s flair for the dramatic. Here is Wang’s own description of the photograph’s origins (shown above):
The most striking thing in the streets of Beijing is that we often see beggars loiter around foreign embassies and consulates where rich people of Chinese or foreign descent, come and go. The beggars ask for small change. When I came to Beijing and saw such a weird thing in 1993, I felt very depressing. So I did a performance, called Beggar (1993-1994). For three days, I walked on the street in Sanlitun, where foreign embassies and bars were located, and asked for money from foreigners only and did not give any reasons when they asked. However, I failed. I did not get any money. I did not get any sympathy either. In 2001, I reshot this memory through the shutter of camera and called it Beggar. However, by 2001, my perspective was different. Besides the value significance we give to paper currencies, I also want also to satirize the pompous attitude the rich give to the poor. This is the situation occurring with China’s growing gaps between the rich and poor.
Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art is exactly what it says it is—“a taste.” Curator Mara Williams has put together a small, but rich, selection of contemporary Chinese art.
The themes of image and identity, environment and politics, and the reinterpretation of artistic tradition bind this diverse collection of works together. As Williams says, “China’s leading intellectuals and artists are questioning, probing, exploring, pushing back against, and even outright condemning an official policy of growth-at-all-costs. Who is in/who is out? Who wins/who loses? What is gained/what is lost? What is fair? What is the common good? What are human rights? Human dignity?” What is traditional in China today? What is new? There are no easy answers, but at least contemporary Chinese artists are posing these important questions.
The show, including Liu Bolin’s The Invisible Man, is on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center through June 23, 2013. You can find out more details about visiting the museum at their website.
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