By Lilly Wei on July 10, 2014
“My Generation,” critic, writer, curator and journalist Barbara Pollack’s expansive exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art and the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts (through September 28) salutes the next wave of contemporary Chinese artists, the post-Mao, post-Cultural Revolution generation, all born after 1976 and too young to be part of the tragic Tiananmen Square protests.
As China rapidly moved from an agrarian to a modern industrial society in the ’70s, startling changes took place that once again, radically altered Chinese lives. The exhibition emphasizes how much these artists’ attitudes differ from their predecessors (among the first to garner international acclaim). Pollack says that these artists emphatically avoid dragons, red lacquer, lanterns, pagodas, and other overly familiar, obsolete motifs, although some do refer to them, from a critical point of view—and critical, perhaps, of the audience that expects them. However, the most compelling aspect of the show is that these artists, engaged in a contemporary discourse, vividly tells us about China right now—one of the fastest developing countries in the world with sky high towers, multilevel roadways, and state of the art technologies—in language that is current and international. Todd Smith, the director of the Tampa Museum (soon to be the new director at the Orange County Museum in Newport Beach, California) said it was not at all what the majority of his viewers would expect, one reason he and Kent Lydecker, the director of the St. Petersburg MFA, invited “My Generation” to Florida.
Consisting of 27 Chinese artists (around a third are women, to Pollack’s credit) working in painting, installation, sculpture, video and photography, the show is roughly divided between the two venues, separated into the political and the personal. The first work in the St. Petersburg show, appropriately enough, is a reconfigured, abstracted version of an official Chinese entrance by Zhang Ding, the flanking stone lions or guardian figures replaced by shining circular black discs edged in dangerously sharp razor wire.
Another highlight is Sun Xun’s video animations and his impressive installation of countless works on paper outlining repressive government and policies of disinformation; his recurrent image of a magician performing tricks in his videos is his symbol for the politician. In a nearby gallery, there was also an enormous and beautiful tapestry with high-relief appliqués by Xu Zhen/MadeIn, a mélange of images that is a critique of contemporary art production in China. Another standout is Lu Yang’s technically stunning, colorful 3-D animation of a Buddhist god of wrath, its brain scanned, looking for the roots of his rage, accompanied by pulsing techno-music.
At the Tampa museum, there are several enormous paintings, including Shi Zhiying’s The Pacific Ocean (2011) that is a manifestation of her Buddhist practice. There is also a 20-foot-long white architectural sculpture with a projection by Jin Shan, called No Man’s City (2014) that refers to his artist father’s history during the Cultural Revolution and another installation by the collective Irrelevant Commission in collaboration with their family members.
Photography and video are abundant here, including the monumental photo by Chi Peng that shows a striking fictive city of reflective glass empty except for the naked figure of the artist, his back to us, standing on the monumental staircase before it. There is also a giant grid of photographs of ordinary events in the lives of the duo Birdhead and a series of short interviews with 14 artists in the show filmed by Max Berger, recounting their experiences as artists in China today.
The show is admirably informative, especially for those who are being introduced to contemporary Chinese art. But it is also visually rewarding, the individual works earning uniformly high marks, these made-in-China works, the real thing not a copy.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based critic and curator whose writing has appeared in such publications as Art in America, Art & Auction, and Artnews.