It’s not often I get excited about the significance of an exhibition, and while Image History Existence is not perfect, I believe it is an important show in the issues it brings into play and in the constructive fashion with which it deals with them.
This survey show celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the art collection of Taikang Life, one of China’s top insurance firms, founded by Chen Dongsheng (previously founder of China Guardian Auctions). Chen has put together a rather remarkable collection of artworks, covering a broad range of periods in Chinese modern and contemporary production.
This exhibition is straightforwardly divided into three semi-chronological sections: “Revolution and Enlightenment,” covering the early period of China’s modern history from 1942 until 1989, and symbolically bookended with artist Xiao Lu’s controversial installation Dialogue (discussed further below); “Pluralist Patterns,” which addresses the ’85 New Wave movement and its aftermath up to the present day; and, “Extended Vision,” which marks a shift in methodology from collecting existing work to commissioning new works from emerging artists through the 51m2 Project Space, part of the organisation’s non-profit Taikang Space.
The very first room “Revolution and Enlightenment” mainly holds older pieces following the Socialist Realist tradition of works in the service of the Party or the people, including well-known photographs or painted portraits of Chairman Mao by Wu Yinxian and Jin Shangyi respectively, as well as archetypes of the “Chinese people” by Jiang Zhaohe. Chen Yifei’s huge canvas Eulogy of the Yellow River from 1972, displays an uncomfortable conjunction of painterly styles in this iconic image of a soldier standing on a rocky promontory high above the Yellow River. But the real interest (for me) is in the combination of these ultra-orthodox works with Xiao Lu’s Dialogue (1989), an inclusion apparently insisted upon by Chen. The term “revolutionary” suddenly opens up to alternative readings in this room.
Xiao Lu’s installation of two telephone booths with collaged elements has become significant as symbolic of wider events in 1989. Upon its first installation in the very same building where it is making its current reappearance, the artist completed the work by firing into it several shots from a pistol, which succeeded in getting the exhibition as a whole shut down. This exhibition marks something of a coming-out for Chinese contemporary art in such a national-level institution, Xiao Lu’s action undoubtedly boosting its significance. This action has become inextricably linked with subsequent events in Beijing that year and has taken on a mythical status in Chinese art history.
The deliberate inclusion of this one “difficult” piece has led to an interesting dynamic with the state institution. However, although Dialogue appears as an uncomfortable presence within this show, I would suggest the fact of its inclusion (and lack of obvious consequences) confirm that the tension that the piece exemplified is now defused. This says a lot about current attitudes to the work, and I wonder what that means about attitudes to China’s recent history.
The other significant point of interest in this show is the inclusion of the newly commissioned works from 51m2 Project Space. From 2009 to the beginning of this year, 51m2 presented a series of uncurated solo shows of emerging Chinese artists, the works of thirteen of them entering the Taikang Collection, and a selection of which are now presented in this show.
I think that 51m2 has provided the most consistently interesting presentations of new art in Beijing over the past few years. The selection of artists and the subsequent works created have been of a consistently high quality, and the support that the gallery has given them has led to some excellent opportunities for the artists to concentrate on new developments in their work or larger installations than would otherwise have been possible. I would pick out the shows in the space by Wang Yuyang, Ma Qiusha and Hu Xiangqian as providing particularly interesting possibilities for looking at the artists’ work anew, and Liu Chuang and Xu Qu’s works for diverse and poetic readings of the city.
It is perhaps a shame then that the weighty presence of Dialogue distracts from the other works in the show, which are equally worthy of attention. But this distraction is partly mollified by the calm approach to the exhibition overall. Dialogue’s inclusion in the first room perhaps serves to get that particular issue out of the way early on, leaving the audience open to the other works. The production of a scholarly door-stop of a catalogue with high production value, also shows a level of responsibility towards the collection, placing it effectively into history.
On top of its value as a presentation of important works of art, this show is at the same time a case study in the successful development and positioning of a collection. Within the publicity for the show the subtext of the wider social responsibility of collecting is emphasised and Chen Dongsheng promotes this exhibition as a practical example to that effect. The culture of collecting contemporary artworks is still in its early days in China and this show goes a long way to address this issue.
Image History Existence is a result of a strong collector, an inspired curatorial team, and a great set of artworks. This synergy has created a remarkably complex show to interpret, but one which I hope will lead to more awareness and participation in the collection and development of contemporary art in China.
(All images courtesy of the National Art Museum of China and the artists.)