Like most of the world, there has been more “Chinese” art appearing in San Francisco as of late. Despite the obvious commonality of each including the work of Chinese-born artists, these exhibitions are all very different in premise and exhibit artists from various generations. Yet, they end up sharing many of the same themes. After viewing these many exhibitions, such as (re)Turn to (re)Form at Mark Wolfe Contemporary, imPOSSIBLE! at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and Mission 17, Yan Pei-Ming: YES! at the Walter and McBean galleries, and now Even in Arcadia at SF Camerwork in a single day, I came away with three words etched into my mind: paradox, modernity, scale.
Even in Arcadia at SF Camerawork illustrates the disparity between representation and reality. Guest curator David Spalding—curator of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing—has brought the work of Wang Jianwei and Liu Gang across the Pacific. The title alludes one to the idea of utopic dissolution, and its sentiment is reinforced as one moves around the perimeter of the room, viewing one chromogenic print of a ridiculous luxury home advertisement after another.
First, in Liu’s Paper Dream (2008) series of chormogenic prints, one sees a man standing at the edge of a curtained window overlooking a glorious futuristic view of Shanghai, with the space age Oriental Pearl Tower and the Financial Center skyscraper piercing a perfect blue sky. Large dot matrix patterns and ghostly apparitions of grey and white creases and folds provide evidence of the advertisement’s cheap paper mirroring its consumptive function.
Another incredulous image of a virtual Venice in China—complete with gondola and whitewashed bridges and archways—appears to be a glossy magazine tear out, crumpled and flattened many times over. In other images from the series, portraits of family members hang next to classical oil paintings of dead white men in gilded gold frames above the fireplace of an opulent living room or library. This particular image displays white Chinese text with romantic flourishes and evidence of the image’s placement within a black and white newspaper below it.
The most outlandish collage of icons of Western luxury and class clash in an image of an equestrian commuter, stopped in a lush green park against a backdrop of yet another golden cityscape replete with high rises. The power and irony of these images would not have been the same had the artist simply pinned battered pages and cutouts of the actual adverts to the walls. Instead, these images of images are twice removed (and blown up) from fantasy to advertisement to photographic art; they are an apropos metaphor for the fallacy of the spectacle or as an astute example of a simulacrum.
In Wang Jianwei’s film Living Elsewhere (1997-1999), one witnesses the daily lives of four households squatting in an abandoned complex of unfinished luxury villas in Chengdu, at the time an up and coming city located in central China’s Sichuan province. Farmers survive off marginal profits and food from their small vegetable gardens in rubble filled lots within the complex. They live off the grid, without electricity or running water, and their impoverished existence contrasts sharply with an ever-present city skyline in the background, over which they narrate their stories of why they came to Chengdu. The bi-level villas—with their strange Western roofs and gaping black holes for windows and doors—relate back to the luxurious buildings depicted in Liu’s photos in stark contrast. Though, poignant moments of humanity probe through the images in Wang’s film when watching a frustrated wife throw herself against the wall amidst a dirt-filled room or neighbors discussing the fragility of their crops.
Wang (b. 1957) is the elder of the two artists and was born into the aftermath of the abysmal failure of the Great Leap Forward and lived through the Cultural Revolution. In that sense, it is interesting that he chose to comment on contemporary China’s socio-economic conditions through a documentary method, while Liu Gang (b. 1983)—who was just a child during the Tiananmen Massacre, chose the same commentary on this disparity through appropriated imagery. The central installation of this “real life” documentary on the core poverty still existent in a rapidly growing almost post-industrial China, within a room lined with “paper dreams” on the periphery, makes a compelling argument for the critical distance that photography and film can bring about in certain contexts.
-Michelle Y. Hyun
Liu Gang, Paper Dream series, 2008, chromogenic prints
Wang Jianwei, Stills from Living Elsewhere,1997-1999, single channel video projected with sound (40 min.)