Wang Guangyi, “Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2” (1988), oil on canvas, 59 x 51.18 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

A specter is haunting the Guggenheim — the lingering spirit of a wave of protest and provocation, expressed through avant-garde art forms, that in recent decades dared to address and sometimes defy the heavy totalitarian hand that has ruled China since the triumph of its communist revolution and remains uniquely oppressive and invincible today.

Manifestations of that politically charged impulse, as it emerged in contemporary art from the last decade of the previous century through the first decade of the 21st, and the conditions that nurtured it, are the subjects of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s large, new exhibition, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, which its organizers have positioned primarily as a documentary survey of a particular kind of art produced during one recent period of Chinese cultural history.

In its catalogue, Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian art and senior advisor for global arts, writes that the big show “presents a history of contemporary art from China and the rise of global art discourse” from 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War supposedly ended, through 2008, the year China hosted the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

That event “seemed to announce China’s superpower status to its people and to the world,” Munroe observes. She adds, “No nation in modern history underwent such a total transformation as did China during these two decades, and few shifts have had global impact of this magnitude.” (Munroe organized the exhibition along with two guest co-curators: Philip Tinari, an American resident of China since 2001 who founded the bilingual magazine LEAP and is the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, and the Chinese-born Hou Hanru, who is based in Rome, where he serves as artistic director of MAXXI, National Museum of 21st Century Arts.)

For China, it was a tumultuous era. In 1978, two years after People’s Republic of China founder Mao Zedong died, Deng Xiaoping, who had outmaneuvered his Communist Party rivals to become the country’s paramount leader, announced a bold plan for nationwide economic reform. Its goal: to modernize China at breakneck speed. Virtually overnight, the government ditched Mao’s militant egalitarianism for “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Suddenly, Mao’s “Never forget class struggle!” was out; once-reviled “private property” was in. Beijing granted more authority to managers of state-owned companies and set out to blend a measure of unabashed — if disguised, through ideological doublespeak — capitalism with a centralized economy. As the longtime China-watcher Orville Schell wrote in 1984, Deng recognized that his policy had put “a capitalist fox into a socialist henhouse.” Of that hard-to-square ideological discrepancy, the wily politician quipped, “Black cat, white cat — it’s a good cat if it catches mice.” It is in response to the whiplash-inducing political, social, and economic changes such developments fostered that the artists featured in Art and China after 1989 created many of the works on view.

The show starts by looking back to February 1989, when the exhibition China/Avant-Garde opened at the National Art Gallery in Beijing; a few months later, the government brutally crushed the burgeoning pro-democracy movement’s demonstrations in that city’s Tiananmen Square.

Munroe writes that China/Avant-Garde was “an unprecedented and rambunctious outpouring of experimental practices, including performance art, installation, and abstract ink painting,” in which artist Xiao Lu fired a gun at her own work, two life-size telephone booths; Wu Shanzhuan sold raw shrimp; Wang Guangyi showed painted portraits of Mao with superimposed grids; and, as the current show’s catalogue recalls, Huang Yong Ping “offered a diagrammatic collage, ‘Towing Away the National Art Gallery,’ showing instructions for tearing down the building and all its academic officialdom.”

Also in the catalogue, co-curator Tinari notes that the 1989 exhibition “proclaimed a moment” in Chinese art history “from which there could, and would, be no turning back.” Its symbol became a no-U-turn sign. In retrospect, some Chinese artists and activists regard Xiao Lu’s gunfire as “the first shot” signaling what would become the pro-democracy movement. Its last shots were the government’s, when it massacred hundreds of protesters in June 1989.

The current show focuses on conceptual art that developed in and emerged from China during the period under review. It was mostly such art forms, turning up in biennials and other high-profile, international festivals from the latter 1990s through 2008, that gave the broader cultural world a sense of what Chinese contemporary artists were up to during that time. Thus, the show is big on emphasizing the overseas-exhibition credentials of the artists represented, arguing that, largely through the presentation of such artworks in foreign settings, Chinese contemporary artists broke through and entered the discourse of “global contemporary art.”

In doing so, they gained the attention of Western cultural institutions and media, thereby validating or legitimizing their efforts in the eyes and annals of “global contemporary art,” which, Art and China after 1989 proposes, those same Western forces effectively control. From some vantage points, such acceptance into the “global” art club might seem like a somewhat dubious achievement; after all, “global contemporary art” may be seen as synonymous primarily with a certain, dominant sector of the international art market. Is there something to be said for standing apart?

Some of the current exhibition’s more interesting works are the earliest among them: the self-taught artist Gu Dexin’s “Plastic Pieces — 287” (1983-85), first shown in China/Avant-Garde, consisting of 287 pieces of burned, colored plastic, and evoking a tenuous sense of mortality and decay; Geng Jianyi’s “Forms and Certificates” (1988), a conceptual-art practical joke, in which 32 artists, critics, and scholars, some of whom, Geng felt, had been taking themselves too seriously, filled in a mock application form to participate in an exhibition, a document that asked for their heights, favorite plants, and other goofy data; and, from 1990, Huang Rui’s books by and about Mao, covered in black ink, which symbolically buried the remnants of once-dominant, ideologically strident Mao Zedong Thought.

Other artists also examined different aspects of a bewildering, shape-shifting zeitgeist and its discontents. In Zhang Peili’s “Water: Standard Version from the ‘Cihai’ Dictionary,” a 1991 video, the female news anchor Xing Zhibin of state-owned China Central Television reads a dictionary entry for “water” in the same dispassionate tone she would later use to read the government’s report about the end of the pro-democracy movement — without a word about its violent crackdown. (To make this piece, Zhang paid a contact at CCTV to record Xing; she never knew the tape would become a work of art.) If Zhang Peili’s video is all soulless detachment, “Young Zhang,” a 1992 oil-on-canvas portrait by Zhao Bandi of his friend, another man named Zhang, strives for naturalism in its depiction of a post-Tiananmen, ordinary guy. “[P]ainting on a straight canvas seemed too serious, so I tilted it,” Zhao later stated.

With and without live animals: Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” (1993), wood-and-metal structure, warming lamps, electric cables, insects, lizards, toads, snakes, 59 X 106.3 x 63 inches (photo, left, of past installation ©Huang Yong Ping; photo, right, of current Guggenheim Museum installation by the author for Hyperallergic)

The exhibition takes its title from Huang Yong Ping’s mixed-media “Theater of the World” (1993), a screen-enclosed, tortoise-shaped cage that normally contains crickets, scorpions, cockroaches, lizards, snakes and, other creepy-crawlers that simply devour each other. Due to protests about real or depicted cruelty to animals and what the Guggenheim described as “threats of violence in reaction to the incorporation of live animals” in this work, “Theater of the World” is being shown without them. Similarly, two videos have been withdrawn. One is Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference” (1994), in which two pigs are seen copulating; one is covered with Xu’s made-up Chinese characters, the other with Roman letters, in a symbolic meeting/mating of East and West — get it? — or what a wall label refers to as Xu’s “visceral critique of Chinese artists’ desire for enlightenment for Western cultural transference.”

The other video is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003), in which pit bulls tied to treadmills, face to face and poised to attack, pant and growl desperately, but remain restrained. Concerns about cruelty to animals in such artworks is one thing, but so is their banality. Apparently, these artists never received the memo from modern art’s central committee — the one pointing out that using animals as metaphors for any kind of struggle long ago became a tired, spent, exhausted cliché.

And then there is Ai Weiwei, the sometime political dissident and most internationally famous of any of the “global contemporary artists” to have emerged from China. There was a time when some of his actions were interesting, but more recently his antics have been marked by insufferable bombast and bloated ego, a lethal mix that found its apotheosis in a tasteless, staged photo in early 2016 on the Greek island of Lesbos, in which Ai assumed the same position as the body of a dead, Syrian refugee boy which had been found in Turkey months earlier, washed up on a beach. A shocking news photo of that three-year-old child’s corpse was seen around the world, calling attention to the horrific effects of Syria’s civil war. In his imitation of that indelible image, however, Ai looked more like a beached whale. Nevertheless, the refugee crisis appears to be Ai’s issue of the moment, as evidenced by his new film, Human Flow.

Ai Weiwei, “Fairytale” (2007), mixed media; wallpaper photos of participants in a trip to Documenta funded by the artist, along with suitcases his studio designed for them

In Art and China after 1989, there is a big stack of thousands of Ai’s transcribed Twitter posts (are you listening, posterity?), photos of big Ai dropping and smashing to bits a Han Dynasty urn (supposedly a Duchamp-inspired gesture), and photos, lining one display area’s walls like wallpaper, of the 1001 “ordinary Chinese citizens” the would-be provocateur paid to send, in a “temporary migration,” to view the Documenta art expo in Germany in 2007, along with the suitcases his studio designed for them. By turning them, literally, into wallpaper, Ai strips the participants in his costly — and maybe a little bit cynical? — caper of their humanity. In such trite spectacles — this one was titled “Fairytale” — the subject is always Ai.

By contrast, some of the most humanistic works here were made with very limited resources. They include “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain” (1995), an outdoor performance realized and captured on video by a group of artists from what was then known as Beijing’s “East Village” district of young, poor art-makers who used their bodies as their raw material. In “To Add One Meter,” they lie on top of each other’s nude bodies to create a human hill. In “Kan Xuan! Ai!” (1999), a one-minute video, a young, female artist, Kan Xuan, walks through a Beijing subway-station tunnel calling out her name like some kind of human-feral creature as if to declare — and claim — her existence in a city of unknown millions.

Cang Xin, Duan Yingmei, Gao Yang, Ma Liuming, Ma Zhongren, Wang Shihua, Zhang Binbin, Zhang Huan, Zhu Ming, Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain” (1995) performance (video projection)

Xu Tan, a member of the Big Tail Elephant Working Group, which was active in Guangzhou in the 1990s, offers a kooky-eloquent critique of the whole disparity-producing, mammon-chasing, ideologically twisted, counter-counterrevolutionary orgy of newfangled “socialist” capitalism that erupted in China with the launch of Deng’s reforms. In his installation, “Made in China” (1997-98), languid stuffed animals view mindless images of a dispiriting age in slide shows and on TV while surrounded by a sea of consumerist crap — bottles of cooking sauces, plastic toys and dolls, jigsaw puzzles, balloons, computer parts, a bathtub lined with silver fabric. In the midst of this inundation, a video monitor shows a man holding a microphone and begging as passersby dart around him. “I am sad,” he says. “I am blind. It is fortune in misfortune. […] I am okay to be a fallen soul.”

If Xu’s blind beggar is some kind of metaphor for what the soul of Chinese society and culture has become, despite the nation’s new superpower status, it’s a potent one. Perhaps, not unsurprisingly, the exhibition ends with part of the last work Gu Dexin ever made before retiring from the art world in 2009. First shown in that year, evoking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, it is a group of white panels inscribed with large, red characters that declare:

We have killed people we have killed men we have killed women we have killed old people we have killed children we have eaten people we have eaten hearts we have eaten human brains we have beaten people we have beaten people blind we have beaten open people’s faces

Making the long march up the Guggenheim’s ramps, it becomes clear that a certain kind of art from China may have become more “global” than ever before, but as this complex exhibition demonstrates, for many of the artists who created it, as they wrestled with their homeland’s turbulent recent history, they were unwilling — or perhaps unable — to easily give up its ghosts.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 7, 2018.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...