Still of Cui Xiuwen’s “Spiritual Realm” (2010) (all images via

Cui Xiuwen is known for her iconic pictures of defiled schoolgirls in lily-white dresses and red scarfs featured in front of Tiananmen-like structures. Miao Xiaochun uses themes of Western classic art and 3D graphics to produce phantasmagorias of Hieronymus Bosch-inspired splendor.

Detail of Miao Xiaochun’s “Fullness” (2008), digital C-print

Though both artists are thoroughly Chinese, Western interpretations of the body ricochet throughout their exhibit at Eli Klein Fine Art, Restart: Spiritual Realm, Disillusion. The body appears retrofitted in tone, ideology and methodology from straitlaced, traditional art school practices of figure drawing meant to serve as the basis of interpretation of the human condition. Cui credits early influences from Post-impressionists like Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in her web bios. Miao offers up inspiration from Bosch, Botticelli and El Greco among others, and uses Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemisas” as background music to accompany his newest videos. Neither of these artists has lived as exiles in the West, though of course they have visited.

Cui Xiuwen, “Angel No. 8” (2006), C-print

Cui is retooling her arts practice by trying to get to the bottom of things, which for her is the nude. In her video installation “Spiritual Realm” (2010), a compendium of 22 black and white video screens of in flagrante delicto men and women she asks what it means to “be” in the world, stripped of anything but the skin one is born with, a stance quite the opposite of her snarky video “Ladies Room” (2000), which was censored at the inaugural Guangzhou Triennial in 2002.

In a Chinese context, “Spiritual Realm” could be perceived as radical work since inside the Great Firewall, where the spiritual is a question best left to the devices of Tang poets whose safety lies in their morbidity, thereby skirting the current political crackdown of anything reeking of ideological heresy to the Communist Party line. In an art world context, it is not.

She is laudably throwing off the conventions of her national identity and core drilling through to something else but there is basically nothing new in her approach, as it has been done before by others in more compelling and startling ways, starting with Eadweard Muybridge’s 1800’s investigations of nude bodies in motion.

Stills from Miao Xiaochun’s “Restart” (2008-2010), video, single screen video projection on DVD, 14′ 22″ loop

Miao has amped up his approach hiring a studio of assistants to execute in painstaking detail his symphonias, “Restart” (2008-2010) and “Disillusion” (2009-2010). He shines when he explores pure graphic line and ink, unveiling his over-the-top adoration of brush, gesture and wash. However, either he or his numerous assistants have become over enamored of 3D effects like the architectural grid and bubble transparency. His human figures, Photoshop’ed en masse resemble the spatial configurations found in the infamously propagandistic Chinese Communist “Rent Collection Courtyard” (1965) sculptural ensemble.

The love of Western classical music is the mark of China’s burgeoning State-encouraged haute bourgeoisie consumer class, to the chagrin and delight of philharmonics world over. The view of the sublime, whose history in Chinese culture runs deep, has been mashed up with Occidental Classicism and Romanticism, and honey-spun through modern technologies. What it really reflects is something more profound than the works themselves; the confusion and perplexity of China’s rising middle class, the return to an ersatz capitalist state, the savagery of a lack of religious choice and the layering of aspirations that straddle the divide between the military Politbureau state and the longings of the human soul. As another contemporary Chinese artist Cai Quo-Qiang said, art’s “role is to help people preserve a distance, to provide a distance for people to see certain issues, events and activities. With distance people can find meaning below the surface instead of taking the work at face value.” And that is evident here.

Restart: Spiritual Realm, Disillusion continues at Eli Klein Fine Art (462 West Broadway, Soho, Manhattan) until March 11.

Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.