Orientalism Persists in Conversations Around Chinese Contemporary Art

In Art and China after 1989, now at SFMOMA, China’s emergence onto the world stage is eclipsed by persisting Orientalist ideas and Western modes of curation.

Yan Lei, “Appetizer” (2002/2018), $100 bill, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art security card, powder, and glass tray, installation view (photo by Sally Ma)

SAN FRANCISCO — One year after seeing Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in December 2017, I am still grappling with not only the presented artworks, but also the show’s reception. Now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Art and China after 1989 continues to raise questions about how the predominantly white art world and white America view Chinese art and, by extension, China and Chinese people.

Although visitors of American and European museums have typically encountered Chinese art within the confines of the Arts of Asia galleries, rarely are they faced with contemporary Chinese art. Instead, they are greeted by jades, porcelains, scrolls, and religious icons created by Ancient and Imperial China that were plundered by Western powers during 19th- and 20th-century imperialist invasions, such as the Opium Wars. During this age of imperialism, museum curation of China served preexisting misconceptions of the country as primitive, inferior, and “Other.” And this museum framework persists. Throughout North America and Europe, traditional museum collections of Chinese art have solidified China in the Western collective memory as an exotic, culturally stagnant, and mystical foil to Western modernism. Art and China after 1989 provides temporary solace from this narrative by depicting China as contemporary and dynamic in the Western art discourse.

After decades of isolationism, Chinese artists working between the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the 2008 Beijing Olympics consider the implications of participating in the international art scene. Yan Lei’s “Appetizer” (2002/2018) offers a glass tray with a rolled-up $100 bill and the word “BIENNALE” spelled out in white powder, standing in for cocaine. Yan recognizes that invitations to major international art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, function as stamps of Western approval and recognition, and warns non-Western artists that this addictive form of acceptance distorts the value of their work by upholding a hierarchy that disproportionately values Western aesthetics. In the updated version of “Appetizer,” a SFMOMA security card replaces a credit card, transforming the work into a direct critique of elitist art spaces, specifically the very institution currently housing the artwork.

Qiu Zhijie, “Assignment No.1: Copying the ‘Orchid Pavilion Preface’ 1,000 Times” (1990/1995), color video, silent, 35 min., ink on paper, 70 x 160 cm, installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

While Yan challenges the reproduction of colonial order in the arts, Qiu Zhijie and Ai Weiwei resist the West’s Orientalizing gaze, which views the East as a body of knowledge to decipher and control. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to articulate how the West “makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West.” In their works, Qiu and Ai block access to China, specifically the Han dynasty. By repeatedly writing a classic 353 CE calligraphy text on handscroll paper until the single sheet turns black with ink, Qiu’s “Assignment No.1: Copying the ‘Orchid Pavilion Preface’ 1,000 Times” (1990/1995) obscures the foundation of Han literati culture into oblivion. Similarly, Ai’s performative and iconoclastic gesture in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) rebukes the West’s fixation on the products of Imperial China while simultaneously alluding to the Cultural Revolution’s destruction of antiques.

However, the objects in this show are still presented through a Western museological lens. Regardless of the content, these works are subject to Western modes of curation, as well as American values in art criticism.

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995, printed 2017), exhibition copy (image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio, © Ai Weiwei)

In “New Beijing,” Wang responds to the 2001 celebrations in Tiananmen Square following the announcement that Beijing would host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The painting’s title quotes the propaganda slogan “New Beijing, Great Olympics,” and visually reminds the viewer of the human rights violations that occurred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square just 12 years prior. Wang recreates Liu Heung Shing’s famous “Beijing—Rushing Students to Hospital” (1989) photograph from the Tiananmen Square massacre, but substitutes the image of two wounded Chinese students with two emperor penguins. By alluding to the Chinese government’s continued censorship of the June Fourth Incident amidst optimism of China’s inclusion onto the world stage, Wang suggests that the “new” Beijing may not be so different.

Nearby, a small reproduction of Liu’s photograph serves as a reference point. But in stark contrast to the minimized and grainy copy is a protruding glass case that displays Time Magazine’s June 1989 issue. The cover, a photograph from Tiananmen Square, depictsa man’s crumpled body and fractured skull lying in a pool of blood and a crowd of men reacting to the gruesome sight. Although Wang deliberately avoids creating a spectacle out of Chinese deaths, the curators re-introduce this trauma by exhibiting the Time Magazine cover.

By offering predominantly white museum audiences a photo of victims of military violence in a third world country, this curatorial decision runs the risk of feeding into the Western perception that tragedy is inevitable in “underdeveloped” or “backwards” countries.

Wang Xingwei, “New Beijing” (2001), oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Before Art and China after 1989 opened at the Guggenheim, an online petition  decrying animal abuse and with over 800,000 signatures led to four artworks being altered or deactivated altogether: Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World” (1993) and “The Bridge” (1995), Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference” (1994), and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003). The public outcry led to multiple articles and think-pieces; in his advocacy of animal rights, Holland Cotter implicated his belief in Western moral superiority: “At least in the West, only those still trapped in the humanist fallacy that man is the crown of creation, with dominion over all, will see the situation otherwise.”

Referring to the panopticon, Huang’s two-part installation was designed to hold insects and small reptiles vying for dominance. Huang introduces the brutality of the natural world into the sanitized space of the museum in order to evoke the violence of the cage that encloses chaos. In the age of globalization, Huang provokes greater inquiry into the structures that entrap us and those who are left unaffected by these systemic pressures.

Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” (1993); “Artist’s Gesture” (2017): presented devoid of living animals (image courtesy the artist), Huang Yong Ping, “The Bridge” (1995); “Artist’s Gesture” (2017): presented devoid of figurines and living animals (image courtesy the artist, © Huang Yong Ping, photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017)

In an encounter between East and West, Xu’s video shows a pig stamped with incoherent letters from the Roman alphabet repeatedly mounting a pig stamped with the artist’s reinterpretation of Chinese characters. The performance, represented at SFMOMA as a blank video screen, serves as a tongue-in-cheek critique of Western imperialism and, as the accompanying object label puts it, “Chinese artists’ desire for enlightenment through Western cultural ‘transference.’”

In Sun and Peng’s video, frozen on the title screen at SFMOMA, four pairs of American pit bull terriers are placed on unstable ground, causing them to instinctually panic and run. Enhanced by the sounds of rotating treadmill chains and paws on wood, the synchronized performance culminates into a scene where the dogs appear to be running to attack each other. The video explores how visual and audio cues (of dogs running) can be manipulated to mislead viewers (into perceiving the scene as forced dog fights).

Rather than engage with the content of these works, critics have dismissed the pieces by measuring the non-Western works against Western art moments and values. While art historians, such as Sarah Cohen, label the pieces as “bad art” for involving animals, other writers scoff at Chinese artists engaging in a “tired, spent, exhausted cliché” that modernists in the West have used long before. By conflating contemporary Chinese artists and their treatment of animals with the practices of American and European modern artists, critics impose a Eurocentric analysis that fails to account for differences in experience with surveillance, censorship, and military violence. Ironically, when writers call for the artists to be placed in the animals’ positions, they forget that all four works depict China’s oppression following brutal conditions — the Tiananmen Square massacre.

False equivalences between these fours works in Art and China after 1989 and Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” (2016) or Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) demonstrate art criticism’s focus on freedom of speech that feigns color blindness. The latter two works involved white artists capitalizing on Black and Indigenous trauma, respectively, and their corresponding communities protesting the white gaze. In contrast, Art and China after 1989 features works created by Chinese artists that received backlash from a specific form of white neoliberalism that repeatedly prioritizes animals over people of color, from the hypocritical moral grandstanding against the yearly Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China, to, most recently, PETA’s equating of “anti-animal” language to racist and homophobic hate speech. Grouping together the Schutz, Durant, and Art and China after 1989 artworks as issues of free speech — as writers at CNN and the New York Times have done — glosses over the unequal racial power dynamics at play.

Although Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World was intended to challenge American assumptions on contemporary Chinese art, or Chinese art in general, the exhibition and the alterations made to the “controversial” works hold a mirror up to the audience to reveal persisting Orientalist beliefs.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through February 24, 2019.

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