Though the recent frenzy to acquire Chinese contemporary art has cooled with the global recession, the 21st century is still shaping up as a period when artists from the emerging superpower are gaining heightened recognition along with their home nation. For Americans, appreciating this newly popular art entails learning to recognize the iconography of Chinese culture and understanding how Western art traditions have been adapted by Chinese artists. While cultural differences and locality figure in this encounter, so do similarity and universality.
Contemporary Chinese Photography, a small but fascinating showcase at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, provides a moving introduction to key moments in the genre. Twenty-one photographs and digital images represent a variety of aesthetic approaches, subject matter and personalities of the artists involved. Some pictures document past performance art projects, while others capture unconventional glimpses of Chinese culture or conjure visions of the country's future with computer-based techniques. Drawn from local collections and on loan from New York galleries, the exhibit is co-curated by museum director Joanne Milani and David Hall.
The artist whose name probably inspires the most recognition is Zhang Huan. A resident of New York and Shanghai, Zhang has been the subject of international exhibitions since the 1990s, when he developed a reputation as a daring performance artist. Several of the exhibit's most striking photographs represent his best known works: "12 Square Meters" (1994), for which Zhang coated his nude body with liquid fish and honey and sat in a public toilet for one hour, covered in flies; "65 Kilograms" (1994), for which he was bound with chains to the ceiling of his studio as blood dripped from an IV in his arm onto a hot aluminum plate; and "To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain" (1995), for which several naked friends of the artist lay in a pile atop a mountain.
By any measure, these performances would be arresting, even disturbing (and certainly reminiscent of 1970s American performance art by Chris Burden and others). Take into consideration that they took place against the backdrop of coercive Chinese communism and its concomitant lack of freedoms (speech, occupational choice) and their masochism becomes utterly poignant. Ditto a 1998 performance by Ma Liuming, then a collaborator of Zhang's and a colleague in Beijing's East Village — a now-legendary artists' enclave named after the artsy Manhattan neighborhood. In the photomontage "Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall," the slender (male) artist adopts a feminine guise with rouged lips and flowing locks, wearing only his birthday suit as he scales the massive monument barefoot. The juxtaposition of his willful disobedience with the symbol of Chinese historical power is at once titillating and heartrending — part erotic farce, part political protest.
Irony has many different faces in noted documentarian Liu Zheng's photographs of people who simultaneously fulfill and belie cultural stereotypes: a trio of aging opera performers visibly straining to look lively; a pair of tattooed miners gazing dazedly into the camera. (Both invoke the legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson.) The same flavor of listlessness creeps into Chi Peng's, "I F**k Me" (2005), a quadruple self-portrait of the artist seducing himself in a phone booth.
Governmental critique becomes more pointed in the most recent works on view. A 2008 triptych of digital images by Pan Yue represents Mao Zedong's 27-year rule of China symbolically in the form of a "death train" that crashes and breaks apart. (The first of three boldly mimics the appearance of Surrealist René Magritte's famed canvas, "Time Transfixed" (1938) —a locomotive belching smoke emerges from a fireplace topped with an iconic portrait of Mao.) Another 2008 piece, "The Great Third Front #17 (Rotating Mine Pool)" by Chen Jiagang, incongruously places two women at the rim of a steaming industrial vat, creating an improbably ethereal and desolate landscape. Part of a larger series, the image documents (with surreal tweaks enabled by digital technology) changes visited upon the country's once-bustling southwestern industrial center by shifts in economic policy.
Despite the current recession and its effects on the global art market, a fascination with contemporary Chinese art within our own borders is surely here to stay. FMoPA's Contemporary Chinese Photography offers a winning introduction to some of its complexities.