Wastelands: contemporary Chinese art at OVADA

cai yuan untitled
I went exploring this weekend to a warehouse in a less-than-popular part of Oxford, to see a show of contemporary Chinese art. The space is run by OVADA – the Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency – and the show was Wastelands, a group exhibition around themes of consumption and waste.

I enjoyed the colourful contributions from Cai Yuan (b. 1956), who also co-curated the show. His large untitled installation uses cut sections of cardboard boxes painted in bright acrylics, suspended in the air and cascading over the floor in wasteful abandonment.

In his ISMS series, he presents single-colour panels, the paint lightly inscribed with words ending in –ism. I was expecting mainly political vocabulary, but it ranges much wider: for instance, “narcissism, sensualism, materialism, hacktivism, globalism, romanticism …”. The panels are arranged in pairs, so you can’t help but puzzle over them, wondering why A has been paired with B and so on.

Text is also foremost in Labels of Desire by Wessieling, comprised of placards with phoney fashion-industry labeling designed to prod your social conscience, such as “Made in Italy, Sewed by Chinese”. This reminded me a little of the Xu Bing installation Backbone, seen during my visit to LACMA, which used the visual cue of tobacco stencils to focus our attention on the plight of workers in the tobacco industry.

Other works include a baffling hotel-themed installation by Hua Mao First Floor Collective, and a deeply unwholesome film with zombies by Cao Fei (b. 1978). I confess I was left underwhelmed by the Ai Weiwei contribution, a film called Ordos 100 (2012) that documents architects trying (and failing) to build a new city in inner Mongolia. I didn’t have time for a full viewing, but the pace felt slow and the action stilted.

Overall, a show that I really wanted to see but then wasn’t fully convinced by.

OVADA, Oxford
17 July to 9 August 2015 (now closed)

You can view the film Ordos 100 on YouTube.

Above: Cai Yuan, Untitled, 2015. Acrylic on cardboard. Photo: SF.

Below: Cai Yuan, ISMS Series, 2015. Oil on canvas. Photo: SF.
cai yuan isms series
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (left of photo). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (detail). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire detail v2
Below: Sun Yi, Untitled, 2015. Wires and nails on board. Photo: SF.
sun yi untitled

Travels in California, part 6: Xu Bing at LACMA

brush xu bing

We had limited time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so our visit was short but very sweet – in particular, this show by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (b. 1955), which was the first thing we saw. I covered the Xu Bing show at the Ashmolean in 2013, so it was fascinating to spend more time in front of his work and to see it in a different presentation.

As before, there was a strong emphasis on the written word and actions related to it – writing, printing, calligraphy. For instance, a series of very striking images based on the hand holding the brush, in two sets of woodblock prints, Holding the Brush and Softening the Brush.

But where the Ashmolean focused on works on paper, LACMA offers a more diverse body of work. There is a piece from his Silkwork Book series, for which he raised live silkworms and made them spin silk over books instead of into cocoons. The book in question is a model book of calligraphy by famous scholar Yan Zhengqing (709-785).

The installation Backbone, taking up most of one wall, builds a text from words found in 19th century tobacco stencils, printed on cigarette paper. In an interesting collaboration, the words were used by René Balcer to create a free-verse blues poem, honouring the African American women who worked in the tobacco industry. You listen to one while viewing the other.

Perhaps the most spell-binding work here is The Character of Characters, an animation that portrays the evolution and simplification of Chinese characters, explored in tandem with social and political developments in China itself.

This brings to an end my series of posts on the fabulous Asian art that I saw in California.  If you are interested, do take a look at my earlier posts on three exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco – Seduction, The Printer’s Eye, and Tradition on Fire.  There are also my before and after posts on the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco, and my post on surprise Korean ceramics where I least expected to see them.

The Language of Xu Bing
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA
20 December 2014 to 26 July 2015

You can view part of the animation on YouTube.

Above: Xu Bing, detail from Holding the Brush, 1996. Woodblock print. The Carolyn Hsu & René Balcer Collection. Image at http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/xu-bing.

Post Pop at the Saatchi Gallery

ai weiwei sofa in white

I was last at the Saatchi Gallery for the Korean Eye show in 2012. But I was no less intrigued by their current offering, which looks at the spread of the Pop Art movement, especially its impact on the Soviet Union and China.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with artists from East and West shown side by side. But an artist can cover multiple themes, meaning different works by the same artist end up at opposite ends of the exhibition.

From Ai Weiwei (b.1957), we find Sofa in White (a marble armchair) under the “Habitat” theme, while Coloured Vases (Han dynasty vases covered in spray paint) is assigned to the “Art History” theme. I enjoyed comparing this presentation of his work with the Blenheim Palace exhibit of 2014, which featured some similar pieces – they had more visual impact in the all-white exhibition space but they felt less playful somehow.

Artists from China and Taiwan feature prominently in the section on “Advertising & Consumerism”. Wang Guangyi (b.1957) in his Great Criticism series combines Western consumer brands such as Benetton and Swatch with Chinese propaganda images, intimating their similarity of purpose. Michael Lin (b.1964) in his large acrylic paintings focuses on the presentation of individual Chinese brands, evoking the seductive power of marketing.

Also popular were the themes of “Ideology & Religion”, where Christian iconography butts up against Communist propaganda. I was drawn, though, to something more contemplative – Confucius’s Confusion, by Mei Dean-E (b.1954), a large textile piece in which the man’s beard flows out across the floor in great piles of white and black thread. There was one truly unnerving piece in this section, but by Russian artist Sergey Shutov, so I shan’t spoil the surprise.

This is a stimulating show, no question, but moments of aesthetic delight are rare. One notable exception is the installation United Nations – Man and Space by Gu Wenda (b.1955), best described as a huge cloth pavilion made of flags, where each flag is rendered from skeins of human hair. I’m not clear why this is Pop Art, but the lighting is just magical.

Post Pop: East Meets West
Saatchi Gallery, London
26 November 2014 to 3 March 2015

Above: Ai Weiwei, Sofa in White, 2011. Marble. Private collection. Photo: STF.

Below: Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases, 2007-10. Han dynasty vases and industrial paint. Photo: STF.
ai weiwei coloured vases

Below: Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Swatch and Great Criticism: Pop, 1992. Oil on two canvases. Overall dimensions: height 250cm; width 360cm. Photo: STF.
wang guangyi great criticism

Below: Michael Lin, Yunnan Puer Tea, 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Height 300cm; width 200cm. Leo Xu Projects. Photo: STF.
michael lin yunnan puer tea

Below: Mei Dean-E, Confucius’s Confusion, 2003. Installation, mixed media. The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: STF.
mei dean-e confucius's confession

Below: Gu Wenda, United Nations – Man and Space, 1999-2000. Human hair, white glue, burlap. Photo: STF.
gu wenda united nations

Contemporary Korean art at the Saatchi Gallery

140123 Meekyoung Shin vases 2012

I spent this morning on a visual rollercoaster ride, taking in the work of 33 contemporary Korean artists selected for the Saatchi Gallery’s new show, Korean Eye 2012. Hard to sum up, but plenty to intrigue and startle the visitor, or even raise a covert smile. Monolithic sculptural pieces are a recurring theme: Lee Jaehyo’s great sphere, its surface formed from a mosaic of log-slices (“0121-1110=107041”, 2007); Kim Byoungho’s giant silver tinsel ball, emitting gentle pinging sounds (“Soft Crash”, 2011); You Myung Gyun’s dark, looming mass of sculpted newspaper, strung from the ceiling like a side of beef (“The Floating World”, 2005). Elsewhere, a playfulness emerges: Choi Chongwoon’s cup of English tea on a small wooden table, with motorised miniature whirlpool (“A Storm in a Teacup”, 2006); Meekyoung Shin’s entire gallery of replica vases, each moulded from coloured soap (“Translation Vases” series, 2011). I arrived without preconceptions and left enthused.

Korean Eye 2012
Saatchi Gallery, London
26 July 2012 to 23 September 2012
The link above is to the Saatchi Gallery website; see also the Korean Eye website for more detailed information.

Above: Meekyoung Shin, Translation – Vase Series, 2007-ongoing. Photo: STF. As shown at Korean Eye 2012 at the Saatchi Gallery.

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective finished in June but I feel somehow bound to include it: compared with the Yoko Ono show, it seemed crazy and eye-popping.  We might debate whether this is “Asian Art” but I shall be inclusive.  Both came from wealthy Japanese backgrounds: Kusama’s family was in seed-production, Ono’s in banking.  Both came to prominence in the 1960s and spent time in New York, although Kusama returned to Japan in 1973.  The Kusama show was very large: fourteen galleries, six decades of work, media ranging from paint and video to soft sculpture and macaroni (yes, macaroni).  I was captivated above all by the installation Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life.  A walkway leads through a darkened room, every surface a mirror.  The space is filled with tiny lights, reflected to infinity and changing colour constantly.  It is like a magical seascape at night – enchanting, exhilarating.

Yayoi Kusama
Tate Modern, London
9 February 2012 to 5 June 2012 (now closed)

See also the Guardian’s brilliant photo series Seeing Spots: Yayoi Kusama Exhibition at Tate Modern

Yoko Ono at the Serpentine Gallery

Yoko Ono’s first room is compelling.  Black-and-white film footage of a human eye and a burning match; military helmets hung upside-down, with jigsaw pieces inside; three mounds of earth with a sign “War is Over”; evocative soundtrack of a hawk’s cry.  The curating is terrific, different works brought together to inspire contemplation and yearning, the futility of war contrasted with the human need to observe and experience.

The show features some iconic films, including old and new versions of her performance work Cut Piece, where people cut strips from her clothing.  Also Bottoms (1967): “Ooh, it’s a naked bottom!” exclaimed a visitor; the attendants rolled their eyes.  But the walls of the show are peppered with sentences that seem more bland than whimsical, and a clear plastic maze that photographs well proves pretty dull to walk through, especially if you saw the Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern earlier this year.

Serpentine Gallery, London
19 June 2012 to 9 September 2012