A Retrospect into an exhibition during the pandemic
So it is, the middle of 2020. After 6 months of Mother Earth bestowing upon us a not so much welcomed global pandemic first emerging from Wuhan, life in some countries has gradually returned to a new normality, some sooner than others. China, where the virus of SARS-Cov-2, which caused the now infamous COVID-19, has for now seemed to have the beast tamed. Malls are again filled with eager shoppers; night markets are bustling with food stalls; museums and art institutions have been allowed to reopen in spite of a limited capacity. A resurrection is under way.
For many, the whole lockdown experience is less than ideal. Professional artists, for example, are among the hardest hit during the global halt of art fairs and art exhibitions. With the ease of restrictions, some have decided to begin to manoeuvre with the new norm. A Revealing Glimpse is one of them.
I was made known of the exhibition personally by one of the participating artist and organiser, Du Qiurui, a couple of months prior to the opening reception. We were acquainted with each other through a Chinese social website, where I fell in love instantly with the works he uploaded onto the site. Filled with joy, the characters in his works are created often with disproportionately round and chubby faces, seen tightly packed in the restraint canvas space, being it open-air or indoors. The exuberant caricatures, adorned with bright colour dots or fruitjes (Dutch for tiny fruits), resemble the glowing and radiant personality of the artist himself. Despite the portraitures being almost outlandish, the artist himself is hardly dramatic, at least not during face-to-face conversations.
Du’s spirit is well reflected in the poster of the exhibition, in resonance with the title of the exhibition, A Revealing Glimpse. It features a collage creation of the work by Hu Zhouhua and Du, which draws a bold yet witty baseline of the exhibition. The mixture of paint and cartoonish illustration caricature, is a perfect resemblance to the Chinese contemporaneity that has undergone extreme changes in both social and economic structures. Unlike Du’s works, Hu’s works are mostly spray paint collages. The portraits could be seen as a quasi homage to Francis Bacon’s self-portraits, dark, gloomy yet coordinated. The pop of bright colours, which is common in Hu’s works, ties the whole series of works as one.
Also using bright colours, often with a high contrast, Chen Tiange decided to focus less on the constructions of human figures, despite both of her two pieces are about human beings or human society. Her works, side by side, with Du’s works, has somehow materialized into a ying and yang of two sides, coincidentally appropriate for the exhibition.
Ouyang Ru’s The City serves as a refined mitigating piece that the audience would take a glance and smile at. The digital print is a daring depiction of modern life, the hustle and bustle. It is humorous. Yet it is piercing through the onlooker with a chilling and sobering effect: yes, after all we are all going to die.
As one turns the corner, the almost gimmicky, full-body length, marionette like painting is due to catch the attention. The work, I Am Here, by Wang Dongxu, functions unintentionally as a statement piece throughout the exhibition. Some other pieces from this series, 肥皂美男 (literarily translated to A Handsome Bloke Made of Soap), all stand in quite conspicuous locations of the gallery. They are unmistakably huge yet minimal, almost in contrast to its enormous form. The figure, together with the logo of the gallery space, CAMUS, almost mutated into the exaggerated Lawrence Wiener’s 36” X 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard From a Wall, which debuted in When Attitudes Become Form, that set grounds for Conceptual Art. Ouyang’s work, is almost quite the opposite to Wiener’s work, to an extent that is nearly absurd, yet it is not overly decorative or ornamental. The resemblance between A Revealing Glimpse and When Attitudes Become Form cannot be ignored: both are artists lead exhibitions that aim at clearing up the smog, the anxiety and the uncertainty that hangs above the young generation.
And then there is the patio of greens, among which sit peacefully the paintings by Yu Ruoijie. Taking cues from Georgia O’Keefe’s enlarged flowers, Yu has pursued a more abstract way of portraying womanhood. Orientalist would always see Eastern Asian women as the symbol of submission. Instead of intentionally fighting against the stereotype, Yu plays into it. It shows just how powerful an art piece could be by not playing the game of a male dominated society, many a time much more influential and compelling than straightforwardly hanging a picture of female genitalia right in front of the view’s eyes.
The participating artists, mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s, have grown up in a turbulent era when China gradually opened itself to the world. The drastic transition of the Chinese society from a centralised communist planned economy to a market oriented economy, has caused anxiety and pain in the growing up of many young people. Many, including myself, have felt the despair and confusion that came with the so-called proliferation of family wealth, and the multiplication of materialism and consumerism, which has led to a sentiment resembling to the famous Beat Generation era (for a slightly different reason).
There is also a sense of unsettling throughout the whole discourse of the exhibition that comes from the rejection of a white wall. It might seem a benign manner from the curator. Nevertheless, it has recently gained momentum in the curating process of Chinese contemporary art scene. The startling beginning of Chinese contemporary art would frequently trigger the discussion of Chinese modernity and contemporaneity, which unfortunately has its roots in the global lingo of coloniality. China has never been formally colonised, despite several concessions in different cities. However, the idea of modernisation in the form of the West has always been considered as superior. In the Chinese art world, the white wall, which is still the predominant backdrop of displaying artworks among art institutions in China, has been generally considered as the mantra of showcasing high art. This belief has even gained popularity amongst artists that practice mainly traditional Chinese art. The curator, Zhang Ruibo, has turned to the original concrete and marmoreal walls, which purposefully exudes the idea of collision while prompting to maintain its neutral grey that is reminiscent of cohesion. The juxtaposition of the two is the perfect analogy, which would almost come off as a parody of the reality, despite the curator clearly stated in the texts that the exhibition is not a critical political declaration, neither an assertion of power politics, which seems quite a sensical step to take for many Chinese curators these days who strive to survive.
However, art is undoubtedly about politics, of the society, of the environment, or of the artists themselves. Be it the struggles, the confusion, the redemption, or the status quo, politics in art, especially contemporary art, is hardly avoidable, just like some might argue my eligibility to write this piece being someone who has never been at the gallery space physically. But in a world where meetings are taking place in Zoom and Art Basel is offering online virtual tour. Who is to say that I am less entitled to an op-ed on an exhibition after viewing some close shots taken by one of the engaged artists?