Arts Listings

Contemporary Chinese Art at BAM

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM
Liu Wei’s “It Looks like a Landscape” (2004)
Liu Wei’s “It Looks like a Landscape” (2004)
Shi Jinsong’s “Office Equipment-Prototype No 1,”
Shi Jinsong’s “Office Equipment-Prototype No 1,”

This is the first time in its 38 years that the Berkeley Art Museum has devoted almost its entire space to a single exhibition. This wide-ranging show of almost 150 works comprises paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations by 96 artists exploring the history of art in China from its Social Realist propaganda paintings of the ’70s through its explosive changes in Chinese cuLture. 

Some of the installations are very large indeed. In low Gallery B there is Wanda Du’s 33-by-33-foot “Stratégies en chambre” (1998), consisting of tons of old newspapers in all languages thrown on the floor and there are are plastic portraits of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in silent conversation; plastic toys are scattered about, a boy terrorist aims a plastic gun at the statesmen and plastic airplanes and bombs are overhead. 

Zhou Xiaohu’s “Parade” (2003) is about 30 feet long and comprises 3,300 clay figures—soldiers, tanks, in military formation marching in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tianamen Square).  

The first installation the visitor encounters is Yue Minjun’s “2000 AD” (2000) of 25 identical polyester men, with silly grins. The same artist appropriated Delacroix’s famous painting in his “La Liberté guideant le peuple.” Regimentation is signal to the exhibited works as is an egalitarian uniformity of multitudes.  

There is a photograph made by Shuan Hui in 1997 of some 200 artillery soldiers and officers who all look exactly alike, similar to Hai Bo’s photographs of women, whose poses, dresses, hair styles are all the same. There is a color photo by Yang Zhenzhong, showing a hen and rooster with not less than 26 identical chicks. He calls it “Lucky Family” (1999), surely comment to the one-child-per-family law in the Peoples’ Republic.  

Liu Jianhua’s “Obsessive Memories” (2003) is an installation of 25 porcelain women, in erotic poses, lacking heads or arms, but exposing their charms—women as sex objects, as china dolls. On the main floor there is a group of 132 look-alike Neolithic pots, arranged in marching order; several of them do stand out, because Ai Weiwei, has whitewashed them. (I hope that this water-based pigment can be removed from the ancient vases). The poster of the show, as displayed on the building is by Geng Jianyi and presents four cloned faces—all smiling. 

Many of these pieces are sardonic observations about the centralized state power, going back to Mao, which still prevails in the Peoples’ Republic. This principle can be traced back to the third-century B.C. philosopher Han Fei, an Asian predecessor of Machiavelli. The most evocative work in the show is Shi Jinsong’s “Office Equipment-Prototype No 1,” a pristine stainless steel desk, computer, chair—all fearsome instruments of torture, a memorable metaphor on oppressive authoritarianism—high tech going to harrowing extreme. 

But there is also the Confucian tradition of morality, virtue and harmony. An example of this philosophy can be seen in Gu Wenda’s “Myths of Lost Dynasties” (1999), which is a giant calligraph suggesting an imaginary landscape. Also Feng Mengbo’s horizontal landscape which suggest time-honored Chinese landscape painting, but, instead of ink and brush, Feng used acrylic and Veeljet, and in place of a scroll, the artist’s painting is almost 30-feet wide.  

Liu Wei’s beautiful “It Looks like a Landscape” (2004) is not a brush painting but a digital print of naked human haunches and thighs, arranged to resemble a Chinese painting of mountains. Finally, Li Songsong’s “Wonderful Life” (2004) is an exquisite picture, done with thick mostly white pigment on canvas of a group of young people listening to a violinist under a Ming Dynasty arch with barely visible mountains as a background—A truly successful fusion of Asian and western traditions.  

Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection 

Berkeley Art Museum 

2621 Durant Ave. 

Wed.–Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 

through Jan. 4, 2009