It’s been ten months since I returned from Beijing, but China is definitely on my mind. And how can it not be? With the Olympics starting this weekend, China has been front and center of political and cultural coverage for months: Tibet, the earthquake, mind-boggling new buildings in Beijing... And how about the pollution? I do remember one afternoon last November when I could hardly see further than my outstretched arm, and that was on a cool day.
So, without leaving the comfort of his homeland, what can a cultural critic do to honor the Olympics? I thought about a kind of marathon, where I could extend myself, but not necessarily break a sweat. Here’s what I came up with: a one-day road trip of 150 miles, at 90º Fahrenheit, on half a tank of gasoline. I traveled to two cities and visited three museums. The damage to my pocket was $75, not that much considering that I was able to travel back to the 3rd century BC, to the time of the First Emperor of China.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has pulled off yet another blockbuster exhibition whose title says it all – Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor. About thirty years ago, the Chinese made an astonishing archeological discovery: an enormous Imperial tomb complex containing thousands of life-size statues of soldiers and horses. A trip to the city of Xi’An to see this historical site, the so-called ‘Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World,’ has become a must on any serious cultural tour of China. Alas, I couldn’t make it there last year, so, as they say, “If Mohammed Won't Go To The Mountain, The Mountain Must Go To Mohammed.” At least a small part of this mountain came to us – twenty life-size figures and about a hundred various objects, including photographs and replicas of ancient artifacts. Though it’s not a groundbreaking or particularly scholarly exhibition, it sure is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, with a glossy, oversized catalog full of first-rate photographs and one big surprise that I don’t want to spoil for you.
Only a thirty-minute drive separates the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana from the Sweeney Art Gallery at UC Riverside. I went there to see the ambitious and smartly installed exhibition of nine contemporary artists from China. Though there are some good paintings included, the emphasis is on video and photography. Having seen more than a hundred museum and gallery exhibitions in Beijing last year, I agree with the choices made by Tyler Stallings, who curated this show. Many observers believe that the most original and interesting area of contemporary Chinese art is video and photography – not painting and sculpture, which tend to be rather derivative.
The exhibition is aptly titled ‘Absurd Recreation,’ and that’s exactly what these artists attempt to show in their works, presenting themselves and their countrymen navigating the many absurdities of life in today’s China, with its dramatic collision of past and present. In one particularly memorable video, workers build an impressively tall and long brick wall inside a vast gallery space and then, with great effort, they push and pull until it collapses into a heap of bricks. It’s difficult not to see it as a metaphor for the futility of so many of our human endeavors. The exhibition and its catalog were done in collaboration with LA-based Morono Kiang Gallery, specializing exclusively in contemporary Chinese Art. Currently it presents a show of tough and beautiful paintings by Li Yan which deal, among other things, with political conflicts and the atrocities of war.
Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor
On view at the Bowers Museum through October 12, 2008
Absurd Recreation: Contemporary Art from China
On view at the UCR Sweeney Art Gallery through October 4, 2008
Quotidian Truths: Paintings by Li Yan
On view at Morono Kiang Gallery through August 23, 2008
Banner Image: Video still from The Factory, 2003. Single channel video with no audio; 30 minutes 50 seconds
Courtesy of the Artist