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Plane of Existence: The center panel from Zhou Tiehai's 'Civilization.'

East vs. West

Avant-garde Chinese artists take on Western notions of politics and culture in 'On the Edge' at Stanford

By Michael S. Gant

BY ALL indications—trade, oil consumption, entrepreneurship, pollution—the 21st century looks like China's turn to be a superpower. The portents are vividly displayed in a new show of avant-garde Chinese artists at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. Feeling released from decades of isolation, the new generation of Chinese artists is engaging the West in a contentious dialogue about the global politics of statecraft—and, more deadly even, the politics of the world art culture.

The artists represented, half of whom live in China and half abroad, tackle the West on several fronts. Xing Danwen's large, striking chromogenic prints from her disCONNEXION series zero in on the electronic detritus of the computer age. Taken in a Chinese province where computer trash shipped from the United States and Japan is recycled, the photos are dense with cords, wire and shattered circuit boards. These are the midden heaps of a modern gadgetized society.

Most Americans have probably already forgotten the flap over the capture of a U.S. Navy spy plane in 2001, but the incident looms large in the Chinese consciousness, especially since the government took advantage of a natural surge of nationalism to promote anti-American demonstrations. Eventually, the Chinese insisted that the plane be disassembled before returning it to the United States.

Huang Yong Ping's ongoing Bat Project details in text and photos the artist's provocative suggestions for alternative ways of deconstructing the offending aircraft. The proposal was initially accepted for a French-Chinese sculpture event in Shenzhen, but quickly turned into a minor international dustup, with Chinese, French and American representatives nervously distancing themselves from the idea.

In a more contemplative mood, Zhou Tiehai's acrylic Civilization (2004) subsumes the spy plane into a narrow horizontal triptych that recalls early Chinese paintings in its gentle monochromatic calm as the plane flies low over an endless horizon of eternal ocean waves.

This strategy of combining the past with the present turns up in two pieces that address Western art rather than Western politics. Zhang Hongtu has applied some familiar techniques from Impressionism to traditional Chinese scroll paintings with superb results. Shitao—van Gogh #7 employs the thick, agitated brush strokes and vibrant colors of van Gogh to elaborate on a sheer mountainscape by a traditional 17th-century Chinese scroll painter. The exercise does justice to both artists.

A strong push-pull of indepen-dence from and dependence on the nexus of dealers, museums and international shows that sets the price points for modern artists obsesses some of the participants in "On the Edge." Despite a higher profile in recent years, many of China's younger artists still feel as though they are being shut out of their rightful spot in the global art mart. Yan Lei's mock poster May I See Your Work? depicts a scary panel of Western art curators (all male) whose evaluations can make or break an artist.

Frustrated by the exclusion, in 1999, of Chinese artists from a large German art exposition, Hong Hao and Yan Keo invented a special Chinese section of the "Documenta" show and sent out mock invitations to artists. It is a measure of how needy of international acceptance some artists felt that they responded to the hoax, even traveling to Beijing to show their works to a nonexistent curator.

The exhibit comes with an invaluable catalog by guest curator Britta Erickson that provides a useful dose of context and reproduces a number of intriguing pieces that aren't in the show.


On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West runs through May 1 at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford. Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm, Thursday until 8pm. Admission is free. (650.723.4177)


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From the February 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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