Whose China?

Whether the exhibition of contemporary art from China currently showing at the Israel Museum is a faithful reflection of the country's art scene or a case of giving the West what it wants, it is worth a visit. Where else can you see a Han Dynasty vase being smashed to smithereens?

"Made in China" is an exhibition whose time has come. Chinese art has long been a hot topic in the international art world: It is a star in art dealing (although its staggering prices are seen as an economic bubble), and Chinese artists show in all the leading international galleries. In the past five years art fairs in China (including Hong Kong) have become de rigueur stops on the annual calendars of art dealers, no less than important art events in the West. In China's big cities, especially Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, new public as well as private art institutions are going up quickly, creating a sense of vitality and excitement. For all these reasons, an exhibition in Israel that showcases the work of contemporary Chinese artists is significant.

The main question that arises from a visit to this exhibit is "What are we seeing?" Is this truly a cross-section of contemporary Chinese art, or only what the West wants to see? The exhibition at the Israel Museum was first shown at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. This is not an exhibition that was curated in China. Rather, it originated as the Estella Collection from New York, gathered from the world's major collections of contemporary Chinese art. The perspective on Chinese art created in the exhibition, therefore, has been through several filters: the tastes of the collectors, the works that are offered to American collectors, and of course, the sections of the Danish museum and, subsequently, Suzanne Landau, the curator of this exhibition for the Israel Museum.

Mao suits and Chinese opera

Most of the works displayed here are what can be termed "biennale art"; not only because many of them were shown at the biennales of Venice and Istanbul that has been held since 1999 (the year in which Harold Szeemann, then-curator of the Venice Biennale, began to place special emphasis on Chinese art), but mainly because this is spectacular art: Most of the works are very large and present decisive figures that can be taken in at the first glance. Chinese elements can be found in many of them, from Mao suits to allusions to Chinese opera. And so, one wonders once again whether these images are derived from forces in the world of Chinese imagery or whether the Chinese artists successful in the West are the ones who "deliver the goods," allowing the West to see what it wants while basking in a sense of superiority.

In view of the uneven quality of the works presented, the exhibition seems to have given clear preference to quantity over quality. It could have been tightened up, dispensing with certain works, such as the photographs and paintings of Wei Dong (born 1968), which deal with pornographic images and seem to be a Western fantasy about China.

One of the show's better-known pieces is "Bloodlines: The Big Family," a 1995 painting by Zhang Xiaogang (born 1958), which is 226 cm. wide. The painting was executed in oil on canvas, the traditional Western technique preferred by the Chinese government since the beginning of the Communist revolution and the adoption of the Russian Socialist realism style. The subject, a one-child family, the only family model permitted in China, is presented by Xiaogang as a tragic portrait of expressionless faces, identical for the father, mother and child, whose gender is unclear. The figures are differentiated by their clothing: The parents wear gray Mao suits, the child a Red Guards uniform. They are looking forward, but their gaze is not hopeful, as with the Socialist Realist paintings; it is lifeless.

Scrutiny of the past appears repeatedly in the works. Among the most successful of this type are the photographs by Hai Bo (1965), which are outstanding in their delicacy and their relatively modest dimensions. In "Bridge," from 2000, Hai created a diptych of what appears to be an old black-and-white photograph of a bridge, on which two men and a woman are standing; the man's face is turned toward one of the women and he is leaning on a railing. In the second photo, taken at the same place, in color, the man is looking in the same direction, but he is alone, as if unsuccessfully looking for the past. In "Four Seasons," the artist photographed a figure in the same position at the same site in the different seasons. Although this has been done many times before, the quality of Hai's work is outstanding.

Shao Yinong and Mu Chen also deal in memory, in their series "The Assembly Halls." It is a work of cataloging and mapping reminiscent of the photographic activities of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s (which had great impact on Israeli photography). The photographs show halls where local political rallies took place during the Cultural Revolution. Some have been converted for other uses, such as religious rituals, while others stand abandoned. While the "Chineseness" of Hai's work does not come to the fore in a major way, in Shao and Mu's photographs the eye sees only through knowledge of the historical context.

As in Hai's works, Xing Danwen's "Sleepwalking" video installation does not need to be "Chinese" to justify its inclusion. It features huge cities, the location of which and sometimes even the perspective from which they were filmed is not clear. Rather, they are presented one after the other against a soundtrack of urban noises and instrumental music, which seems familiar and strange at the same time. A glass box with metalwork affixed to both ends floats in space. According to the gallery notes, these elements are in the style of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Small video images of what looks like tamed nature appear inside the box. Xing Danwen creates the option of escapism within and above reality, and speaks of the not entirely tangible touches of the past in the present.

Cigarette burn calligraphy

Traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy are expressed in many works, through the format of inked and printed scrolls, from Feng Lijun's dramatic "Swimmer" (1963), consisting of six scrolls with a total width of almost 8 meters and a height of 488 cm., to "Digital Series" by Wang Tiande (1960), delicate ink works burned with cigarettes. The works seem like classical landscape paintings, somewhat misty, until one comes closer and realizes that they were created with cigarette burns.

Works documenting calligraphy and bodypainting have come to be identified with contemporary Chinese art. Some have been shown in Israel before, such as those of Zhang Huan, which appeared about a year ago in an exhibition in Tel Aviv. Zhang, one of the most important artists exhibiting in China in the 1990s, who moved to the U.S. in 1998, asked three calligraphers to write on his face (which recalls Israeli Anisa Ashkar's ongoing work), until his face was entirely painted and in fact obliterated. One of the works is Zhang's "My New York," commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. Zhang designed a bodybuilder's "meat suit" for himself, made of slices of meat, which very much recalls Canadian artist Jana Sterbak's 1987 meat dress. Zhang walked the streets of New York in his outfit, releasing doves into the air. The work expressed criticism of U.S. aggression, perhaps the only work in the exhibit in which the artist's perspective is not only wondering about the West or criticizing Chinese history, but expressing direct criticism of the West.

References to the transition from the cult of Communism to extreme capitalism appear a number of times in the exhibit. The most prominent work on this subject is "People and Cockroaches (Employed Farmer)" from 1998, by Liang Juhui (1959-2006). It is a photograph showing grinding poverty surrounded by images of cockroaches on the walls. Other prominent works are the photograph "Opera" by Miao Xiaochun (1964), a six-meter-wide photo taken in a zoo; a painting by Qiu Shihua (1940), which seems empty at first until a landscape is revealed; and an installation by Ai Weiwei, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1957), in which a Han Dynasty vase is dropped, smashing into fragments. This destruction of a work of art from the past alludes to the erasing of the past, as was done during the Cultural Revolution, but also to the present, in which China's past is disappearing in the modernization washing over it.

Made in China: Contemporary Art from the Estella Collection

Curator: Suzanne Landau. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and holidays, 10 A.M.-5 P.M.; Tuesday 4-9 P.M.; Friday and holiday eves 10 A.M.-2 P.M. Until February 2008.