Post-Chairman Mao

"Made in China," a show by 57 modern Chinese artists, gets a stunning presentation at the Israel Museum.

September 25, 2007 11:33
zhang art 88 224

zhang art 88 224. (photo credit: )


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There's plenty of time, but don't miss the "Made in China," show of 113 works by 57 contemporary Chinese artists currently being given a stunning presentation at the Israel Museum's Weisbord Entrance Pavilion. The exhibits are immediately recognizable as Chinese, but their language is international, demonstrating once again that artists everywhere are now part of the global village. The international aspect of the show is underwritten by the fact that it is all from the collection of an anonymous but obviously well-informed European businessman operating out of New York, and that the show is an imported "package" initially mounted at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, which also produced the informative and fully illustrated hardcover English catalog. Nearly all the works are large, some even huge, and technically flawless. Some are politically critical or satirical, others conceptual. There is even some good painting and technically impressive sculpture. Works by a number of the artists now make routine appearances in the catalogs of auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's. The show is thoroughly grounded in Chinese culture via references that range from calligraphy and classical landscape painting to gentle satires of Chairman Mao, patriotic communist theater, the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution and the heroes of the stand at Tiananmen Square against government tanks and think tanks. As you enter the show you are immediately riveted by Legacy Mantle, a much larger-than-life painted aluminum sculpture of a Mao tunic, the work of Sui Jianguo, made back in 1977. There are even some nudes, also a sign of resistance to still current laws governing "decency." The most effective weapon in the hands of Chinese artists is gentle ridicule. It all begins with Mao and the Cultural Revolution that caused the deaths of numberless Chinese and resulted in a number of artists fleeing to Taiwan or the West; some never came back. Mao appears in many paintings but is never demonized. In Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, a 2003 landscape by Yue Minjun, the chairman isn't there at all; it takes a minute to get the point: He was once everywhere and in nearly every work of art, but has finally gone for good. Also telling are photos of empty assembly halls of the type used by communist work committees, made by Shao Yinong and Mu Chen between 2002-6. I especially liked a large recent oil by Zeng Fanzhi of Mao with two children in a field; the foreground is a bravura piece of painting. Specially touching is Hao Bo's double photo, one of a pretty young Red Guard holding Mao's book, contrasted with the same lady photographed in 1999, a harmless dumpy figure in a floral sundress. It sums up an agonizing revolution that eventually came to nothing. A young Red Guard also appears in Zhang Xiaogang's large formalized oil Bloodline: The Big Family, 1995, parents and child all smoothly blank-faced but each with a slight imperfection like a squint or a blemish. A version of this series is now at a Christie's auction. A gory but sanitized death is depicted by Yu Fan in Sacrifice of Liu Hu Lan, 2003, a painted polyester recreation of a young girl lying in a pool of her blood. The biggest of the big works on view is a Fang Lijun's Swimmer, 1999, fashioned from six adjacent eight-meter-high scrolls printed from woodblocks. The highly formalized face and the water around it echoes both earlier eastern art and David Hockney. Best of all, it works. Nearby is a very large installation documenting photos of an installation made by Huang Yong Ping that was destroyed by the authorities because it questioned the downing of a US spy plane. This pretentious construction is nothing more than window-dressing of a worthy subject. That the past is ever-present in much Chinese contemporary art is evident in works devoted to calligraphy and classical landscape painting. The latter appears "tattooed" on male torsos made by Huang Yan in 1999. And in 2002, Qin Ga produced his Miniature Long March, a map of the route digitally transferred to the back of a man (and to the backs of an entire people). Best of all, a large monochrome photographic montage of six sets of truncated bodies, by Liu Wei, 2004, uncannily recalls China's famous sugar-loaf landscapes. How an ancient artifact can be destroyed to create a contemporary work of art is cruelly demonstrated in a three-part series of photographs by Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. The urn shatters as it hits the ground. Ai vei! Calligraphy is the source of the only abstractions in the exhibition. A fine four-part screen by Zhou Tishai, entitled Bamboo, 2004, was painted with a spray gun! And the gestural ink painting West Wind East Water, 2006, by Qin Feng, was made on a background colored with coffee and tea. In Family Tree, 2000, by Zhang Huan, a six-part series of faces painted with an ever-increasing number of Chinese ideograms, the subject's face finally disappears. Four vertical scrolls of fake Chinese characters by Wang Tiande, 2006, allegedly of a homily on art by Chairman Mao, digitally emphasize the repetitious nature of Mao's messages. A huge three-dimensional floor-to-ceiling installation The Living Word, 2001, by Xu Bing, purports to represent the development of Chinese writing over 3,000 years, but doesn't rise above kitsch. The more recent past is represented in take-offs of Socialist Realist art of the Mao period. Sunday Brunch, 2004, by Wei Dong, features a buxom young nude happily ringed by a number of males, a well-painted fantasy. A near-life-size oil, Adulthood, 2006, by Ma Yanhong, dispassionately records two young girls wearing just panties and sneakers and looking both expectantly and warily at the viewer. More garish but well-done is a very large recent acrylic/watercolor by Liu Xiaodong called Men and Women, 2006, which depicts three naked teenage girls looking past shelves of clothing at five supine young men wearing only their underwear. The girls are comic-strip pretty, the men scruffy; it's all oddly innocent. Another more accomplished type of skilled realism is to be found in the very large paired canvases made by Yu Hong in 2004. The one at left is of a sweet young Tibetan girl sitting in a hovel rich in detail and color; at her right is a canvas depicting the successful young and beautiful writer Zhao Bo taking a drink in a book-stocked living room filled with potted plants and knick-knacks. The Tibetan girl looks happiest. Painted in acrylics, probably from photographs, these high-color works are careful in representation but free in handling. There's more to this show of course and also some video loops of performance art, a medium much valued by young Chinese liberals. The most direct is Zhang Peili's Last Words, 2003, made up of brief clips from vintage movies featuring dying heroic soldiers, gangsters and pretty actresses. As the museum is undergoing major renovations, the Weisbord Pavilion is now the sole venue for changing exhibitions. It has never looked better. It was designed to accommodate large works like these, and the hanging and lighting of this show is first class. Curator Suzanne Landau has provided excellent Hebrew/English wall texts that are large and bold enough to be read by groups. The catalog contains a Hebrew insert. Plan on taking several hours to view this show. (Till March 1).

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