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February 01, 2005

Dreaming of the Dragon's Nation: Chinese Contemporary Art in Dublin

Posted by Christie Davies

Dreaming of the Dragon's Nation: Contemporary Art from China
Irish Museum of Modern Art
Royal Hospital, Military Road, Kilmainham, Dublin 8
27th October 2004 - 6th February 2005
Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 5.30pm,
Sunday 12pm - 5.30pm

Perhaps the greatest pleasure that an Irish, British or any other visitor must have on viewing an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art is the thought that Mao Tse Tung must be invisibly pinwheeling in his sarcophagus at the return of bourgeois creativity to China. Art in China is no longer a series of propaganda posters showing peasants from cosy farmsteads happy in their frugal comfort, assembling to listen to ardent youths with sickles and spanners and comely maidens singing banal songs in praise of the men of destiny who lead them. China has gone international capitalist and this has brought a degree of artistic freedom impossible under socialism.

The video section begins with a projection of Yang Zhengzhong's Let's Puff, 2002. On one wall is an endlessly repeating film of a young Chinese woman in a singlet who breathes in hard, fills her chest and cheeks and blows out with a noise like an expiring balloon until she is staggeringly "out of puff". On the opposite wall is projected a shopping mall full of busy Chinese pedestrians. As the comely maiden puffs out the film speeds up and the pedestrians hurry along as does a tram. As she recoils and recovers for her next effort they slow down again; one projector is synchronized with the other. Like the other videos shown, Yang's applies great technical skill to a frivolous end, the production of aesthetically pleasing fun. It is the very antithesis of the old Chinese socialism in which regimentation alternated with or reinforced hysteria. The nightmare which destroyed so much of the exquisite art of traditional China is receding and the mendacious socialist realism of oppressed Chinese faces looking cheerful is dead. The world's most gifted people are at last able to make use of their talents.

Much of the contemporary art in the exhibition consciously uses new techniques and materials to reformulate the traditions of the past. Hong Lei's After Zhao Mengfu's Autumn Colours on the Qone Mountain and Hua Mountain, 2003 is a very cleverly taken colour photograph that reproduces the basic shapes and forms of Zhao Meng's paintings. It is hung below a stamp-festooned copy of the original. One mountain has become a grain storage elevator, another a growing conical waste tip with an eroded spine both seen when the sun is low. The new has not eliminated the traditional but reproduced it, enabling us to feel the shapes of modernity with pleasure as in the earlier work of Jonathan Kaufman. A Kantian aesthetic enables us see the beauty of form even in pollution. Regrettably the Welsh authorities, either for justified reasons of safety or from a petty obsession with tidiness have demolished both the black, shining-in-the-rain pyramid that marked the pit in Cross Hands and also the pahoehoe-lava-like gnarled twists of slag at Landore, where even the hardiest of Welsh weeds struggled. Now only those who can afford to go to Mexico or Hawaii can experience what we as children knew for the price of a bus ticket. Hong Lee is China's answer to Brian Rees.

There is a similar feel about Yang Zhillin's Rolls of Tang Dynasty's Poetry, 2003. A series of rolls of rice paper in holders have been placed on successively higher columns and unrolled so that they stretch across the floor, the higher the column the longer the unrolling until they creep towards you like a puppied advertisement for "soft toilet tissue". There is traditional calligraphy on the rice paper but it is blotched and stained in blue and black. The artist and gallery should have added an extra role so that Western visitors could write their names on it in Chinese characters. Nice one, Dai.

Some of the paintings exhibited are abstract such as Chen Qiang's Work 98-3 (tryptych) 1998, an intricate flowing work made up of tiny white, light blue, and pink dots on blue lines against a dark blue background that look now like the lights of a town seen from a plane coming in to land, now like a bedrizzled spider's web, now like the Milky Way on a moonless, cloudless, mountain. Chen's work deserves the attention of avant garde wall-paper designers. Others are bluntly representational like Liu Xiadong, Train and Pigs, 2002 which is just that. A man sleeps alongside a truck full of large and piggy pigs on their way to market, the largest and nearest is snout-on to us. On the other side of a stretch of water a long sleek passenger train flashes past.

What we see in these pictures is variety; they are not a distinctively Chinese set of works but the art of very disparate individuals working within many different frameworks.

The most frightening item in the exhibition is Xiang Jing's Gift, 2002, a painted fibreglass statue of a huge smiling Chinese woman in shirt and jeans. She is perhaps twice lifesize and is bending towards an imagined child i.e. you and holding out as a gift a white blonde doll in pink clothes. Around her feet are an array of other vulgar Western stuffed toys including a Disneyland Tigger, a cheerful hippo in a night-cap and a panda. She is a terrifying Giftmonstress – a cross between a ginger-bread proferring witch from one of the grimmer German folktales and an over-sized nursery school receptionist as seen by a frightened small child on its first day there. Do the toys represent the sugary curse of Disney that induces diabetes of the soul? Yet, for all I know, to a Chinese visitor she may look as benign as Kuan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. How can one assess without knowing the cultural rules? How would this twelve foot tall, broad-faced woman with the robot smile look to a young Chinese being a offered a toy?

By the same token how will the Chinese perceive the creations of the distinguished Irish sculptor John Behan whose work is exhibited in China and who has himself studied there? By chance I once shared a train compartment with him on the long slow train journey through the green, green paddy fields from Hanoi to Saigon. We told each other jokes all the way, rather to the puzzlement of the Vietnamese who found our hilarity immoderate. Perhaps there is a Chinese joke in Xiang Jing's Gift that I have failed to understand.

Yet the very title of the exhibition is an Irish joke for in Ireland dreaming of the dragon nation leads to a one way ferry ticket from Rosslare to Abergwaun. Y Ddraig Goch ddry cychwyn or, as they say in starchy Galway, Der rote Drache gibt Stärke.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of the forthcoming Dewi the Dragon finds a Wife, Dinas, 2005, a dream of two dragon nations in which Dewi marries Mei Kamlung.

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