China! Das Kunstmuseum Bonn Zeigt's

Kunstmuseum Bonn

China! Das Kunstmuseum Bonn Zeigt’s” (China! Kunstmuseum Bonn shows it) was the first comprehensive exhibition of work by young Chinese painters to appear in the West. The Chinese ambassador to Germany refused to attend the opening, suggesting that the works “insulted” China. In his catalogue essay—a text that serves as a first-rate piece of documentation and analysis of the cultural situation in China—Chinese critic Li Xianting explains how the “cynical realism” of the works critiques the “boredom” and often the “tragedy of life” in China. Surrealism and Pop art are reconceived to make a psychopolitical statement, in effect to blowtorch a hole through the Chinese iron curtain. Similarly, Soviet-style socialist realism, having been surrealized and Popified, is turned against itself, as in Wang Qiang’s ironically decorative images of money.

Collectively the works suggested that a sense of helplessness, of meaninglessness, lurks beneath the impassive surface of everyday life in China. Rather than luxuriating in Western-style existentialism and angst, however, the work conveyed an acute sense of actual deprivation. In serving the state, their work tells us, the artists have had to sacrifice many of life’s pleasures: these they want with a vengeance—and the expression of this desire is their rebellion. Sexually explicit, at times even salacious images proliferate, in the works of Shi Chong, Zhang Gong, Wei Guangqing, Dai Guangyu, and Song Yonghong, for example. Liu Wei’s work epitomizes this tendency: Chinese men are shown as perverse lechers, Chinese women as eager seducers. Numerous images of Mao Tse-tung formed the other side of the iconographic coin: Mao—or a Red Guard equivalent—is repeatedly mocked, even slandered. Xue Song reduces him to a tarnished cipher and, in a tour de force, frieze-like composition entitled Butterflies and Flowers, 1993, Lui Dahong casts him as a Chinese emperor, hypocritically indulging in all the sexual pleasures forbidden to everyone else. China’s revolution, of course, was moralistic as well as social, and these painters, in their cynicism toward Mao and their blatant expression of sexuality, form the vanguard of the personal revolution that seems to be sweeping China. Lu Lin’s ironic series “General Great Joy” suggests that it is time the Chinese people experience some real joy, rather than the false pleasure they are compelled to demonstrate during parades celebrating the greatness of the nation. The grotesque, fixed smile that fills Lu’s paintings resurfaces in Yue Minjun’s paintings as a nightmarish emblem of Chinese inauthenticity, while in Zheng Fanzhi’s work a smile is explicitly shown to be a fraudulent social mask.

Abstract paintings were also included in the exhibition: Zhou Chunya and Qiu Shihua call their very different works “landscapes,” while Shen Fan and Ding Yi offered numbered abstractions. These subtle field paintings may seem to have nothing to do with social criticism and personal revolt, but in fact they go against the grain of the revolution, for they revive, in Modernist form, the tradition of meditative or “scholarly” painting, in which the aim is to create a kind of ideal private space—a concept profoundly critical of Chinese communist society, in which privacy, even inner life, is not supposed to exist. Paintings that suggest “abstraction” from and even indifference toward the public sphere pose a daring challenge to the status quo. So, too, do Ding Fang’s gritty, desolate landscapes, and Guo Jin’s disturbing images of lonely children, inspired by Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder”: in these works the Chinese landscape is shown to be outwardly lifeless, while Chinese children are as inwardly dead. Liu Fenghua’s paintings depict figures falling through gray space, while in a work by Liang Weizhou, the artist stares at himself in a mirror, seeming to grapple to understand what he sees. This melancholy self-consciousness, which represents an attempt to recover a sense of humanity, if only in and through art, underlines the distance between the real China and the egalitarian utopia emblematized by the bland Mao uniform.

Donald Kuspit