Xu Bing, Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, rice paper, ink, soil, and mixed media. Installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 2006. Photo: Tom Loonan.

Xu Bing, Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, rice paper, ink, soil, and mixed media. Installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 2006. Photo: Tom Loonan.

“The Wall”

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery & Art Gallery

“POOR CHINA!” It is June 2003; Venice is sweltering. A friend and I have traversed the Arsenale and now find ourselves standing before an installation of bright lights and ungainly statuary that is meant to evoke the chaotic dynamism of the postmillennial Chinese city. Despite this theme, the work feels inert—showy, but dumb. We grow restless. The aforementioned comment by my companion expresses with sad resignation the view that contemporary art in China cannot hold its own against the more sophisticated endeavors of the West. Not only can it not compete: It is worthy of our sympathy.

Buffalo, January 2006: “The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art”—a survey first presented last summer at Beijing’s Millennium Art Museum—is far more promising. The best work among the contributions of some forty-five artists is provocatively conceptual. Song Dong’s Together with Farm Workers, 2005, is the video record of an event orchestrated by the artist: Two hundred shirtless male peasants, newly arrived in the capital in search of work, consented to be bound to one another and led around a Beijing art space by Song for a modest fee—a Santiago Sierra–esque tactic with particular resonance in today’s rapidly urbanizing China. Zhang Dali’s video Face Behind the City: Zhang Dali and Beijing, 2005, documents the destruction of Beijing’s ancient neighborhoods as well as the artist’s practice of marking these ill-fated sites with graffitied heads that resemble his own in profile, which he then chisels through so as to expose the surrounding ambience: rubble heaps, forlorn imperial structures, and a new species of condominium tower, half-postmodernist, half-“Chinese,” that has few rivals for contemporary urban hideousness. The work reiterates the disjointed spatiotemporality of the Chinese city, where the architecture of the imperial and Communist past and that of the capitalist-globalist present are brutally joined, the latter rapidly erasing the former. Xu Bing’s Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, a rubbing of a single beacon tower of the Great Wall, redefines previous notions of indexicality in art. In this installation, the act of transferring a thing’s impression to paper is blown up to monumental proportions (the installation, at a height of thirty feet, fits snugly in the Albright-Knox’s sculpture court). The participation of numerous collaborators and the fact that the project took nearly a month to complete recall the actual history of the wall—the thousands of nameless masons involved in its construction over several centuries. A pair of works by Huang Yongping traces the trajectory of a century of contentious US-Sino relations, from imperialism to geopolitical rivalry: His sculpture 1/4 Hoover Tower, 2005, references Stanford University’s creepy edifice of that name, which houses the library of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, and also alludes to President Hoover’s youthful stint as an engineer working for a private corporation in China from 1899 to 1901, while Bat Project III, 2003, is a replica of the American surveillance plane downed in Chinese territory in April 2001 (the original work, installed at the Millennium Art Museum, was documented photographically for Buffalo).

These and other works in Buffalo suggested it was not the limitations of Chinese art that my friend and I encountered at Venice but a partial representation of the field itself—a field we could not grasp. That exhibition, “ZOU (Zone of Urgency),” curated by Hou Hanru, represented a “Pop” or realist sensibility in Chinese practice that can be traced to the Capitalist Realist paintings of the early ’80s; it also put forward a futurist, Koolhaasian vision of the new Chinese city. “The Wall” reflects by contrast the Conceptualist interests of its organizer, Gao Minglu, one of the curators of “China/Avant-Garde” (the first official show of advanced Chinese art at the National Museum in Beijing, mounted in the months before the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989) and a cocurator of the Queens Museum of Art’s 1999 “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s.” Beyond suggesting a difference in taste, the Venice/Buffalo comparison inspires a reflection on the exhibition form within the current “global” scenario. The internationalization of the art scene in the past fifteen years, propelled by an extraordinary increase in the number of biennials and triennials, has produced an explosion of information. A viewer must assimilate not only the usual crop of “new” artists but entire national cultures in a bewildering and constant flow. All to the good; the Westernist myopia of yesteryear, which folded late modernism into postmodernism, establishing a straight line from Jules Olitski to Sherrie Levine, may be happily discarded. But this expanded arena means that a spectator unfamiliar with a particular tradition—me, for example, wandering haplessly around the Central Asian pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale—needs guidance. “Globalism” requires a new kind of critical competence, an agility in comprehending a heterogeneous field of production. Thus a special onus is placed on the curator of contemporary art. The task of translation has become paramount. The most relevant curators at present are translators, who are able to transpose information effectively from one culture to another.

Gao’s practice is paradigmatic in this regard. It was not so long ago that contemporary Chinese art was little known in the United States. During the late ’90s, Gao’s “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” (1998) and Wu Hung’s “Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century” (1999) made these practices newly visible; other exhibitions have followed, most notably Wu and Christopher Phillips’s “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China” (2004). (It is surely not coincidental that scholarship on Chinese art has flowered in recent years, under the aegis of such scholars as Wu and Jonathan Hay.) Like “Between Past and Future,” “The Wall,” impressively staged at three sites across Buffalo, suggested a new level of ambition in the presentation of contemporary Chinese art on these shores. This ambition is also apparent in the catalogue: Conceived “not merely” as an exhibition record, the author states, but as “a concise history” of the country’s art since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, it is an audacious effort. Although its concordance with the exhibition is not always clear (there are no entries for specific works), the text, a detailed survey of the past thirty years of Chinese visual art, performance, and artists’ films (the latter chapter written by the show’s assistant curator, Bingyi Huang), is hugely informative. It enumerates the aesthetic impulses that subtend, and the sociopolitical contexts that gave rise to, each development—such as the transition during the late ’70s and early ’80s from state-supported Socialist Realism to post-Communist realist forms (“Scar Painting” and “Rustic Painting”), and the invention of a language-based Conceptualism by Huang, Xu, and Wu Shanzhuan during the “Cultural Fever,” the period of student agitation that began in the mid-’80s and concluded in the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. The text also draws helpful distinctions between Chinese and Euro-American practice, noting, for example, that the work of Huang and Xu bears more correspondence with the Buddhist calligraphic tradition and concept of nothingness (wu) than with Western precepts of seriality and idea art—as Xu’s Book of the Sky, 1987–91, a long scroll printed with Chinese “characters” of the artist’s invention, suggests.

Gao is an avant-gardist of the old school. He believes in the notion of artistic autonomy and, moreover, sees his own practice in this light (he is not shy about mentioning his participation in the movements he describes, or that he was the first to identify them). The story of Chinese art, as he tells it, is a narrative of resistance and assimilation: Critical practice flourished in China from the end of the Cultural Revolution through the early ’90s (the era of such autonomous activities as Artist Villages and Apartment Art), only to collapse in the last decade after its official embrace by the once oppressive Ministry of Culture and the China Artists’ Association. Gao’s citation of Renato Poggioli’s 1962 theorization of the avant-garde as an “antagonistic” practice may seem quaint to Western readers, until we read of the pressures faced by Chinese artists operating under extremely authoritarian circumstances. As Gao suggests, it wasn’t until the mid-’70s that a Chinese neo-avant-garde could even be conceived. And even when it began to take concrete shape (an exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s work at the National Museum in 1985, the first by a contemporary American artist, was a turning point, marking the beginning of the brief pre-Tiananmen artistic ferment that Gao has dubbed the “’85 Movement”), it faced constraints and dangers unknown in the West. Periodic moments of freedom were followed by recurring crackdowns. “China/Avant-Garde” was closed twice: the first time after two of the participants fired gunshots into their installation, the second after a bomb threat. A line in “The Wall” catalogue’s chronology clarifies, in the most dramatic terms, why the concept of an antagonistic avant-gardism could still resonate in China in 1990: “As a result of the post-Tiananmen tightening . . . idealist avant-garde activity in China declines drastically. . . . The most popular art journal, Art Monthly, which had devoted considerable attention to the ’85 Movement, is restaffed with conservatives. One of its editors, Gao Minglu, is ordered to stop all editorial work and spend more time at home studying Marxism.”

The task of translation is to make another language, or culture, comprehensible; “The Wall” was most effective in this regard, elucidating the specific character of contemporary Chinese society. While the neoliberal concept of globalism holds out the promise of universal interconnectedness and economic parity, critical accounts of the phenomenon stress the way globalization elides cultural difference and fosters uneven growth. Many of the works in the exhibition confirmed the latter view. China’s transformation into a capitalist superpower and its rapid urbanization have been much touted, yet the actual effects of this transition on the Chinese population have yet to be fully assessed. Rem Koolhaas’s ecstatic paeans to the Pearl River Delta megalopolis ring hollow as we contemplate Wang Jingsong’s photomontage One Hundred Chai—To Be Demolished, 1999 (chai is the character used to mark condemned buildings), or Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape, 2002–2005, a tableau of metal cookware that bears an uncanny resemblance to the ugly new towns that have mushroomed across the countryside. Chen Qiulin’s video Farewell My Concubine, 2002, centers on the inundation of her hometown following the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, while Wang Bing’s film Tiexi District (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks), 2003, traces the fates of several mining families after the closing of the state-owned companies that employed them; they live without electricity until forced from their homes by developers. Such works suggest that the critical tendency remains significant in Chinese art, despite the decline of the self-conscious avant-gardism so meticulously documented, and extolled, by this remarkable exhibition.

James Meyer is associate professor of Art History at Emory University.