New York

Pixy Liao, Play Station, 2013, digital C-print, 18 × 24". From “Mirror Image: A Transformation of Chinese Identity.”

Pixy Liao, Play Station, 2013, digital C-print, 18 × 24". From “Mirror Image: A Transformation of Chinese Identity.”

“Mirror Image: A Transformation of Chinese Identity”

The seven artists in this exhibition, all born during the 1980s, address a number of issues—political, social, sexual—in a variety of media. But at the core of their investigations is a desire to understand what Chinese identity might look and feel like today. As she did in her seminal 2018 book, Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise, Barbara Pollack, the show’s guest curator (along with Hongzheng Han, a guest curatorial assistant), examines this “post-passport” group of artists, whose practices are influenced by international travel, global views on society and history, and reconfigurations of staid notions regarding “East versus West.”

In the show’s first room is Nabuqi’s installation, How to Be “Good Life, 2019, inspired by Richard Hamilton’s 1956 Pop collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?. Nabuqi first made the work in Beijing using IKEA furniture purchased from a local outlet; she re-created it for this show with materials sourced from both that retailer and eBay. The artist investigates the chilling banality of one’s personal space: If an individual’s home is supposed to be unique, global chain stores selling flimsy, dull, and inexpensive wares are doing everything possible to keep that terrain positively generic—indeed, bland as brand. Meanwhile, Cui Jie, an accomplished painter, turns her gaze to the urban landscape. In one work, Shanghai’s tightly packed skyscrapers look like they’ve descended from outer space. The city becomes a Surrealist cartoon, or a vision of a strangely utopic yet utterly dehumanized metropolis. Liu Shiyuan, who lives in Beijing and Copenhagen, takes a more psychological stance with her fragmented, labyrinthine, and semiabstract photographic prints, which confront dislocation, uncertainty, and mistranslation.

Spread across three more galleries is a journey into the taboos and prohibitions of present-day China. The country’s president, Xi Jinping, is calling for a revival of nationalism and putting governmental support behind exhibitions of calligraphy and other traditional art forms, while art schools eschew more radical approaches to pedagogy. The nation’s Great Firewall, as it’s colloquially called, censors everything on the internet about queer issues and feminism. Yet some artists are fighting against these authoritarian measures. Tao Hui, a gay male filmmaker, took inspiration from popular Chinese soap operas for his six one-minute videos, which can be accessed via a QR code. Most of his characters are either queer, transgender, or nonbinary. A number of his actors “pass” as women—so much so that the country’s censors didn’t notice and therefore did not shut the artist down when the pieces were featured on his TikTok account. Tao’s stories are very languid and romantic, yet unfold in a hypertechnological landscape where sexual identity is fluid. Nearby, a selection of photographs by Pixy Liao document life with her boyfriend. Her pictures undermine the male gaze, as men’s and women’s bodies are made to appear interchangeable, warped, confused: In one work, the artist’s index finger, whose nail is painted bright red, emerges from the fly of her partner’s white jeans, mimicking a penis; in another, she covers her boyfriend’s nipples with her thumbs (the nails once again shellacked a deep crimson), merging their genders in a way that is both exotic and aesthetic, intriguing and playful. Tianzhuo Chen’s video Trance, 2019, is a paean to hedonism that collapses the sacred and the profane by combining Buddhist ceremonies and Japanese Butoh dances with drugs, s/m, masturbation, pumped-up music, and gorgeous naked women. Miao Ying’s video Surplus Intelligence, 2021–22, addresses the ultimate challenge: how to stay human while living under constant surveillance. The heart of her piece, developed with AI technology from New York’s Cornell University, is largely based on the effect that China’s Orwellian “social credit system,” which conflates private behaviors with financial status, has on its citizens.

For the past twenty years or so, Chinese artists have experienced an almost unprecedented level of creative freedom. What is going to happen to them if censorship and surveillance become tighter? Unfortunately, this vibrant show hints at a worrisome future. Artists, intellectuals, and outsiders are typically the first to be targeted under authoritarian regimes—and, frighteningly, the whole world seems to have taken a rightward turn. But artists who work against the grain, like those in the exhibition here, manage to give me some semblance of hope.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.