At the Guggenheim, Chinese Artists Debunk Simplistic Narratives about Asia
I began my visit to the Guggenheim Museum’s recently opened exhibition “Tales of Our Time” by threading my arm through an automated monitor that measured my blood pressure and pulse. Numbers flashed on the screen. I marked them down in the “Blood Pressure and Pulse before Viewing” column of a notebook placed nearby, then proceeded into Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken (2016), a tearoom and garden nestled into a curving slice of the museum’s fourth floor.
Delicate teacups on wooden coasters sat ready. So did the artists from Yangjiang Group, the Guangdong Province–based collective, who tended to visitors with a contemporary take on the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The artists filled our cups with golden tea and strived to create an atmosphere of calmness and conviviality. The effects of their work were then registered again on the blood pressure monitor—a tongue-in-cheek nod to our incessant need to measure and codify even the most unquantifiable experiences. I threaded my arm through the monitor once again and wrote my slightly lowered numbers in the “Blood Pressure and Pulse after Viewing” column.
The Yangjiang Group’s tearoom is one of nine newly commissioned works from Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Konger artists presented in the exhibition, each of which will enter the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. This is the fruit of a multipart collaboration established in 2013 between the museum and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, a Hong Kong–based philanthropic organization.
The exhibition’s organizers, consulting curator Hou Hanru and the Guggenheim's curator of Chinese art Xiaoyu Weng, sought out artists whose work goes beyond the shorthand portrait of China propagated by the media and the market—not least of all the art market. While politics undergirds all their work, I didn’t see Mao’s apple-cheeked visage. That’s not to say the famous chairman and the ongoing ramifications of his era aren’t confronted here, but rather that Hanru and Weng’s approach is one of subtle shading, resulting in a layered, shifting picture of China.
Among the most poetic of these projects is Land of the Throat (2016), a two-channel video installation by Guangzhou-based Zhou Tao. Its evocative title references a military term that uses the throat as a metaphor for a strategic position or passage. The throat in question here is the Pearl River Delta in China’s southern Guangdong Province, a lush, bountiful landscape that is being increasingly degraded by urbanization and industrialization.
An entryway leads to a darkened room with a floor that slopes upward on both sides to meet the two videos, projected onto opposite walls. Scenes that the artist filmed at dusk unfold slowly on each wall: Rats scurry over what appears to be a drained riverbed; fishermen cast lines into puddles while holding cigarettes tipped with incandescent orange; a calf is chained confusingly to an industrial washing machine; clouds and moon hang in the sky. These vignettes form an impressionistic picture of a land in distress, pierced by nature, alternately thriving and dying; and of people, some of whom eke out what the environment still has to offer, while others carry out the very work that chokes it.
In a gallery one floor above Zhou Tao’s meditative piece, a crazy sight rears up in front of viewers. A frenetic robotic arm buzzes, whines, dips, and stretches inside a clear box whose walls are splattered with a bloodlike liquid. A pool of this liquid surrounds the base of the arm, which works ceaselessly, at times even seeming to pant with exhaustion.
This is Can’t Help Myself (2016), a project by Beijing-based duo Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Their overburdened arm is taken from an automotive assembly line. A precise, versatile machine, here the arm responds to the artists’ programmed commands to contain the liquid forever spreading away from it. The scene suggests an aftermath. Is this what will come of the ongoing arms race—now ratcheted up by AI technology—between China, Russia, and the United States: a machine left to clean up humankind’s mess?
Conflict also permeates Taxi (2016), a video from Taipei-based Chia-En Jao. Shot documentary-style from the backseats of Taipei taxis, it features conversations between various drivers and the artist about modern Taiwan and its historically fraught relations with its East Asian neighbors. The drivers tell their stories haltingly, as history is revealed in the raw. It’s up to us as viewers/listeners to piece together these memories and make them cohere, an effort that gets closer to the truth than tidy summaries. But neatly packaged stories have no place in the exhibition, which confounds a monolithic view of China—and our understanding is deepened considerably for it.