Guanxi is a curious word. It is usually translated as “contacts”, but there is no single English-language term that captures all the connotations it has for a Chinese speaker. Guanxi refers to a special kind of relationship between people whereby one may always be counted on to help the other. Such relationships are long-term and often very strong, more like an extension of family rather than a friendship.
In the west, such relationships have an inevitable hint of nepotism, corruption and favouritism, but this is not the case with the Chinese. Whether we are talking about commerce, culture, or any other activity, guanxi is part of everyday social life. It is taken for granted that guanxi will play a role in almost every business deal.
It’s hard to know what to make of an exhibition of called Guanxi: The Art of Conversations, at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. The Chinese art scene is a complex network of contacts, rivalries and shifting alliances, in which one’s participation in any show is subject to the rule of guanxi. This begs the question whether curator, Jiang Jiehong, is being cheeky, provocative, or cynical in choosing such a title.
Reading the catalogue fails to clear up the problem. Jiang is based in Birmingham, and has put this exhibition together by remote control, through email exchanges with the artists. Extracts from their conversations are reprinted in the catalogue but they are so oblique I’m forced to conclude that Guanxi is merely one of those suitably ambiguous titles that allow a curator to show a completely diverse group of artworks.
With such exhibitions the most tangible connection is often that the artists are friends and acquaintances of the curator. This happens all the time in the west, although we like to pretend there are strictly objective reasons why someone is included in a show. In China, guanxi may be the only explanation required.
The lack of apparent connections between the conceptual-sculptural installations of Xiao Yu, the spindly steel tree branches of Shao Yinong, the sprawling wooden constructions of Qiu Zhijie, and the deadpan paintings of Zhang Enli, suggests that China has embraced the kind of open-ended show familiar from countless biennales and triennials. This may be considered a sign of cosmopolitan sophistication, or decadence.
Personally, I favour the latter interpretation. Chinese contemporary art is already so sophisticated it doesn’t need the cultivated paradoxes that leave audiences bamboozled. There were signs of this in the Chinese contribution to the most recent Venice Biennale, and the show at the Today Art Museum continues the trend. This may be an indication that the Chinese art bubble is about to burst, as needless complexity takes over from clear lines of communication.
Neither can one ignore China’s growing fascination for the life-like, fibreglass figure. For instance, Guanxi features an amusing one-liner by Yang Zhenzhong called Take a photo together, which invites audiences to have their picture taken alongside a midget version of Yao Ming, the famous basketball player. Another work, by Zhang Dali, uses life-sized fibreglass figures perched like birds amid a forest of bamboo scaffolding.
Elsewhere in this museum, which is spread over three separate buildings, is a solo exhibition by Xiang Jing, called Will Things Ever Get Better? Once again, the title and the accompanying explanation bear little relation to the work, even allowing for the vagaries of translation.
Xiang Jing, whose work is also included in Guanxi, makes life-sized fibreglass sculptures of people and animals on an ambitious scale. The first room of her show is filled with frozen acrobats and gymnasts; the second gallery has a horse, sea lions, and even an elephant. While some pieces have a surreal aspect her most recent pieces are naturalistic, although they never approach the extraordinary level of detail practiced by sculptors such as Ron Mueck and Sam Jinks.
It is the sheer scale of Xiang Jing’s work that is impressive, rather than the conception, which is allegedly about “turning away from oneself” and “the effect of external reality upon one’s inner being.” It’s anybody’s guess how this translates into elephants and acrobats.
History and Reality, a third exhibition at the Today Art Museum, is also the most accessible, featuring two series of paintings by Zhou Xianglin (b.1955). The Model Series consists of large photo-realist images of cars and trucks used during the Maoist years, often by Mao himself. Some of these, such as the ‘Red flag’ limousine or the Dongfeng Golden Dragon, would be fetish items for car lovers. To get the authentic feeling of those times there is also a truck, a jeep and a tractor, all painted from front-on, as if each vehicle were posing for a formal portrait.
Zhou’s works are technically immaculate and act as potent symbols of a proletarian state where the workers drove tractors while the leaders sat in limousines. The exception was the BJ212 jeep that Mao used to impress the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. When exhorting the masses to ever-greater feats of destruction it was tactful to leave the limo in the garage.
Zhou’s second series,Barbie-ization, is less successful. Here he paints images of Barbie dolls alongside flowers and other sentimental motifs. The message, alerting us to the dangerous ideal embodied in Barbie’s impossible perfection, is a little too trite. At least he provides the memorable line: “Barbie is who we are.”
The Today Art Museum is a cultural lucky-dip where one never knows what to expect. Both Guanxi and Zhou’s exhibition will last a mere two weeks – less than most commercial gallery shows in Sydney. Xiang Jing has fared marginally better with a three-week run. This rapidity of turnover would drive Australian museums into the ground, partly because of the expense it entails. It’s not unusual for shows at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to last for 3-4 months.
Had I arrived at the Today Art Museum one week earlier I could have seen a solo exhibition by Li Wei called Heroes. Instead, I viewed the entire show in Li Wei’s studio, where it still had a disturbing presence, even without the benefits of a museum presentation.
Li Wei is new generation artist with a punk hair-do, a bomber jacket, and taste for David Bowie albums. As she considers Chinese art to be a masculine domain, Li Wei has chosen to identify as male, and appears as “he” in all written material. I’ll respect this choice from here on.
Like Xiang Jing, Li Wei is a maker of fibreglass figures, either life-sized or slightly over life-sized, in the manner of the American artist, Charles Ray. It is the choice of motifs that sets his work apart: peacocks with broken tail-feathers; naked, maimed, bandaged figures lying in hospital beds; rows of boys and girls dressed like dancers, with blank, traumatised expressions. The effect is eerie, even sinister. If Li Wei’s work departs from other fiberglass figures it is because of its in-your-face directness.
This is arguably the quality that strikes home with all the best Chinese art. The level of technical finesse, the scale and ambition may be monumental, but the works that have most impact display a high degree of clarity and confidence. Among pieces seen in artists’ studios this week, it would be difficult to overlook Chen Wenling’s What You See Might Not be Real – a 620 X 465 cm sculpture of a horned Bernie Madoff being pinned to the wall by a gigantic bull propelled by a fart that resembles a rocket launch.
Equally startling was Wang Qingsong’s The History of Monuments, a 42-long metre photograph that used clay-covered actors to construct a mock bas-relief showing famous sculptures from east and west, across the ages.
Wang’s newest image, also on a scale that would make Cecil B. DeMille blush, is a gigantic golden Buddha surrounded by naked, kneeling worshippers in a room in which hundreds of small golden faces protrude from the walls.
The entire production is a logistical feat that might only be attempted in China, where sets, props and models are less expensive. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that any other artist would attempt something so outlandish. Although the fog of art verbiage may be gradually closing in on Beijing, it is still the only place where one can regularly sample such riotous, fearless invention.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 15, 2011
Guanxi: The Art of Conversations, until 23 October.
Zhou Xianglin: History and Reality, until 25 October.
Xiang Jian: Will Things ever Get Better? Until 15 October.
Today Art Museum, Beijing.