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The bad news first: "Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World" is a bit of a snooze. The new exhibition at SFMOMA sounds promising, structured as it is around a period dating from the dramatic 1989 student-led protests and the violent military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, images of which transfixed a horrified public, to the pageantry of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which grabbed center stage in a very different way. The show is comprised of over 100 mostly conceptual works by two generations of independent-minded, contemporary Chinese artists and artist groups living in China and abroad. Collectively they've critiqued, translated and helped catalyze and chronicle the rapid socio-political and economic transformation that overtook their country, while also responding to the onset of globalization and rise of authoritarianism at home.
All the elements would seem to be in place for a rousing day at the museum, but the enterprise never achieves lift-off. Granted, there's a cultural chasm that may be difficult for many Westerners, including critics, to bridge, but that doesn't account for why the show packs little of the punch of the Asian Art Museum's exciting "28 Chinese," which surveyed similar territory in 2015. Scant background on the 60 participating artists, many of whom aren't well-known to visitors, doesn't help. Though label text amplifies a number of individual works, it's not plentiful enough, and its placement is often awkward.
Organized by the Guggenheim, the exhibition arrives with some confounding artspeak and a lingering discussion of the confusing animal rights vs. free expression controversy that erupted around the show's debut in New York last year. Statements from the affected artists and shells of the offending artworks minus their original contents are included here. This opening salvo is followed by galleries featuring paintings, photography, dozens of video monitors showing, among other things, Zhang Peili's footage of various people furiously scratching their bare skin; performance art documentations; and an arsenal of installations such as Xu Tan's "Made in China" (1997-98), a room littered with disposable consumer items, from toy army tanks, cartoon figures and a Mona Lisa jigsaw puzzle to couches and a bathtub wrapped in cheesy metallic Mylar. Variety notwithstanding, the exhibition alternates between boring stretches and reasons to perk up like Paris-based Chen Zhen's snake-like marvel "Precipitous Parturition" (1999). Suspended from the ceiling of the museum's atrium, the 85-foot-long, writhing black sculpture, made of bicycle inner tubes, steel and plastic toy cars, could be construed as the spirit animal of the show.
An interesting assortment of pieces can be found in a section called "Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-between," where "Ascending Dragon Project for Extraterrestrials No. 2" (1989) resides. A cross between a treasure map and a traditional Chinese landscape ink painting, the ethereal ink-and-gunpowder creation on a large swath of rough-hewn paper is an early brainchild of artist Cai Guo-Qiang, whose explosion artworks channel the country's history with gunpowder, the transience of life, and the ephemeral nature of art. One of the most fascinating figures on China's art scene, he likes to blow up his gorgeous, haunting paintings, often in front of a live audience. After detonation, they leave behind a ghostly residue of their former selves, like those mummies that, when unsheathed, were said to assume the likeness of the person who once existed for a split-second before disintegrating into dust. Cai, who came of age in China during the Cultural Revolution, was the subject of a memorable "60 Minutes" segment and a Netflix documentary; both are worth checking out. The work on view here documents the first of his massive, site-specific, kerpow events, which took place on the slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a familiar sight in the paintings of Cezanne. Hanging from the ceiling nearby is Chen Zhen's whimsical "Lumiere Innocente" (2000), a DIY fantasy light fixture in the shape of a pudgy dirigible. Lit from within, it's crafted from the metal frame of a child's crib, and comes equipped with four "feet" on wheels should the need for a speedy escape arise.
Your imagination can run away with you while watching the short color video "To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain" (1995), which witnesses a group of ordinary people — perhaps members of a death cult or an art collective? — removing all of their clothes on a rocky promontory of Mt. Miaofeng near Beijing. Stepping forward to be weighed on a scale, some shoot an irritated glance toward the camera operator. They look vulnerable and cold, shivering as, one by one, they pile on top of each other face down, forming an impersonal mound of flesh. An unidentified man comes into the frame, taking measurements to ascertain whether or not they've achieved the desired height, or are his calculations for a mass grave? The exercise, carried out in silence, has disturbing associations with the terrible images of the stacked naked bodies left behind in Nazi death camps.
The question of how far one is willing to go in the name of art — like risking pneumonia or worse — is also raised by an infamous photo, "12 Square Meters," taken by Rong Rong, of Shanghai photographer-performance artist Zhang Yuan, a protégé of Ai Weiwei. One stifling summer day in 1994, he coated his naked body with a mixture of honey, fish oil and salt, and sat inside a fly-infested latrine for what must have been the longest, most miserable hour of his life. Some may remember the startling image from the aforementioned "28 Chinese." What possessed him to undertake the tortuous feat of endurance was his desire to assert dominion over his body, a radical act of resistance against a repressive, autocratic regime. "The body is the proof of identity," he has said. "The body is language."