These Beautiful Images Will Change Everything You Think About Modern China


Forget clichéd assertions that all Asians look the same. Many Americans look at China and see a rising economic monolith set against a cultural monotone: After all, the harsh censorship of China's government must suppress individual expression and creativity, right? And the only way for an oppressed Chinese citizen to create meaningful art is to violently break with the system, right?

Wrong. Today's China is home to some of the most breathtaking innovations in contemporary art — art that blurs the lines of East and West, of the past and present, even of the so-called system itself. A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art proves that not only is creativity possible under censorship; it can even flourish.

Art is the cry of a people saying, "We are here, we are living in this world and grappling with it just like you."

It would be impossible to come out of Ink Art, which runs from Decemeber 11 to April 6, and still hold dangerous assumptions about contemporary Chinese culture. The landmark exhibition of Chinese contemporary art showcases spectacular works from 35 artists including Gu Wenda, Xiu Anxiong, Xu Bing, Yang Yongliang, Ai Weiwei, Wang Donling, and Zhang Yu. All of these artists were born and educated in China. Many still work and thrive there.

Hong Hao's 'New Political World' is a part of a series of inventive maps that look like something from an old textbook. This one inverts China and the US's places in the world — putting China into the Western hemisphere.

The show is stunning in both its scale and scope. While traditionally a show like this would be presented in the Met's Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, these works have been integrated into the museum's expansive Asian Art collection — and thus situated within the rich continuum of traditional Chinese art.

At a press preview on Monday, Maxwell K. Hearn, the Douglas Dillon chairman of the Met's Asian Art Department, stated he hoped this exhibition would show how "China's past also has a great future." The presentation of these artworks in the East Asian wing not only creates a dynamic conversation between the past and the present, but it also illuminates the ways in which contemporary Chinese identity struggles to define itself with and against its millennia of history.

To claim that art is impossible under the Chinese government is also to deny the humanity of the 1.3 billion citizens living under that regime.

Works such as Ai Weiwei's "Han Dynasty Urn With Coca-Cola Logo" (above) can appear beside traditional Chinese pottery, while Wang Jin's "Dream of China," a dragon robe embroidered with vinyl fishing line, can be hung in a gallery alongside the imperial Qing dragon robes whose image it at once imitates and dismantles. This type of juxtaposition resonates powerfully with anyone seeking a truly Chinese understanding of China — that is, that it is a nation for which its long, tortuous history is at once a source of deep pain and pride.

Ai Weiwei's 'Map of China' is constructed of ironwood from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.

Qiu Zhijie's '30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa' is a surrealist landscape painting of the Yangtze River Bridge, the most common suicide site in China. The tryptic also includes a series of messages for his infant daughter.

The four thematic sections of this exhibition — The Written Word, New Landscapes, Abstraction, and Beyond the Brush — are a tour-de-force reinvention of traditional Chinese media.

The Written Word presents works like Wu Shanshuan's "Character Image of Black Character Font" (above), which shows obstructed characters whose meanings are nonsense, and Zhang Huan's "Family Tree" (below), in which a number of calligraphers covered the artist's face with script until both the words and his face were obliterated. Traditional brush-written calligraphy in China is considered one of the highest forms of artistic expressions because it is both communicative and aesthetic. These artworks upend the inherent power of the written word by turning it into a pure stroke of expression, thus stripping it of meaning.

Creativity and art is possible under censorship; it can even flourish.

Other artists, such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, subvert the written word by combining forms of Chinese characters to create characters that look like words, but when carefully examined are actually meaningless. Xu Bing's "Book From the Sky" (below) is a monumental work that fills up an entire gallery, surrounding the viewer with thousands of lines of this Chinese-looking script that in actuality doesn't represent real words in any language. Viewed in light of the historical context of Mao's overhaul of Chinese writing into simplified form, and the big-character posters and destruction of the Cultural Revolution, these artworks are deeply subversive. Yet, they fly under the radar of the country's censorship because the words literally mean nothing. This type of meaningless abstraction, however, is absolutely shattering.

Xu Bing also sinicized the English alphabet to create Song of Wandering Aengus, redrawing the letters of the alphabet as Chinese character strokes. To a non-Chinese reader, the poem shown below looks like Chinese, but each character is actually an English word. If you look carefully, you might be able to make out the words of the line on the far right (traditional Chinese is written in vertical lines): The golden apples of the sun. This gesture is not just a cool trick: it is an act of reverse colonization and Eastern aestheticization of an otherwise artless Western script.  

Artist Huang Yongping uses a traditional Chinese handscoll format to tell a contemporary story. As with traditional handscrolls, "Long Scroll" is "read" from right to left.

Chinese brush painting, on the other hand, has always been abstract: The brush mark is the record of the artist's hand, and the painting is seen as much as the document of a performance of painting as it is the final product itself. In this way, Chinese brush painting was a relative to Western action painting in the style of Jackson Pollock long before Chinese artists started to consciously incorporate ideas of Western modernism into their work.

The most striking confrontation of Western modernism and traditional Chinese aesthetics, however, is on display in New Landscapes. Yang Yongliang's "View of Tide" (below) looks like a traditional long scroll landscape painting at first glance, but when you approach, the serenity and muted beauty of his mountain and water-scape is erupted by the realization that this "landscape painting" is actually an intricate collage of cityscapes. The mountains are made of skyscrapers, the trees are electricity towers, the misty clouds are smog. The landscape is unpopulated and cold, a radical critique of urbanization that shows the desolate majesty of a world devoid of humanity.

Art is the greatest vehicle for mutual understanding, and the need for mutual understanding between East and West is greater than ever today.

To claim that art is impossible under the Chinese government is also to deny the humanity of the 1.3 billion citizens living under that regime — art is the cry of a people saying we are here, we are living in this world and grappling with it just like you. Ink Art doesn't just prove that great art is possible in contemporary China. It is a much-needed link in the bridge between East and West. The opening of Ink Art at the Metropolitan Museum is groundbreaking because it makes these important conversations accessible to large audiences and brings this stunning work into the national dialogue. Art is the greatest vehicle for mutual understanding, and the need for mutual understanding between East and West is greater than ever today.

Go see this exhibition. Let China surprise you.

Ink Art runs until April 6, 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and used with permission.