China's visual awakening

Times Staff Writer

TEN pairs of black cotton Chinese shoes line up on a platform at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. Plain, boxy and pathetically ordinary, they look like standard-issue footwear, the only kind available to most Chinese women before the country's economic revolution and still worn by those stuck in poverty. But the shoes on display were not produced in a factory or handmade by peasants; they were meticulously crafted by Beijing artist Yin Xiuzhen and her mother.

While the shoes are all the same size, the insoles track the artist's life from childhood to adulthood in photographic portraits printed on colored paper. Cut into sole shapes, with each image split between two shoes, the faces flicker in and out of focus as viewers walk around the installation. Yin, who often uses discarded clothing in her work to evoke memory, time and experience, has likened shoes to boats that carry people great distances. In her self-portrait, simply titled "Yin Xiuzhen," the shoes encapsulate a journey of personal development and tumultuous national history.

Labor-intensive as this work is, it's one of the most modest pieces in "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China," a traveling exhibition of 130 works by 60 artists. Including wall-size photographs of elaborately staged tableaux, wall and floor installations of backlighted transparencies and videos screened in special viewing rooms, the show occupies about 8,000 square feet of galleries at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and all but the lobby space at the nearby Contemporary Arts Forum.

But "Yin Xiuzhen" expresses the exhibition's central theme with poignant clarity. In their various ways, all the artists grapple with rapid change in China and try to figure out how they fit into the new society. No longer required to make propaganda for a repressive government but steeped in the history of Chinese art, culture and politics, they have emerged as individuals who express themselves in terms of their nationality.

"Between Past and Future," the first comprehensive exhibition of innovative photo and video art produced in China since the mid-1990s, was curated by Wu Hung, a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago who has played a leading role in introducing contemporary Chinese art to the West, and Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Santa Barbara was to have been the last stop on a two-year tour -- after New York, Chicago, Seattle, London and Berlin -- but the itinerary has been extended to include the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Oct. 26 to Feb. 18.

The curators offered the show to Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and Asian Art Museum. Phillips made a presentation at MOCA but was eventually told that an exhibition from a single country would not fit into the museum's program. Scheduling conflicts prevented a booking in San Francisco.

Critical opinion of the show has been mostly positive. Holland Cotter of the New York Times deemed it "important" and "perspective-altering." Amid a flurry of praise in London, Adrian Searle of the Guardian judged it "extremely rewarding." But Joanna Pitman of the Times of London dismissed much of the art as "the kind of work churned out all over the developed world by self-obsessed second-year art students."

To curator Phillips, the exhibition "represents a distinct period, the point at which the artists were recognized and appreciated by a big international audience and digital technology gave them the means to make enormous prints and achieve technical perfection." The time was also right for the artists to make a big splash in the international art market. Those who have watched the prices of their work increase 10 times or more within a few years have hired assistants and moved out of hovels into villas and high-rise condominiums, he said.

New Chinese photography and video captured Phillips' attention in 1999, when he first traveled to China.

"I was impressed by the quality and intensity of work by artists who were so confident and determined to make a place for themselves in the art world," he said. Eager to organize an exhibition, he made several return trips, teaming with Wu in late 2002 after they discovered that they were working independently on nearly identical projects. The result is a landmark show with a catalog that has become an important resource for curators and collectors. It's also a readable primer for anyone who wants to understand the context and meaning of the works on display.

The historical backdrop is, of course, the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, nearly two decades before any of the works in "Between Past and Future" were made. During the last 30 years, the field has evolved from documentary work and imitations of Western styles to experimental, conceptual artworks created in an original language, often on a grand scale.

"Between Past and Future" is presented in four sections -- "History and Memory," "People and Place" and "Reimagining the Body" at the museum and "Performing the Self" at the forum. In "History and Memory" and "People and Place," the artists represent China. In "Reimagining the Body" and "Performing the Self," they represent themselves and their associates. But the curators say the categories are simply a way of organizing a mass of material and that many pieces might fit just as well in other sections. Most visitors will find all sorts of thematic and stylistic connections as they wander through the sprawling show and watch the videos.

Take the notion of impermanence. Although the exhibition celebrates the relatively recent arrival of innovative Chinese photography and video, much of the work reflects uneasiness about changes making that possible and suggests that this too will pass. Sze Tsung Leong and Zhang Dali photograph the spectacle of urban demolition and construction. Song Dong, a major figure who often deals with the ephemeral nature of life, holds pictures of Shanghai in front of a video camera, crumpling them, one by one, as they come into focus. Cui Xiuwen's video of young women primping in a nightclub restroom before returning to duty is not a picture of social progress.

Some of the artists who probe China's past and speculate about its future put themselves in the picture, but it isn't a comfortable fit. Zhao Shaoruo reconstructs photographs of Maoist-era street scenes and public meetings by replacing all the faces with his picture. The artist is everywhere and nowhere. Li Wei photographs himself with his head stuck through a mirror that reflects his surroundings on the streets of Beijing. In one work, his head seems to be floating by Tiananmen Square; in another, his body is framed by high-rises and his head by a weird, rectangular collar of sky and clouds.

In one of the most ambitious works in the show, Wang Qingsong's triptych, "Past, Present, Future," the artist is an observer of a vast sweep of history. To compose the three scenes he made full body casts of models and himself, then assembled the sculptural components on a stair-stepped platform or round pedestal, like heroic public monuments. "Past" portrays a grimy group of civil war combatants, with Wang looking on as a bandaged warrior. "Present" depicts silver-clad industrial workers turning China into an economic powerhouse while Wang plays a gawking tourist, out for a walk with his froufrou dog. In "Future," the artist is part of a cluster of gilded figures looking into space with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety.

In another work by Wang -- the 31 1/2 -foot-wide tour de force, "Night Revels of Lao Li" -- he appears as a modern-day informant in a reenactment of a famous Chinese scroll painting. The original tells the story of Han Xizai, an intellectual official in the Tang Dynasty who escaped to a life of debauchery when he found it impossible to fulfill his nationalistic ideals. As the story goes, a court artist was dispatched to secretly record Han's unofficial activities. Restaging the painting with artists, models and art critic Li Xianting, Wang plays the spy, slouching in the background while reporting to the boss on his cellphone.

Several other artists mine China's artistic and cultural history for inspiration. Hong Hao updates "Spring Festival on the River," a classical scroll by Zhang Zeduan, by inserting tiny photographic images of Beijing people on a likeness of the original artwork. Huang Yan, who describes himself as an avant-garde ink painter, paints traditional landscapes on the bare torso and arms of a male model, then photographs his work in his "Chinese Landscape -- Tattoo" series.

Puppetry also comes under scrutiny. Liu Wei, a child of the Cultural Revolution who loved playing with puppets, turns the traditional storytellers into ominous personages that appear to be harbingers of doom. In his computergenerated images, puppets with strangely colorful faces act out hollow dramas on the stage of a shadowy Forbidden City. The former imperial palace, now a bright red tourist attraction on the edge of Tiananmen Square, has been transformed into a gray hulk, a sort of ghost town haunted by manipulated characters.

Hong Lei's photographs of dead birds, wrapped in strings of pearls and lying on verandas of the Forbidden City, issue a more pointed warning: The cultural glory of ancient China has been destroyed. An aficionado of the Sung Dynasty -- a highly cultivated period, from 960 to 1279, known in part for its elegantly refined paintings of birds and flowers -- Hong emulates the style in photographs symbolizing the end of a rich heritage. "It is as if this ancient civilization has collapsed in an instant in front of my eyes," he says in the exhibition catalog. "I am terrified of globalization and abhor it."

But art goes on, as any visitor to the exhibition can see. And often in surprising ways. Xiong Wenyun takes color to dusty reaches of Tibet, hanging bright lengths of fabric on trucks and in the doorways of rudimentary roadside stores, then taking their pictures. Wang Wei photographs a boy underwater, pressing his face against a glass barrier. The enlarged images are mounted in backlighted boxes on the floor of a dark, walk-through corridor.

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Where it leads

SO now that we have seen photography and video produced in China from 1994 to 2003, what's the next big thing?

The work of younger artists, waiting in the wings?

The discovery of artworks produced in secrecy during the Cultural Revolution?

"What's next remains to be seen," Phillips said. "But this exhibition represents an exciting epoch that is over -- a period of relatively freewheeling experimentation with photography and video on the part of artists who had often been trained as painters or printmakers. I think that the sense of discovery and the burst of almost manic artistic energy that characterize that period come through clearly. There is now a much more sophisticated awareness among Chinese artists of what works on the international scene and what does not, and the result has been to diminish the range of experimentation. The works in our exhibition already feel to me as if they were made in a different world. But that same feeling of instant obsolescence can be encountered in every corner of China's frenetically changing society today, not only in the arts."

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'Between Past and Future'

Where: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays.

Ends: Sept. 17

Price: $6 to $9

Contact: (805) 963-4364; www.sbma.net

Also

Where: Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays.

Price: Free

Contact: (805) 966-5373; www.sbcaf.org

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