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New World Disorder

By Nadine Wasserman

Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, through Spring 2009

Last September I was in Shanghai for ShContemporary, billed as Asia’s first truly international contemporary art fair. The fair was evidence that not only are Chinese artworks hot commodities in the global art market but that there is a growing potential for new Chinese collectors. Contemporary art is not only big business, it is, according to the Miami art collector Rosa de la Cruz, “the new glamour.”

Despite this, the best work I saw in China was distinctly unglamorous. An installation by Liu Jianhua at the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund called Export—Cargo Transit filled the space with piles of sterilized garbage and industrial waste. This piece beautifully exemplified the contradictions inherent in China’s exponential growth. It demonstrated the human and environmental costs of globalization and stood as a metaphor for the way China and other developing countries remain dumping grounds for the West. Another artist who comments on contradictions is Xiang Liqing. His photographs of recently built houses in the rapidly expanding areas around Pudong are surreal, and somewhat comical, studies in the way pseudo-Western architectural styles have infiltrated the consciousness of newly rich farmers as they seek status symbols for their wealth. These are only a couple examples of work coming out of China that explores the complicated nature of an emerging superpower as perceived by its own citizens.

Because of my own outsider experience of China, it was with great anticipation that I went to see Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China. While the exhibition’s theme is certainly timely, the topic is so vast that the exhibition ultimately never quite congeals. Because there are only one or two works by each artist, the exhibition felt superficial and without any real message. Some of the work included even felt like an afterthought. Jules de Balincourt’s painting is placed in an awkward spot, and I almost missed David Thomas’s Two Steps.

Edward Burtynsky’s work, at least, was well-represented. His photographs underscore the complexity of the paradox that is China. Urban Renewal #11, Hold Out, Shanghai shows a typical scene behind the veneer of a city in rapid transformation as new buildings replace old. Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, Feng Jie #3 and #4 shows people at work dismantling their own villages by hand to make way for the controversial dam. In these photographs and in his photographs of workers, factories, and dormitories, Burtynsky continues his conversation about the transformation of landscape by industry.

Another artist who focused on landscape, in this case urban, was David Cotterrell, whose South Facing 4:3 was rightly placed at the entrance to the exhibition. This colossal floor piece uses 1000 plaster models of high-rises spread out like a replicating virus taking over the city. What is incredible about this piece is the way it mimics the insanely gigantic city model at the Urban Planning Centre in Shanghai. In Cotterrell’s model, however, there is little variety and the plan takes on distinctly fascist undertones. Michael Wolf’s photographs echo the repetitiveness of Cotterrell’s sculpture. Wolf’s Architecture of Density photographs depict details of the ubiquitous high-rises of Hong Kong, where space is at a premium. The work appears completely abstract at first glance, then the small details of people’s lives become apparent upon closer inspection. A similar density is apparent in Cotterrell’s other work, which is video-based and focuses on the traffic conductors who, despite being dwarfed by the sheer amount of traffic and people, go about their Sisyphean tasks relatively unfazed.

Whereas Cotterrell and Wolf explore urban development and the ways in which humans adapt to their environment, Tobias Bernstrup envisions the burgeoning Pudong skyline as a playground for a giant praying mantis. In a conflation of past and present the prehistoric-looking bugs dwarf the replicas of the futuristic looking Oriental Pearl tower and the Jin Mao tower. While Bernstrup’s video raises questions about the virtual and the real, Catherine Yass’s video Lock is a surreal look at the reality of an engineering project that is now widely considered to be an environmental nightmare. With cameras facing both forward and backward, Yass captures the journey through a lock. It is an apt metaphor for China as it reveals both its constructive and destructive potential.

There is other interesting work in the exhibition that explores a variety of topics, from Tiananmen Square to video games, from the cultural revolution to scholar’s gardens, and Shangri-La; however, each new work added another level to a discourse that ultimately went nowhere. I left the exhibition thinking more about my own experiences in China than anything I had just seen.


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