Friday, June 22, 2012

Art: "East/West: Visually Speaking” at the Yellowstone Art Museum

It’s Friday, and time for some local cultural color.

The agenda was to go to the Yellowstone Art Museum to see the new exhibition drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, about which more in another post. While there, I went to see “East/West: Visually Speaking,” and ended up spending most of my allotted time with that fascinating visiting exhibition.

The exhibit consists of works by contemporary Chinese artists, who reflect the unique mixture of attitudes that China has today: its pride in her own deep indigenous traditions, its fascination with Western high culture, its ambivalence toward the pervasiveness of Western consumerism and pop culture, and the raw experience of living with both the tyrannical past of Chinese communism and its still authoritarian present.

Perhaps the most visually arresting pieces are Sun Ping’s acupuncture sculptures, in which he reproduces classic Western pieces -- of Laocoön, of Moses, of Alexander... but with Chinese acupuncture needles bristling from them along what appear to be the traditional meridians. Whether these needles are “anatomically correct” from a Chinese traditional medicine standpoint, the art conveys an impression that Chinese traditions have something to offer for the ills of Western culture -- or at least for ill effects it can have on traditional Chinese culture. The impact is visceral and surprisingly positive.

Two imposing works appeared to be large-scale prints of originals, in which the artist reproduces Bruegel’s “Christ Carrying the Cross” and Titian’s “Bacchanalia,” but with rigidly stark, almost automaton-like, Chinese figures taking the place of the characters in those paintings. The huge expanse of “Carrying the Cross” was particularly effective, with the viewer becoming lost in its vastness. It conveys the same frightening feeling of isolation that original does. In both, the tiny Christ figure is bent and broken beneath the weight of the cross, lost and alone though surrounded by crowds. As in the original, the crowds have their own interests and preoccupations. This Chinese version adds an element of modern existential crisis through the studied lack of individuality of the crowd members and soldiers.

A series of large oils with a Chinese man alone in a room, with titles of “See No Evil,” “Hear No Evil,” “Speak No Evil,” and “Don’t Make Inappropriate Gestures to Traffic Cameras,” feel like they could have come straight from a police interrogation room. There is nothing explicitly political, uniquely Chinese, or even uniquely modern about them. They rather touch on universal themes of the loneliness and fear of dealing with arbitrary authority.

Most numerous were pieces in a series by the Luo brothers, entitled "Welcome the Famous Brands to China.” Each incorporates the logos of modern mega-products like Coca-cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s. In an earlier and larger incarnation of this exhibit at the Frost Art Museum in Miami, a reviewer described these pieces as "delivering corporate America a smack in the snoot.”

Maybe so, but the ceramic sculptures are as much parodies of kitschy Chinese-made knick-knacks as they are of Western corporations -- and anyway, who is choosing to eat the Big Mac’s and drink the Coke’s, I ask? A great deal of craft went into creating these works (a dragon was particularly beautifully done,) but one is hard-pressed to explain just how all of that work was really worth the effort.

More striking to me were the paintings in that series. They were eerily similar to revolutionary propaganda “art" in the Chinese vein. Even the title of the series, “Welcome the Famous Brands to China" sounds like something from a revolutionary propaganda poster. Given that many of the artists grew up in the midst of (or experienced the after-effects of) Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution, these works seemed as much as anything to be a way of parodying the latter under the guise of being sarcastic about the former.

Art in a society that isn’t completely free takes on an importance that those of us in countries with a tradition of freedom of speech can perhaps barely understand. I remember talking to a Chilean student years ago whose family had fled the country in the wake of Allende’s rise to power. I asked him about the cultural prominence of writers in general, and poets in particular, in South American countries. His reply has always stuck with me -- he essentially said that in a place like America, if you want to say something, you just say it. In countries without those long traditions of free speech, controversial thoughts, whether of protest or of longing, have to be expressed in more indirect ways.

In a sense, oppression -- whether exterior and political or self-imposed and cultural -- has a way of forcing artists into subtleties and nuances of expression. What is a matter of scoring style-points for a Western artist can be a matter of life or death for an artist elsewhere.

Regardless of what the content is, or is intended to be, “East-West: Visually Speaking” is worth seeing. It is on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum through July 29.

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