The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first ever round-up of contemporary Chinese art isn’t located in the Met’s modern or contemporary galleries, but rather on the second floor, in the area devoted to historical Chinese art. Resplendent scrolls usually hang there, so it’s only natural that curator Maxwell Hearn, head of the museum’s Asian art department, would link this show, and the work of the artists in it, to the history of Chinese ink painting. The result works well: This is an elegant affair with several modern masterpieces, but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the art that is currently being produced in China.
Ink-and-brush painting is the backbone of Chinese art history, though it was nearly wiped out by the Mao Zedong’s enforcement of Socialist Realism. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late-1970s, some artists rediscovered and revitalized this revered technique. Possibly the best example here is Gu Wenda’s Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series—Negative and Positive Characters, from 1984. In it, the artist both highlights and undercuts the power of calligraphy, juxtaposing Chinese characters to represent such dualities as proper and improper. It serves as a fitting banner for the exhibition, which brings past and present together.
A group of three-story tall scrolls by Qiu Zhijie, a 2012 Hugo Boss nominee, hangs opposite a 14th-century Buddhist mural in the Met’s Sackler Hall. Qiu’s piece depicts the Nanjing Bridge across the Yangtze River (which, since opening in 1968, has become the world’s most preferred spot for suicides, if you go by numbers alone) as a templelike edifice. Zhang Jianjun, meanwhile, has planted a pink silicone rendition of a scholar’s rock in the Astor Court’s Chinese garden, an apt commentary on China’s predilection for knock-offs. A mini-retrospective of Ai Weiwei runs throughout the exhibition, perhaps in homage to China’s literati tradition, and his role in extending it, though his objects have little to do with ink painting.
Xu Bing’s Book of the Sky from 1988 forms the centerpiece of the exhibition, filling an entire gallery with scrolls covered in woodblock characters that are, in fact, totally invented by the artist (a past MacArthur grant recipient) and thus, completely illegible. In contrast, Liu Dan hews more closely to convention, presenting a monumental scroll from 1990 made in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre. But while he can certainly imitate the skill of the masters who normally occupy these walls, he doesn’t offer much of a departure from tradition.
As a whole, the show offers a shrewd combination of works that appeal to Sinophiles with little taste for recent art and those that satisfy contemporary art lovers. With respect to the latter, the selection of videos is particularly strong, with Yang Fudong’s meditative film, Chen Shaoxiong’s ink-drawn compression of China’s 20th-century history, and Sun Xun’s deeply disturbing, Some Actions that Haven't Been Defined Yet in the Revolution, created from over 5,000 woodblock prints. Other works, however, have been previously seen in various biennials and rounds-ups of contemporary Chinese artists around the world, such as Zhang Huan’s Family Tree, from 2001—a series of nine photos documenting his performance, in which calligraphers repeatedly transcribe a text across his face and scalp until he looks like a lost member of Blue Man Group.
This exhibition is a step in the right direction for an institution that only intermittently presents contemporary Asian art. Still, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in reflecting the newst trends in China, where works from 20 years ago are already considered ancient history. But given that this is the Met, after all, shows like this may be the only realistic option—Barbara Pollack