Chinese artists at the IMA 

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On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Through Sept. 24

The Indianapolis Museum of Art provides a lens through which we can glean much about today’s China with its exhibition On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West, organized by Stanford University. As part of the IMA’s Forefront series, the show is a hard-hitting example of the best — and, in some ways, the worst — that contemporary art can offer by way of political and cultural commentary. Degradation of the environment, repression of political protest and cultural expression, a broadening of acceptable aesthetic forms — these are among the themes explored.

Some of us are predisposed to be suspicious of a country that still imprisons its intellectuals if they speak too loudly in opposition of their government; and I have to confess, I was doubtful that any artist still living and working in China would have produced anything authentic, politically speaking. Yet the brilliance of this exhibition lies in its mix of Chinese artists both living abroad and at home. Those who speak the loudest are necessarily those who have left.

The exhibition is touted as including “a selection of bold experimental works of art dissecting the Chinese artist’s position in the art world and China’s position in the political world,” and, by and large, it holds to its promise. The works of Zhang Huan and Zhang Hongtu are a study in contrasts, and bookend the spectrum of artistic expression here. Performance artist Zhang Huan’s “My New York” (video) is a conceptual work in which the artist plasters his body with raw meat to resemble the physique of a superhero. In the video sequence, he proceeds through New York crowds handing out live white doves to be released. The effect is disturbing and beautiful: a metaphorical commentary on U.S. power in the world.

Zhang Hongtu, on the other hand, after exploring the negative effects of Mao Zedong for a number of years, began to revisit traditional modes of Chinese painting. Works in the exhibition, including “Wang Shen — Monet” (1998; oil on canvas) and “Shitao — van Gogh,” (2004, oil on canvas), hybridize the traditional Chinese landscape form with the contributions of Monet and van Gogh. The results are lovely and provocative.

And in between those two artists there is more video art exploring Chinese perceptions of the West (surprise: many believe we have too much power), and another of pigs tattooed with nonsense phrases and surrounded by books, going through a mating ritual. An interactive “studio” lets museum visitors copy Chinese-looking English characters into a book. This is necessarily a sampling, but in all the exhibition is a must-see, and one of the museum’s most compelling and relevant visiting shows to visit the Forefront spaces. Artistic expression is alive and well, though threatened, in China — one hopes the artists who have left will continue to kindle fires, and those who remain will promote change from within.

On the Edge: Contemporary Artists Encounter the West is on view at the IMA, 4000 Michigan Road, through Sept. 24. Info: 317-923-1331 or www.ima-art.org.

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