In today’s China, artists are perceived as “zhishifenzi” or the intellectuals “with thunder and lightning at their heels”. And this show proves that point with the human figure looming large in this blockbuster of multi-form art, video and performance art out of China. And there is always this edge of consciousness about subtle censorship, or reduction of freedoms. The messages are coded, or transferred, or merged with tradition and a great tradition it is! Dominating the center of the incredible space at Arsenal is MISS MAO a reconfiguration of Mao as a busty girl all shiny and post-Pop by the GAO brothers, previously seen at ART MUR a while back. This Mao is very sexy, and has pigtails like a Manchu lord, and a nose like Pinocchio. Would you trust this denizen? Definitely not! Like Mao, the people have been tantalized, fooled by Mao’s politics, and their lives were so difficult as a result.

One of the most striking artworks on view are Cang Xin’s giant scrolls. They look traditional, even ancestral, and yet the artist is the seemingly divine figure who features in the image. Originally from the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China, Xin believes “the artist is not God, but the representation of a shaman, a medium between the gods and humanity…” And so defining a personal mythology and its relation to tradition, yet rephrasing it for contemporary art becomes an exercise in self-realization. And these scrolls are beautiful revelations that touch on spiritual belief systems—what is called ling—larger universal forces humans are merely a detail within, just as the artist is but part of the cosmology of his depiction.

Han Bing’s art deals with the emotional crisis of contemporary society, and the great shift from rural to urban that is ongoing in China. The New Culture Movement (2006) series reveals ordinary people like a road worker, a construction worker, and a brick worker. Each of them maintains a heroic, even propagandistic stance and holds a brick in their hands. The bricks symbolize hope, building, accessibility, and a feeling of destiny.

Chang Lei’s Animal Farm is more than Orwellian. This one has a raft of politicians neatly lined up in the background as if at a conference or rally. Meanwhile, the animals, birds, and assorted wildlife in the foreground describe the chaos of modernity in Chinese life. Chang Lei is a rock star who actually decided to make art. Here we see elephants painted alongside calligraphic texts that can be poetic, historical, political. The artist exists within these compositions as a kind of court eunuch, a product of an overly political and governmental reality. The man could even represent government in all its subtle, grey configurations.

He Yunchang, a radical performance artist, is depicted in a C-Print called One Metre Democracy (2010) with his actual body cut in half lengthwise after a 17-17 vote from family members. Other C-Print photos pay homage to Ai Wei-Wei whose little black book, Ai Weiwei-isms (recently published by Harvard in 2013), was symbolically available at the opening as was MAO, the complete book of Mao iconography. In He Yunchang’s Ai Wei-Wei Swimsuit Print series we see fifty nude men and women posing as if for a class photo, all of their private parts covered by images of Ai Wei-Wei. The only female artist in the show, Lu Fei Fei was a first-born child from rural China. Her family did not officially register her birth because she was a female. The Story of Zhuyuan (2009) series has a girl like herself from a small rural background standing and holding a red Chinese flag in no-man’s land-like nature sites.

Another artist’s work that intrigues with its use of human hair as the main material for the American Flag (2000) is Gu Wenda. Wenda has created a variety of United Nations flags using human hair. The men are very small in Gao Xiang’s painted romantic, slightly retro-looking, Who is the Doll series. Is this a comment on the state and corporate dichotomy, or simply male-female relations? Europe-based Qiu Jie’s poetic Pop-agit-prop graphite and charcoal on paper pieces are loaded with historical symbolism. Woman and Leader (2008) has a Manet-like Odalisque lady all dressed up for an occasion reclining in front of all the communist leaders’ profiles and that of a cat. In Chinese the word “mao” also can mean cat. And so this image carries unsettling traces of the past in our times.

Like Thunder Out of China truly delivers. What we see is Chinese art brought onto the world stage, and a little less self-consciously than it would have been a decade ago. East-West tensions now become sources for an exchange of artistic vocabulary, and the threats to freedom lurking in the background, in each of these artists’ consciousness, becomes fuel for their creativity. Like Wei Wei’s recent handcuff wearing Gang Nam style video, political and state tensions are inadvertently fertilizing a rich artistic vocabulary about social strife, evolution and change. 

Arsenal Gallery, Montréal
To July 27th 2013