THE HAGUE, Netherlands, July 5 (UPI) -- Thirty years ago such works would have meant jail, and perhaps even death, but an exhibition of Chinese avant-garde sculpture in the Hague reveals the surprising freedom enjoyed today by China's young artists to parody, criticize, and comment on the current climate of social and economic change in their country.
The sculpture show at the Bleeden aan Zee museum in The Hague's seaside suburb of Scheveningen is the first in the west to bring together works by 15 leading Chinese avant-garde artists whose work sells for record prices in the Hong Kong auction houses.
All artists' work is socially involved to some degree, but these are artists who make social issues the main reason for their work. Direct attacks on the leadership are obviously taboo, but judging from the variety of styles and themes on display it's open season on the problems arising from China's rapid transition from a feudalistic society into a modern one.
One favorite theme is the recent massive shift of the rural population to the cities and their anonymous existence in the urban landscape. "Chinese Offspring" by artist Zhang Dali brings the problems of new arrived migrant workers to the attention of the public by making head and body casts of several of them who served as his models and then suspending the finished sculptures upside down from the ceiling with ropes around the ankles. The imagery is shocking: dozens of white bodies, lifeless and mostly naked, hanging like meat carcasses in limbo.
The aimlessness of life for these rural transplants is also captured in the group of fiberglass figures in a composition by Liang Shuo. The figures stand around with nowhere to go, clearly devoid of any sense of purpose. Some are squatting on the ground in the street peasant fashion, the way they once did in the fields. Their faces are blank, and their eye sockets empty. They are a far cry from the Socialist Realist heroic sculpture of Mao Tse-Tung's day encouraging the idealistic spirit of the communist movement.
Most of the artists in the show belong to the so-called "cynical realism" school that emerged in 1989 after the regime clamped down on artistic freedom in the wake of the Tiananmen Square clashes. Shortly afterwards, an exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing called "China/Avant-Garde" was closed by the regime within hours of its opening, re-opened, and closed again within weeks.
Avante-gardists had to lie low for a couple of years, but are now tolerated if not officially recognized. This does not stop their work from being sought after by collectors both in China and in the west. "In China there's always the possibility that someone in the Culture Ministry is going to panic over something you do, but generally the artists are left alone," says Julia Colman, a Chinese art expert who operates a gallery in London and another in Beijing. "The fact that these artists have captured the interest of the west is also important." It makes them less vulnerable to suppression by the regime," she says.
The cynicism comes across loud and clear in "Contemporary Terracotta Warriors," Yue Minjun's take-off on the famous 7,000 Chinese military figures found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The original terracotta warriors were a tremendous accomplishment -- each warrior an individual portrayed in precise and complete detail. Minjun, one of China's leading avant-garde artists has appropriated this artistic heritage. In his version, the warriors become dozens of identical life-size figures in t-shorts and jeans doing gymnastics, their fixed wide smiles showing numerous teeth sparkle with insincerity and false bonhomie, like so many used car lot salesmen. The awesome solidity of the emperor's warriors has become in modern times a group of slick fitness freaks.
Little wonder that Li Xianting, the leading Chinese critic, calls these works, "a sardonic indictment on China's revolutionary culture." The little red book of Mao's thoughts and teachings, once the requisite daily guide of every Chinese man, woman, and child, is featured in the exhibition in a work by Xu Yihui -- but with the pages blank because, the artist says, the text has no meaning. Sui Jianguo also recalls the Maoist era with a massive, rotund replica of a Mao jacket, but without Mao's body inside it. In a reversal of the emperor's new clothes, we see the clothes, but not the emperor.
If there is a taboo subject beyond the specifically political it's nudity and sex. But the miniature porcelain compositions of Li Zhangyang come close as he pokes fun at the shadier aspects of China's new consumerism, showing newly rich fat cats with call girls, and streetwalkers plying their trade.
China is not the only target in the exhibition - although the main one. "Passport" by Wang Jin is a bitter narrative of his eight unsuccessful attempts to get a U.S. visa to join his Chinese wife, who was already in America on an education grant. The work consists of eight large stones hollowed out, with a small figure inside each to represent Wang Jin at the time, fully aroused in anticipation of a reunion that never came.
Carved on each stone was the number of each successive visa application -- all refused. Wang Jin never did fulfill his dream of going to the United States; and his wife never returned to China.
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