Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection at Berkeley Art Museum

The collection of Uli Sigg is considered to be one of the most comprehensive in the world with respect to contemporary Chinese art. Sigg is the founder of the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, and has been following the Chinese scene since its early days. If the exhibition currently on view at the Berkeley Art Museum reflects Sigg's interests, it can be said that he is more deeply concerned with the Chinese context for contemporary art than he is interested in work that implicates the global community (or the viewer) in its critique. Perhaps this is reflective of his observations about China, a nation whose focus remains profoundly introspective despite its substantial presence on the world stage. The prevailing concerns here seem to be the infiltration of American marketing into all corners of life, and the stifling presence of the Party within the home.

Luo Brothers, Untitled, 1999

This is a different approach from that of previous shows like Inside Out: New Chinese Art, Asia Society's seminal 1999 survey of the contemporary Chinese art scene. Despite some overlap, the focus of the previous exhibition included more performative works and documents that presented a body-conscious and confrontational methodology. The current show at BAM moves away from that precedent, perhaps because Chinese contemporary art has become so strongly identified with performance, photography and video that it seemed necessary to provide a different perspective.

The curatorial premise centers on the politics of the image under Communism, tied to propaganda that governed the appearance of everyone from Chairman Mao to the average peasant. The artists in this show have largely remained in China, and they experience subtle forms of expression management on a daily basis which they spotlight and lampoon here. The one-child family, the forced smile of the meager proletarian, and the faux-casual demeanor of the Party leadership are all on view. As an investigation of image as propaganda, the show is quite fascinating, the wall texts run through with intriguing facts about Communist thought-policing tactics.

A single viewing of this massive exhibition was not enough to generate a thorough assessment. I hope to return before it closes on January 4 and post a more in-depth account.