After you've seen this show, you'll have food for thought that lasts for days.
According to Sette, it took eight months to mount "Eastern Promise," with formidable hurdles involved in packing, shipping, and national security/customs red tape. The result is selected works by more than a dozen ostensibly third-generation contemporary Chinese artists, with the notable exceptions of the Luo Brothers (Weidong, b. 1963; Weiguo, b. 1964; and Weibing, b. 1972), Qu Yan (b. 1955) and Suo Tan (b. 1962), all of whom survived the last years of China's notorious Cultural Revolution.
Heirs to the seminal Chinese art movements of Political Pop, Kitsch or Gaudy Art, and Cynical Realism, this current crop of artists is equally focused on the crass consumerism ushered in by latter-day contact with the West, the profound disappointment of the great Communist experiment, and the inevitable social, political, and environmental fallout from China's rush to modernization — with a hint of nostalgia thrown in for good measure.
Long before Sotheby's record-busting 2006 auction of contemporary Asian art in New York, contemporary Chinese art had been soundly snapped up by private collectors and museums worldwide as people became fascinated with China after Mao Zedong's de facto successor, Deng Xiaoping, began to open the notoriously straitjacketed country to the outside world in 1976, shortly after Mao's death. Mainland Chinese artists soon began dealing, however sub rosa, with the social devastation and psychic scarring wrought by Mao's notorious Cultural Revolution, during which the Communist regime violently tried to obliterate China's long cultural and historical past and supplant it with mind-numbing Socialist values.
Following the Communist takeover in 1949, Socialist Realism, as practiced by the Soviets (in my book, the undisputed kings of kitsch), reigned supreme as the official style of Chinese Communist Party propaganda art. It was characterized by syrupy paintings of unnaturally ruddy, dementedly happy workers, peasants, and soldiers glorifying the Revolution and Mao, the "Reddest Red Sun," who was raised to near godlike status. Also wildly popular were snow-white, high-fired porcelain statues of Mao and garishly painted clay and porcelain figurines in which Mao figured prominently in a variety of bizarre scenarios. Particularly engaging were figurines with the borderline-gruesome theme of overzealous young Red Guards engaged in "class struggle" against wealthy landowners and intellectuals, who were disdainfully referred to as capitalist "roaders." (Many of the mini-monuments to madness and tawdriness are now highly collectible as Cultural Revolution memorabilia).
By the 1980s, after the Chinese government officially disavowed the Cultural Revolution following Mao's death and because of increased Western contact, Chinese artists were as familiar with Andy Warhol and other contemporary Western artists as they were with classic Chinese literati ink painting. Not only painting and sculpture, but photography, video, installation, and performance art were on the rise during this time, as artists took advantage of a new sense of freedom of expression that was not to last for very long.
In February 1989, "China/Avant-Garde," a major contemporary-art exhibition held in Beijing, was quickly closed down by a disapproving government. In October of that year, hundreds (possibly thousands) of pro-democratic protesters were mowed down in Tiananmen Square, effectively putting an end to the expanded freedoms of speech, press, and expression that artists had enjoyed a mere taste of.
After the crackdown, Political Pop — images juxtaposing classic propaganda visuals and new brand-name consumer products began appearing, spearheaded by artists like Wang Guangyi. Qu Yan's Mao Zedong-Cellular Phones (2003) and Mao Zedong-Nonsense Words (2007) — stretched-out, color photographic collages of a young Mao under a veil of floating cell phones and an old Mao, over which nonsense Chinese characters have been superimposed — are included in "Eastern Promise." They fall squarely into the classic Political Pop category, not so subtly referencing the prosperity promised by Mao early on and his utter failure to keep those promises, represented by meaningless words marring his image like tiny flies.
Riffs on tacky propaganda art meant to poke fun at China's burgeoning consumerism and official bad taste, now known as Kitsch or Gaudy Art, spawned yet another movement. The Luo Brothers, who have three pieces from their now-infamous "Welcome to the World's Famous Brands series" in "Eastern Promise," are masters of the genre. Two are highly detailed paintings under coats of yellowing lacquer, reminiscent of bad swap-meet art. The paintings combine cheesy propaganda art of chubby babies and other Chinese folk art symbols, including peonies, with instantly recognizable Western consumer goods (Coca-Cola and Pepsi piled atop airborne jetliners figure prominently in both), the Great Wall, and photos of fledging Red Guards waving and saluting.
It's ironic that during the Cultural Revolution, old folk-art prints, including those of the "chubby baby," a symbol of prosperity and good fortune among peasants, were systematically destroyed, as were the old woodblocks used to make them. Some of this folkloric imagery was appropriated by the CCP for propaganda prints and repainted by academically trained artists, particularly the chubby baby, who appeared on nianhua New Year's posters.
Suo Tan, who is old enough to have grown up with mass-produced Mao figurines, has taken off on these popular porcelain effigies in Chinese Dragon #l (2007) and Chinese Dragon #2 (2007), both of which are white porcelain heads depicting an oddly grinning Mao (complete with chin mole) being smothered by beautiful golden dragons and other symbols associated with dynastic emperors. The Luo Brothers also pay tribute to these odd household decorations with their bright red fiberglass resin sculpture of a chubby baby sitting on top of a pile of Little Red Books (as the CCP's bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao, is referred to) while victoriously holding aloft an enormous McDonald's Big Mac. The obvious subtext is that if Little Red Books are the past, and McDonald's the present, China's future will obviously be filled with extremely chubby babies, which is not necessarily a good thing.
And in what category do I place Wang Zhiyuan's Underpants (2005) and Underpants #6, both crafted from fiberglass resin painted in soft hues of fleshy pearlescent pink? The wall sculptures, most probably inspired by either a Frederick of Hollywood's or trashy lingerie catalog, are in the form of hip-hugger bikini pants and a crotchless G-string, respectively. On the former, a peony surrounded by licking flames strategically decorates the pubic area, in the middle of which arises a tiny Scud missile aimed at a daisy; on the latter, "no war" adorns the lingerie, the peony again a focal point, so to speak. Look closely and, in the flower's center, you'll see a little couple humping. It's a postmodern tribute to the '60s cry of "make love, not war." Wang's artistic efforts were so officially frowned upon that the artist fled to Australia for 10 years, though he has returned to China and has returned to producing his signature underwear.
Cynical Realism — capturing the mood of deep disillusionment, betrayal, and pessimism that pervaded the country after the anti-democratic atrocities of Tiananmen Square — was pioneered by such artists as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, who paint highly unsettling self-portraits in the guise of interchangeable, frozen, close-eyed, grinning, or laughing men that border on the psychotic.
Walking in their steps is Zheng Li, who is known for strange, monochromatic gray paintings featuring brooding or maniacally grinning babies often engaged in obviously adult activities, like smoking cigarettes. In his enigmatic The King and the Little Bird (2008), Zheng has painted a cross-eyed, frowning baby with a folded paper origami bird pointing a gun to his temple; a close reading of the image reveals that the face is actually a mask. With its sunken chest and pained expression, this is less a chubby baby promising good fortune than an old man so existentially alienated by life that he wants to end his.
Some of the best work in "Eastern Promise" is in ceramic, by the youngest artists represented, and deftly commingles references to well-known Western art history with China's illustrious historical and political past. Direct homage is paid by Huang Binyan to French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's groundbreaking Fountain (1917) in Cover #2 (2007). Duchamp's urinal is transformed by being covered in florid famille rose patterns common in China's last dynastic period, the Qing Dynasty. Huang's Rabbit #5 (2007) is a thoroughly Sinofied version, in Ming Dynasty-inspired blue and white painted porcelain, of Jeff Koon's famous 1986 stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable rabbit.
And not to be missed is Digesting Mao (2007) by Li Mingzhu, a series of 10 porcelain plates filled with what appear to be plump dim sum dumplings nestled in edible garnish — all in the shape of Mao's head — that ultimately disappear from the last plate.
At this point, I'm forced to cherry-pick — there are so many more pieces just as engaging in "Eastern Promise," so take advantage of the fact that you can actually see this work right now without having to wing your way to Beijing or Shanghai, where you would probably need a respirator and oxygen tank because of the crappy air quality.