What are you looking at? by Adrian Searle 2005

What are you looking at?

Adrian Searle, The Guardian

Grubby but unbowed, the mud-spattered army on the plinth makes its long march up the slope of history. Faces are implacable and determined, and victory is certain - if only the living sculptures who make up this re-creation of a bombastic social-realist sculpture can stay still. They are watched by a wounded bystander, his hand on his heart, gazing up at them on their plinth. This is Past, Present, Future, a living tableau emulating the sculptures that stand in front of Chairman Mao's memorial in Tiananmen Square, staged for the camera by Wang Qingsong.

While the army struggles, a crowd of silver-clad workers makes its own great leap forward. These are watched by a man with a dog. In the final part of this tongue-in-cheek monument to lost idealism and bad art, we see the future. It is golden, but just as unsmiling. Amid the lanterns hoisted aloft and the baskets of plenty, the man who has been watching the previous two scenes unfold (played by the artist himself) is now centre-stage, sitting on a bike and raising two saucepan-lid cymbals, as though to announce destiny's arrival.

Past, Present, Future is one of two works by Wang in Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, which opens at London's V&A this Thursday. It is as difficult to know what to make of recent Chinese art as it is to know how to view the transformation of China itself. We are living, says Wang, in times that lack ideals. Or rather, ideals have been replaced by aspirations for power and money. So provocative are Wang's exemplary, textually rich photo-tableaux that one was recently banished - not by the Chinese authorities, but by the local council in last year's Hereford photography festival, on account of its scenes of nudity.

Yesterday it was announced that Disneyworld is opening in Hong Kong. So fast are China's cities growing, new street maps are produced in Shanghai every two months. On the teetering walls of demolished buildings in Beijing, Zhang Dali draws huge graffiti of a cartoon face, which he then has the wreckers carefully chip out, leaving the face-shaped hole to frame views on to old quarters and ancient corners. "The fortress of reinforced concrete that has been erected amid the stink of money and red slogans has impaired the vision of good people and sedated the nerves of those who were once awake," he says. In one of Yang Yong's images of young people, out and about on the neon-lit streets and in city underpasses, a fashionable young woman stands precariously amid the flattened muck of another building site, leaning forward to light a Camel.

Yang arranges her photographs in scatters and arrays of larger and smaller images, their self-consciously casual placement - as well as the compositions themselves - sometimes reminding me of Wolfgang Tillmans. The vernacular may be familiar, but China, we keep having to remind ourseves, is not. If these scenes could be taking place anywhere, so the hidden video camera of Cui Xiuwen, aimed at the communal mirror in the women's loos of a Beijing escort bar, shows us a sleazy nocturnal world whose ubiquity is as depressing as it is commonplace: the girls talking into their mobiles, counting out the banknotes and stashing them down their bras. This video, called Ladies, was recently shown at Tate Modern.

As was Yang Fudong's beautiful, elegiac film Liu Lan, set on a misty, reed-fringed lake in a China that feels as distant as another century. The local and the global blur, but does this mean that art, like a McDonald's hamburger, is becoming the same everywhere? All art comes from somewhere, however much artists cruise the world's biennales and art fairs. We might believe that recent Chinese art, using the same media and the same display strategies as art elsewhere, has become just as commodified, just as consumable, just as modish as everywhere else. But we don't always know what exactly we are looking at; allusions are inevitably lost.

The excellent catalogue to the V&A show goes a long way in addressing these issues, and providing us with a useful history. Chicago-based art historian Wu Hong's essay on the development of art photography in China is fascinating. His use of such tantalising terms as "traditional melancholy" and "cynical realism" stopped me in my tracks.

But all this takes a lot of unpacking. We may think that cultural globalisation leads to homogenisation, but there is also misunderstanding everywhere, played out on the borders and faultlines of difference. Between Past and Future, which began as a larger show in Chicago, is extremely rewarding, but frustrating for reasons that go beyond the difficulties of the works. The exhibition's thematic, four-part structure - with sections devoted to "History and Memory", "Performing the Self", "Re-imagining the Body" and "People and Place" - has been crammed into a single exhibition space at the V&A. And its range, from intimate black-and-white photographs to brash, bold, large-scale works using the most up-to-date imaging technologies, is a bumpy ride. There are some things here that are just silly. But then silly is also fashionable.

The same art theories and the same art catalogues are pored over wherever one goes. Wu reminds us that art theory and Jacques Derrida, catalogues of Andy Warhol or Cindy Sherman, introductions to postmodernism and to conceptual photography, have been increasingly available in China since the "information explosion" of the 1980s. Chinese art may sometimes appear gauche and belated, but the best artists have other, deeper reasons to look towards the contemporary art of the west than merely to appropriate its manners and styles.

We get a better sense of this from those works whose engagement is personal, rather than from those that poke fun at the authoritarian aesthetics of social realism, or whose subject matter is wilfully arcane and symbolic. Hai Bo pairs studio photo-portraits of young people, taken during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, with portraits of the same people today. They have aged. Some chairs are empty, people are missing. Explanations here are unnecessary. Hai's documentary approach is all the more affecting for the severity of its understatement.

The underlying theme of the show is the plight and place of the individual in relation to society and the world. This is about as universal a theme as art ever has. It is everywhere here: in Rong Rong's photographs of the grimly masochistic, bloody and cloacal performances of Zhang Huan, who once slathered his body in honey and fish oil, and stood, covered in flies, in an unimaginably filthy public toilet; and in the beautiful performances of Song Dong. One New Year's Eve, Song lay face down in Tiananmen Square, his breath fogging the slabs with a thin rime of ice. If he stayed there long enough, I thought to myself, Song would have been able to see his own reflection there, like a frozen Narcissus, unless the cold or the soldiers constantly patrolling the square got to him first.

This performance risked more than frostbite, and one remembers how cautious artists in China have to be. Fen-Ma Liuming, the feminine alter ego of performance artist Ma Liuming, naked and shoeless, applies his lipstick and walks the Great Wall of China until his feet bleed. Sometimes he's a distant dot on the wall, then he's framed precarious in a broken arch, then he's striding to the sound of wind in the leaves. This may seem innocuous enough, but such performances once landed Ma in detention for two months.

It is a mild winter day at the provincial zoo. Spectators crowd around a sunken enclosure, where a pack of monkeys are doing the things that monkeys do on the rockery. There's a flash of red on the climbing frame, a discarded plastic bag that one of the monkeys has adopted as a plaything. What a rich image this is, filled with air and light, activity and detail. Eventually we discover, among the smiling crowds watching the monkeys, a man who looks more lost than most. Like some ancient philosopher or wandering sage, he wears a cloak and topknot that mark him out as someone from another era. In fact, he's a mannequin, whose face is modelled on the artist himself, Miao Xiaochun. Miao refers to this character, who reappears throughout his work, as "him". He is a historical witness, but one confounded by the present and lost amid it.

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