Once again, the good burghers of Canberra are being treated to a spectacle of fine art from China. My first memory of Chinese art was when the Terracotta Warriors visited the National Gallery of Australia in about 1984. The NGA once again got the scoop with Inside Out: New Chinese Art in 2000 (the most memorable work being the participation of naked art school students in Zhang Huan’s performance piece My Australia). This year has already seen two smaller, but no less interesting, exhibitions at the ANU School of Art: the Falun Gong curated “The Art of Truth, Compassion and Tolerance” and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office curated “Da Dun Fine Arts – The Sights of Formosa”. But now the big guys—pumped to the gills with Aussie coal—have steamrolled into town.
“A New Horizon” features work from the National Art Museum of China and is backed by Rio Tinto. A fantastic range of art is on display, from Mao-era propaganda and traditional-esque water colours, to bold contemporary colourful abstract works. And several sculptures are included to boot. Many of the artists displayed are big names in the Chinese art world, Qi Baishi and Xu Bing to name but two. Several paintings in the “New Thinking artworks” section are truly striking and well worth the free admission. Guang Tingbo’s life-like and luminescent Liquid Steel and Sweat (1981), depicting foundry workers enjoying a tea break, is particularly powerful.
As with events stage managed by the Chinese Communist Party, there is a certain ideological bent to proceedings. For starters, forget about any pieces from the recently detained (then released) Ai Wei Wei, darling of Western art critics and scourge of the Politburo. Works from the years around the Cultural Revolution are on display, and echo the rhetoric of the time, albeit in a modified manner. For instance, Pan Shixun’s patriotic painting Walking on the Road (1964) shows a group of robust young Tibetan women cheerfully “embracing their part in building a new socialist Tibet”. Likewise, in a strange translation, the displayed artist Su Xinping is said to be from Chinese Mongolia when the Chinese text clearly states “Inner Mongolia”, the conventional name when translated into English. This might confuse the average punter. Another painter, Shen Jiawei, has lived here since 1989 “when he emigrated to Australia”. This anodyne description deftly avoids the complexities embedded in the Tiananmen incident of that year and Shen’s subsequent withdrawal from the Communist party. I’m sure if you look hard you will gleefully find plenty more such nuggets of ham-fisted CCP spin. Fun for all the family!
But these political observations are but mere quibbles. Regardless of ideological overtones (and a stark lack of naked art school students), “A New Horizons” art is mightily impressive and I recommend that any of you curious about Australia’s recently announced ‘Asian Century’ pop on down to the NMA and have a sticky beak.
[More details on the Museum website]