Man, Face, Mask

Art Life , Reviews May 18, 2004 No Comments

We left Liverpool Street Gallery with a few regrets, but we vowed to put this badness behind us and get down to Gallery 4A to see the Wang Jianwei show Giant Steps. We didn’t know much about Jianwei, but we figured anyone who was into Trane was OK by us.

The problem that we have with art from non-Western, non English speaking countries is that quite obviously there is a cultural divide to be crossed, and we don’t mean him to us, but more us to him. Jianwei is a Chinese artist whose work is about a combination of personal history and the history of the Chinese people and its manifestation in the cultural life of today. Not being particularly conversant with the subtleties of Chinese history leaves us at something of a disadvantage and heavily reliant on the notes provided by 4A.

Downstairs was a piece called Ceremony, a video installation of a multi-media performance at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels and also performed in Beijing in 2003. So what did it look like? Well, there were guys in Mao suits ranting and gesticulating against a backdrop of Chinese texts projected onto sheets. There was a soundtrack that went BANG BANG BANG (tinkle) – RANT! There were also some dancers and a man wearing a white mask.

Upstairs was a two screen work called Spider that had at one end, some Chinese men in extreme close up – workers with bad teeth and big smiles – and at the other end of the room, some more guys in Mao suits, white masks and lots of camera lens flare shot inside what looked like a worker’s factory toilet. There was no soundtrack that we could recall and we sat on the chairs provided by the gallery and tried to figure out the meaning of what we were looking at. Faces, losing face, masks as a metaphor for public face?

It wasn’t that the art was too obscure, it was quite the opposite – it was just too obvious. There were subtleties to the artist’s ideas that we felt we were probably missing – and reading the text on Ceremony we knew that for sure – but it has to be said that the art worked on a level that we aren’t used to. To put that another way, if an Australian artist had made this work – and judging it purely on the aesthetics of what we saw – you’d rightly say it was naïve. There are Chinese artists who have been doing Pop Art and although we quite like it, we also know that it only has cultural relevance in China. But you say to yourself, ‘you decadent Western bastard, how dare you judge this art on your so-called ‘aesthetics’ which are nothing more than some second-hand received notion of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’. How dare you!” And yes, that’s all true, but liking this work feels like we’re on some sort of cultural outreach program, and it’s failing.

Our spirits were bucked up a little by seeing a third work stashed away behind a wall called Square, a video piece that documented people having their photos taken in Tiananmen Square. The work had a language that was universal – tourism, family photographs, kids flashing peace signs at the cameras, self conscious laughter, formal body language masquerading as casual interaction. The work was so eloquently simple and yet had so many levels of interpretation. As a commentary on what is happening in China as a microcosmic representation, it worked brilliantly too and still managed to cast a wider net and have a more explicable connotations. It’s a pity the rest of the show didn’t have the same simplicity.

Andrew Frost

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