Those entering the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art walk under an ominous sculpture – a 26-meter-long smoky-colored dragon suspended from the ceiling. Squinting some more, they see the head is constructed of broken bicycles, its body is made of bikes’ inner tubes and its stomach is filled with thousands of peanut-sized toy cars.
This sculpture is the prelude to SFMOMA’s “Art and China after 1989,” on display through Feb. 24.
I was excited to understand the different perspectives of China’s political, economic and social development through “Art and China after 1989” and synthesize those viewpoints with my experiences during visits to my parents’ homeland. But the work showcased only one side of reality: dissenting voices. Maybe the exhibition should’ve been titled “Dissenting Art and China after 1989.” We need to listen to the voices of the oppressed and the oppressors, the dissenters and the followers, to understand history. China has been accused of brainwashing its citizens through propaganda; wouldn’t narrating history with one perspective also be considered brainwashing?
I also felt that the exhibition didn’t sufficiently explain the complexity of the historical context in which these art pieces were designed. I fear that this minimalistic approach further perpetuates negative stereotypes around Chinese people and culture.
According to the introduction, the exhibition “presents work by some 60 artists and groups active across China and the world who have aimed to forge a reality free from ideology, to establish the individual apart from the collective and to define contemporary Chinese experience in universal terms.”
The exhibition’s bookend years are 1989 and 2008. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government violently suppressed thousands of students’ voices calling for democracy; on Aug. 8, 2008, the Beijing Olympics began.
In the artwork “New Beijing,” Wang Xingwei used a 1989 photo of two injured student demonstrators being rushed to the hospital on a tricycle and reproduced it as a painting with two wounded penguins instead.
“Why penguins?” the docent asked.
We came up with meek answers. Penguins are seen as innocent creatures?
Penguins are the only birds that can’t fly?
“But why not innocent and iconic Chinese pandas?” my dad asked me. “Why not adorable bunnies or puppies?”
I was stumped. Maybe penguins are associated with Antarctica, a continent with ambiguous sovereignty. The art could imply that oppression of opinions could happen to anybody, anywhere. Consider these inferences wrong or an overanalysis, but I was disappointed that “penguins are innocent” was the conversation’s final word.
Another fascinating piece of art is Zhang Huan’s “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.” It’s a video of nude people laying on each other to form a mountain.
From a cursory glance, it seems this depiction captures Chinese people at their worst – it’s tempting to use the adjective “primitive” to describe the naked subjects. Simultaneously, I was reminded of the piles of dead, naked Jewish people in the Holocaust. I instinctively wanted to condemn whatever social issue this art was criticizing and view the society that causes these injustices as inferior.
“It is about humility,” Huan told Phaidon Press in a 2015 interview. “Climb this mountain and you will find an even bigger mountain.”
If the museum label explained Huan’s intentions, my understanding would be different. Why was the artist’s approach left unmentioned?
Additionally, in Zhao Bandi’s “Young Zhang,” a Chinese man does his morning stretches, his lips pinching a cigarette, a television set at his feet. The room’s smallness seems analogous to a jail cell.
While this portrait is a valid interpretation of a Chinese citizen’s life, I believe that it, similar to Huan’s work, strips away the dignity of Chinese people as a whole. This unflattering illustration invigorates a possible perception that Chinese people are not industrious and forward-looking. That they deserve to be pitied, and that we – as Americans and the global cop – should help lift these people from their shameful circumstances.
Many Americans’ exposures to China are through exhibitions from prominent museums like SFMOMA. In considering this audience, I wish the display would highlight China’s negative aspects and non-negative aspects, without romanticization.
An understanding of China’s absence of democracy is incomplete without an understanding of China’s elaborate history.
A possible solution would be to have Chinese people lead the tours; both times I visited, my docents were white. They were sensitive and open-minded, but maybe people who’ve experienced China’s modern history would be more nuanced storytellers. That nuance could encourage viewers to process the art with more historical empathy.
“Only powerfully conceived images have the ability to penetrate the memory, to stay there (and) become unforgettable,” photographer Brassai once said.
The artwork was unforgettable and thought-provoking enough to revisit. It forced me to confront a critical question: Who gets left behind amid the breakneck velocity of China’s development?
I realized that the discussion of oppression deepens our understanding of freedom, just as people discuss heartbreak to talk about love and exclusion to talk about connection. In exclusively taking a dive in China’s dissenting perspective between 1989 and 2008, I’ve realized the necessity of diverse voices coming together to tell our stories.
Angie Wang is a senior at Castilleja School and a Town Crier editorial intern.