Art is often categorized into movements, but that’s something Weng Xiaoyu, associate curator of Chinese art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, sought to avoid with the museum’s new show, Tales of Our Time. Weng says that instead, she wanted to emphasize the individual nature of the works in the exhibition, which runs until March 10, 2017.
“This is not intended to be a summary of what’s going in Chinese art today,” she says. “The idea is to bring seven interesting artists and artist groups together. I’m not trying to inform American gallery goers about what’s going on in the wider sphere of the Chinese art scene.”
The works of the artists, sourced from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, are certainly individual. Beijing-based artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself is a functioning industrial robot which viciously flicks a snakelike mechanical neck around the inside of a glass cage.
A sweeper attached to the neck continuously pushes a blood-coloured industrial liquid around the floor of the cage. The machine’s movement has a brutal elegance, and its comment on the dehumanizing effects of industrialization are expressed with clarity.
Sun Xun’s immersive installation Mythological Time also focuses on industrialization, but is more phantasmagoric in style. The work consists of two murals featuring coal miners, owls and other creatures, and an animated video. It’s grim, yet still mysterious and strange.
Mythological Time sets the artist’s hometown of Fuxin, China, once an important coal mining center, in the context of a long history which finally morphs into mythology.
Despite the unique contributions of the artists, the show does have a unifying theme, says Weng: “Ultimately, it’s a group show – it’s not just seven objects sitting in a gallery. All the artists explore the idea of place. Even the machine, Can’t Help Myself, is speaking about territories, boundaries and borders.”
The show addresses subjects like political surveillance, and the refugee crisis, Weng notes: “Tales of Our Time has a global perspective. People often seem to think that Chinese art always refers to the Chinese government and censorship. But global issues are reflected in these works.”
Tales of Our Time is part of the Guggenheim’s Contemporary Chinese Art Initiative, which is funded by the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.
The initiative aims to increase the knowledge of new Chinese art in the US. It’s a commissioning process rather than an acquisitions project. Guggenheim curators, headed by senior curator of Asian art Alexandra Munroe, find relevant artists, and then fund their work. The results become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“We visited over 30 artists,” says Weng, who put the show together with assistant curator Hou Hanru. “When we came back, we started to look at their ideas, and realized that some of them were thinking about similar things.
“So we thought that it could be interesting to put some of these artists together. But we didn’t take a thematic approach and tell the artists that we wanted them to respond to a theme. It didn’t work that way, it was actually the other way around.”
Weng thinks that those with no knowledge of China will be able to enjoy the show. “My aim is for people to be able to engage with the art without having to be experts – you don’t have to know Chinese art or Chinese history to understand what the artists are trying to do,” she says.
“When I go to an exhibition which features artists commenting on European history, I am curious, I want to understand it. I am not an expert in European history, but if the art is intriguing enough, it gets me involved. I hope this will happen with Tales of Our Time.”