“Follow! Follow! Follow!” group exhibition with Ji Wenyu & Zhu Weibing.
ShanghART Gallery (50 Moganshan Road, Building 16, Shanghai). Sep 6 – Oct 8, 2011. Opening: Tuesday, Sep 6, 5 pm.
It is trite to say that Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing’s dolls are derived from the China’s Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements of the past 20 years (Ji Wenyu, b. 1959, Shanghai; Zhu Weibing b.1971, Heilongjiang). Their social and political critique of China’s command-consumer economy is plain to see. But that’s not everything. Another side of the couple’s work is the Chinese character. In fact, their political pop critique is really only a sub-branch of this overall theme, clearly demonstrated at their recent show at ShanghART in Shanghai.
A square chamber is a recurring stage on which to play with the “character” theme. An earlier work depicted a family — father, mother, child — gazing out of a window at the wider world (the room has no door). In the current exhibition, two works reprise the square. “Image” recalls China’s gigantic, almost bombastic, red pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. A series of screened rooms, declining in size, enclose nothing at all, an empty room, but outside everyone lines up to have their photo taken in front of it — I was there! (but where is there?)
In “Orange Alert,” a double line of soldiers, cradling their guns, guards not an empty room but a discarded tissue. The ground shakes to their marching, or are they just shaking nervously? The mechanical rattle and clunk and jittery mini-soldiers are funny in a wind-up toy way. But the discarded tissue is more enigmatic and troublesome. Which tears did it dry? (Or nose did it blow?) And why is it being protected? What emotions are being controlled and by whom? (I am also tempted to note that the soldier’s form nested squares, like the word “hui” 回 or “return.”)
It is a curious effect of the last 200 years of China’s history that the world’s largest populous is also its most introspective — alternatively proud and self-conscious, solicitous and egotistical, anxious and arrogant (I do not ignore the foibles of other nations here — it is simply not the subject of this article: space is limited!). For while it is an ancient nation of 5,000 years history, it is also only 60 years old — a nation emerging from a difficult childhood into a talented teenager, flexing its strength but still feeling its way — traditional and modern, conservative and creative.
These contradictions fascinate Ji and Zhu. They understand that there have been many Chinas — those of emperors, scholars, monks, bureaucrats, peasants, soldiers and, more recently, a broad middle-class — but now all these forms are available to all. The delusion of control remains controllability — it has deep resonance in Chinese history — but amused chatter from Ji and Zhu, the eternal children laughing at the Emperor’s parade, can break that spell.
Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing are subtle humorists, unlike their more acidic cousins, such as the couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, but not dissimilar to the dry commentary of Lu Xun. “Landing 1” shows a string of paratroopers landing sequentially on a barren little island, immediately erecting a ladder, and climbing up it to gaze through binoculars to the next target. “Climb Up, Walk Steadily” has their little dolls doing just that, into the rafters of the gallery. “Climbing Up the Mountain, Climbing Down the Mountain” is the grand set piece of the exhibition. Two narrow bolts of cloth create a path for countless grey figures to crawl up and back down, before doing it all over again, like the English children’s song about a pointless noblemen pointlessly preoccupying his soldiers:
The Grand Old Duke of York,
He had 10,000 men,
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
Then he marched them down again.
When they were down, they were down.
And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.
Again referencing the mountain landscapes of the literati, “Climbing” also recalls Xu Bing’s now iconic “Book from the Sky”, but not necessarily with reverence. The patience required of such needlework is astounding (Zhu is a former fashion designer, turned art professor). This is handwork, albeit by many hands — not the infinitely refined brushwork of Shanshui masters — but as precise. These dolls are wry but also comforting and comfortingly homely; that is their appeal and lure. But how grey all these figures are — the grey of un-primed canvas and other things too, like life itself and winter days.
Another show by the artists was also held at Ausin Tung Gallery in Melbourne, though not the couple’s first outing in Australia. Their “People holding flowers” (2007) — 100 besuited, pink-faced men (all men), holding up long-stemmed flowers recalling that campaign — was one of the centerpieces of the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2009-2010 and at ShanghART in 2007. The current show, though, aims to introduce the works in a developmental context, including various preparatory drawings, including designs on the back of envelopes. In addition, it includes the joyous and confounding cabbage-floral bouquet, a big ball of flowers with heads poking out of it to see the view. Also present is one of their figure-pyramids — a joke on the reductive-ness of reproduction? Its counterpart may be seen in the ShanghArt show — a baby wagon exploding with grasping limbs but not a head to be seen.