In times when financial crisis hits the news and people spend most of their time waiting for yet another specialist to come up with answers and a plan, art in Beijing has taken the opportunity to give modern circumstances a different perspective. Different from the TV know-it-alls, new artists in the Chinese capital have put on a show that, instead of putting answers down at the table, raises questions about what goes on backstage. The exhibition “Crisis… What Crisis?” held at Beijing's China Visual Arts Center (now the Museum of China Cultural Arts), is about the problems created by economic and political agendas — those that will not necessarily make it to the headlines.
It may come as a bit of a shock that the capital of the Dragon´s Empire would bring up the catastrophic and degenerative results of development. It´s an exposure of the medical care system, housing problems and political ventures, all part of the same money-driven spheres — got the idea of the crisis here? The pieces somehow give you the idea of a velvet tumor on the country´s throat.
The exhibit was made up by six newly graduated students from CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts), with some experience in shows put on by their school. Their works, done as final projects for academic degrees, caught the attention of the Visual Arts Gallery. “We saw their show at CAFA and decided we should give them an opportunity, give them a bigger space to exhibit,” explains curator Matt Fox.
Yu Benping’s piece shows the lack of freedom and the personal choices available for the women of China when giving birth. She has created two vases with a collage of pictures taken of women’s C-section scars, a debatable medical practice that even though hated by health organizations worldwide and that will leave irreversible scars on women’s bodies, is very popular on China's national health scene. “The most important thing about this piece is that is related to today — China’s fast development and the problems that are in this.”
The installation project done by Deng Zhen is called “Which one am I?” The work is done in several media, such as oil paint, photography, and sculpture, and it questions loss of identity in globalized, economy-driven China. "Twenty, 30 years ago, there was a lot of limitation on what people could achieve or obtain in their life, and therefore what they could do with their own lives. They came to the question of how to identify themselves; they had hopes, but never knew what they could actually become, due to the lack of resources and opportunities. We now have access to much more. We have a lot of dreams: I want to become a painter, I want to get this thing or that thing. So we´re concerned about the things we want to have or achieve."
But don’t be confused by the fact that the piece shows different versions of the artist: none are how they seem. The artist states, “What I want to show is that people who know me, don´t really know me at all. Or not clearly, especially in a rich era like this. We are happy we can get so much, this is the same as the piece. These are all me, it looks like this guy is facing himself in the mirror, and the three are his reflections, they´re all what I want the world to see of me. They are part of me, but not really me.”
Though the pieces talk about modern problems, Chinese traditional elements are still present. “They are contemporary artists, but Chinese contemporary artists. They want to be recognized as such,” explains Fox. The vase in Yu Benping’s work is traditionally considered in Chinese culture as representative of the female form. The number two indicates the ying and yang — the balance, like man and woman. Still, the problem is modern. According to the Red Cross, Caesarean sections should account for only 15% of childbirths per year in any given country. In developed nations, the percentage is around 7%; in China, it's 60%. What is the reason for this? Natural births cost 800 yuan; C-sections, 6.000 yuan. “It was hard to get the women to agree to pose for me, since they were afraid to do it. And it was even harder to get information from the doctors, since they’re telling these women it’s safer and healthier to have a C-section rather than giving natural birth.”
In Deng’s work, the questioning leads to Chinese philosophy. “These pieces of clothing on the floor and the rest of the piece are the same. But it´s only clothes, They're empty. There's nobody in them. In fact, this empty one is the one that expresses myself. There's a Buddist idea (wu wo) that says 'the absence of me.' It's real because the true identity isn’t here, but in the air. The true identity doesn’t really exist. It's not in the body; this so-called true self doesn´t really exist, it depends on how the others perceive you.”
The other pieces would also highlight the cavities on the country’s Olympic smile. Zhang Pengye’s “Treadmill (Abacus)” shows the economic system’s breakdown and its resonance across the globe. His other piece, “Blackbird, Blackpig” retells the Chinese proverb of black crows sitting on a black pig’s back, the two laughing at each other for being black without noticing that they are black themselves. And the pig represents fortune in Chinese culture, whilst crows are regarded as a sign of bad luck.
His third piece is “Bicycle Series no. 9”, which shows what the car industry has done to the enviroment. Ji Huai’s engine “Organism no. 1” shows that, in order to make a very small change — like the tick of a clock — there’s a very complex, difficult, and ready-to-fail system involved, the evident simplicity versus complexity. There’s no deus ex machina appearing around the country.
His two oil paintings, “Demolition Series no. 1” and “Midas Touch”, acknowledge the housing problems in Beijing and the demolition of the old capital in order to build a skyscraper city. Wang Lei ripped a conventional Chinese dictionary and transformed it into two dynastic imperial robes to show the restriction and the immobility of the traditional word in China. “Feathers and Eggs”, by Tian Lu, is a scary image of power and control as the crab's feathered legs come out of the wall on top of eggs, showing that playing with the agricultural system may present a scary future.
All these artists express that crisis is a very controversial concept if taken outside of the mainstream. When China insists on publicizing its efforts in promoting its internal economy and keeping inflation away from the market shelves, there are crises hitting every other aspect of the world that are not mentioned. Even the artists are not immune. In Beijing alone, art sales have fallen by 80% in the first half of the year. But that is probably a topic for another exhibition.