Much of the highly visible Chinese art circulating in America enforces already popular perceptions of a behemoth reeling from the upheavals of the twentieth century: cartoonish portraits of Mao, paintings of faceless masses, violent urban renewal. “No Cause for Alarm,” a small and smartly curated show at La MaMa Galleria, offers a different picture. By presenting mostly younger artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong —locations that simultaneously are and are not “China” — and emphasizing the quirky and quietly subversive, curators Joanne Chen Wei-ching and Ying Kwok refute the idea of the country as an eerie monolith. Here, the disorientations of service-sector jobs, shifting national identities, and government mandates show up in absurd and familiar actions.
The exhibit opens with a video of the artist Musquiqui Chihying, dressed in blue shorts and running shoes, jogging on a checkout conveyor belt and doing squats in the aisles of a convenience store. By fusing fitness and consumerism, he invites us to laugh at the juxtaposition, and segmentation, of our lives. Luke Ching also couples worlds, by making his performance art a part-time job. Since 2013, he has served as a security guard at several Hong Kong museums. He displays photographs people have taken of him while on the clock; in them, he looks genuinely bored, a fixture of the room as much as the white walls and track lights. Like with Fred Wilson’s iconic Guarded View, Ching draws our eye to the most overlooked person in the gallery. Both artists point out invisible labors that we perform for ourselves, and that people perform for us.
Others in the exhibit reject the role of artist as model citizen, instead poking fun at state symbolism. Song Ta (the only artist from mainland China) responds to the well-known essay “Who Are the Most Beloved People?” about Chinese soldiers’ bravery in the Korean War, by having soldiers perform a different act of bravery: riding a roller coaster without emoting. It’s great fun to watch the three-channel video of them riding the coaster, lined up not in military formation but in bright-blue seats. Next to the video, the amusement park’s corny photos of the soldiers, mid-drop, are on display. Despite themselves, more than a few crack grins.
In 2012, a festival in Tainan invited Su Yu-Hsien to create a project promotin urban revitalization. Su invited Dan Hong Zhu, a woman who recycles plastic for a living, to make the biggest pile of used jugs, bottles, and containers she could. A large-scale photograph documents the resulting globe of debris, several times Dan’s size. They hitched the pile to a motorcycle and dumped it in the city’s canal. It might be a piece of social criticism, pointing to the low-wage recycling economy, or just a brash defiance of the government’s art-as-beautification project.
The exhibition closes with two sly investigations into censorship and speech. One wall is covered with Yip Kin Bon’s
obsessive newspaper-cutting project: He collages found words to re-create the text of a directive from the chair of Hong Kong’s legislative branch to obey the Chinese central government, and reshapes news photos to surreal effect (in one, he removes government officials’ heads). Yip makes visible the inanity of political posturing and critiques those who give Hong Kong’s identity over to Beijing.
Next to that piece, we see Wang Ding-Yeh’s sinister experiment: He asked a man to sing a patriotic Taiwanese song while receiving electrical shocks to the face. As we watch a video of his face bulge and contort, we’re not sure whether to laugh in sport or report this as abuse. The multilayered, risky play on the idea of “free expression” resonates with the show as a whole. It’s a group of artists to watch, for sure, and an invitation for more exhibits to paint an even fuller picture of this irreverent generation finding humor in dislocation.
‘No Cause for Alarm’
La MaMa Galleria
47 Great Jones Street
Through October 8