Chinese Artists Confront Censorship, Memory, and History at the Guggenheim


Censorship can look at lot different depending on your vantage point. To observers in the West, the policies of the Chinese government — the routine harassment of journalists and activists, the suppression of internet access, the wholesale erasure of certain words and events from the nation’s history — are abhorrent. The fact that the country’s most internationally celebrated contemporary artist is Ai Weiwei, whose years-long house arrest galvanized the art world, is a case in point. But within China’s borders, life continues, if not flourishes: Facebook can be accessed with simple VPN software, and political discourse carries on, with prohibited words replaced by puns to circumvent the restrictive firewall.

The nine newly commissioned works featured in “Tales of Our Time” at the Guggenheim highlight this contradiction of context. The Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese artists in the show all set out to redraw and complicate the narrative of China, which, in the case of Guggenheim’s audience, is one that has been perceived from the West. The title of the show comes from a book by Lu Xun, a renowned Chinese writer whose work can be read as a symbol for China’s fast-changing political landscape at the turn of the twentieth century: ancient myths and fables recast for a modern audience. Perhaps inspired by Lu, the China on display in the Guggenheim is one that emerges through history, however revisionist, and what we make of it.

Taxi, by Taiwanese artist Chia-En Jao, illustrates this strategy. The video installation follows Jao’s conversations with Taipei cabbies as they drive him to historically fraught sites in the city: the Presidential Office; the Grand Hotel; the former home of Lin Yi-hsiung, a leader of the democratization movement whose mother and daughters were murdered while under 24-hour police surveillance. As one driver regales his passenger with details from the incident, his conversation drifts to his own loose recollections from 1980. None of the segments show the destination or much else of the route, and conversations are interrupted by a phone call from a mistress or chatter about weekend hobbies. What’s important is not the real historical site, but the personal narratives it has spawned and intersected.

Kan Xuan, a Chinese artist who has studied in the Netherlands, also uses the personal to frame the historical. For Ku? Lüè Er, which means “to circle the land” in Northern Chinese colloquial speech, Kan documented sites of 1,010 ancient cities. Many settlements have been eroded beyond recognition, with the frame of Kan’s camera being the only visible border left. Kan’s hand-drawn maps of the sites are projected nearby, blurring the lines between the real and remembered and highlighting the disorienting quality one’s personal narratives bring to experience.

Not all works in the show are as nuanced. At the time of my visit, packs of visitors were swarming around Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, trying to take photos of an industrial machine engaged in the Sisyphean task of squeegeeing up a blood-like substance that is constantly seeping back to its original place. Sun and Peng’s beautiful, dancing machine and its senseless task is thought-provoking, though the “blood” can’t help but remind of the painful yet familiar tale of the Chinese lives that have been sacrificed for the country’s breakneck pace of progress.

In recent years, the Guggenheim has been expanding and diversifying its offerings of Chinese art. Its 2014 exhibition “Wang Jianwei: Time Temple,” for example, was the Beijing-based artist’s first solo show in America. Though Wang’s work has been part of the Chinese avant-garde since the 1980s, his performances, installations, and new-media pieces have never chimed with the commercialism that lifted much Chinese art to fame on the international circuit. The driving force behind this effort is the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, whose $10 million donation sponsored a series of shows including “Tales of Our Time.” One can’t help but wonder how a Hong Kong foundation understands the notion of Chinese territory, or whether this reimagining of Chinese history is more readily staged in an American museum than a Chinese one.

Xiaoyu Weng, the Robert H.N. Ho associate curator who organized the show, tells me that Chinese censorship of artists is an “urban myth”: “It’s a very voyeuristic perception from the West, that artists in China would not have freedom to say what they want to say.” For Weng, the exact aim of this exhibition is to challenge these established perceptions of Chinese art. In putting the show together, she looked for artists who are not simply market-driven, nor producing work that is only dominated by politics, despite their addressing of sociopolitical issues. The fact that many of them have spent time abroad helps to unmask a myth of another kind: that Chinese art develops in isolation from international discourses.

According to Weng, “Tales” offers only a glimpse at the deeper debates taking place in China. “There’s actually a constant discussion ongoing among Chinese intellectuals about what defines modern China,” she explains. “If you really go into China, you can go much deeper into the topics brought up in this exhibition.” In its best moments, the show presents voices from the inside without resorting to over-translation. The joy, and challenge, of this exhibition seems to lie precisely in the tension between what is experienced inside China and what is seen from the West. In that respect, the show’s success is twofold: how its international stage can shape the artists’ place in Chinese discourse, and how its stories can challenge what the American audience thinks it has seen.

‘Tales of Our Time’

Through March 10

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue