As Zhang Huan sat in one of Beijing’s most vile public toilets, flies landed everywhere on his naked body: in his nose, on his scrotum, over his eyes and lips. It’s what Zhang wanted. He’d smeared his flesh with honey and fish juice to attract the insects, and he sat still on the toilet seat for an hour as cameras recorded one of China’s most audacious public art performances. Made in 1994, 12 Square Meters was a biting commentary on China’s social conditions, and it remains both shocking and deeply informative. “28 Chinese,” the Asian Art Museum’s rousing new exhibit of 28 artists’ work from China, features a large photograph of Zhang’s feat, in which we see the artist in a monk-like state of sweat and concentration. Zhang is Lord of the Flies, and we get a front-row seat at his coronation and the start of China’s art-world ascension.
“28 Chinese” provides an eye-opening overview of China’s contemporary art scene of the past two decades. If Zhang and Ai Weiwei, who’s also included in “28 Chinese,” are China’s international art celebrities – artists in their 50s who are known across time zones and beyond the art world – then Liu Chuang and He Xiangyu belong to China’s new generation of social critics. They are artists in their 30s who use satire, absurdity, and a bit of in-your-face outlandishness to characterize modern China and its complicated embrace of communism, capitalism, and commercialism. Another c-word comes to mind when plowing through “28 Chinese”: contradiction. China is a nation of contradictions, and art offers a way to expose them through the veneer of paint, sculpture, collage, photography, video, and, yes, performance.
Take Liu’s Buying Everything on You series, in which he approached job-seekers on the streets of Shenzhen, a city of 10 million people near Hong Kong, and asked them to give him all their clothing and personal belongings, including licenses and photos. Liu would pay the strangers, he told them. In Mandarin, many undoubtedly told Liu “不要” (“no thanks”) or worse. But enough said “行” (“yes”) that Liu got what he wanted: an art exhibit of personal effects that becomes a kind of mummification of lower- and middle-class Chinese lives. Laid out on long white platforms, the assembled items – pants, underwear, makeup, toothpaste, cigarettes, dog photos, IDs, and banknotes – lets us examine the private lives of Chinese strangers. Thanks to Liu, the art of anonymity memorably emerges from the teeming streets of Shenzhen.
Among the other riches in “28 Chinese”: He Xiangyu’s Cola Project, for which he hired a phalanx of workers to boil 127 tons of soda in a makeshift factory on the border of China and North Korea. The yearlong cookoff produced more than 10,000 gallons of residuum – dark remains that resemble tar or concentrated soot. “28 Chinese” gives us the full arc of He’s project – a large soot sample, piled up behind metal and glass; 10 rows of plastic Coke bottles, lined up in a way that Andy Warhol would have liked; photos of the steamy factory work; and He’s sketches that articulate, step by step, how he repurposed a sugary, diet-killing American import with annual Chinese sales in the hundreds of millions. Chinese authorities investigated He’s factory during his experiment – an intrusion that put He face-to-face with China’s authoritarian rulers, whom he indirectly criticizes in another of his “28 Chinese” art works: The Death of Marat, an eerie and realistic sculpture of Ai Weiwei that has Ai facedown on the ground, wearing a suit favored by members of the National People’s Congress that rubber-stamped China’s crackdown on Ai’s movements.
Ai is still alive and working but he can’t leave China, which is no obstacle for the art collectors Mera and Donald Rubell, whose works comprise the entirety of “28 Chinese.” Acquisitions for their acclaimed museum, Miami’s Rubell Family Collection, have led them on scores of trips to China in the past 14 years. (They know Ai, He, Zhang, Liu, and the 24 other artists featured at the Asian Art Museum.) The Rubells’ gravitation toward modern Chinese art bookends their early years as collectors, when they befriended Keith Haring in New York. Haring’s audacious work, for which he’d risk arrest and injury in the city’s subways and streets, has parallels to much of the art in “28 Chinese,” especially that of Zhang, who worked in New York for eight years before moving to Shanghai in late 2005.
Zhang, who is 50, tells SF Weekly that his art isn’t rooted in geography – that he doesn’t consider his art to be “Chinese art.” “They are neither global, nor Chinese. They are mine,” Zhang says in an email interview.
Zhang’s time in New York, though, made him appreciate China’s culture in a way that he never imagined. “To live in New York was a dream when I was young,” he says. “I spent eight years living in the other part of the earth, and traveled to many countries during that period. It was for the distance from my native land that I could realize myself, my tradition and the most essential treasure of my ancestors more clearly. To me, New York no longer maintained its sense of mystery, charms, and vitality — while things in China were on the contrary at that time.”
When Zhang moved back to China, he instantly “found new inspiration and media for creation,” he says. “I cherished the incense ash burnt in temples in Shanghai and the surrounding areas, and the old wooden windows and doors of the old buildings in outskirts of the city. The characteristic tradition of China and the desires in the modernists became the source of my art creation.”
Zhang’s recent artwork includes workers who strip naked and enter a large Beijing pond. These photos beg art-goers to stare and study them and ponder the images’ subtexts. It’s 12 Square Meters that is Zhang’s defining early performance. During the piece, a man wandered in on Zhang and, stupefied, called the police. Asked if he expected Chinese authorities to crack down on his work because it was partly an indictment of conditions in Beijing, Zhang deflects, saying 12 Square Meters reflected his standard of living. The work, he says, ultimately represents “survival.”
“My inspiration,” Zhang says, “is from the most trivial things in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, working, and those which are always ignored in our ordinary life. I always discover and experience the nature of human from such things. What I want to experience in my artworks are survival, the physical body, and the truth. The work reflected my spiritual, physical and living conditions at that time.”
“I realized,” Zhang adds, “that the body was the most direct way to contact society as well as prove one’s personal identity.”
Other artists in “28 Chinese” use nudity to make higher points about society. Those points can easily be interpreted as finger-pointing at China alone, but there is a universality in the art that’s spread out on three floors of the Asian Art Museum. In American popular culture, it’s China’s cheap goods that everyone knows. If more people knew about the art that anchors “28 Chinese,” they would know that China is also exporting some of the world’s most enthralling modern art — everything from touching abstract paintings to works like 12 Square Meters that stop you in your tracks and make you say, “That can’t be what I think it is.”