Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art
Hot pot is a communal dish of broth, meat, vegetables, and other ingredients, each of which retains its distinctive flavor and texture. An integral part of Chinese culture for more than 1,000 years, hot pot ingredients and styles vary between regions.
Here, the hot pot meal serves as a metaphor for the art of China today in all its complexity and variety, for Chinese artists’ experiences and perceptions of the world, and for their individual and collective memories. Just as people gather around a hot pot to eat and socialize, our Hot Pot encourages viewers to experience and savor, as a community, the contemporary art of China.
The contemporary art movement emerged in China in 1976, but it took nearly two decades for work to be exhibited internationally. I first encountered contemporary Chinese art in 1994 at the Marlborough Gallery in London. At the time, I was struck by how Socialist Realism, the dominant style for more than four decades in both the Soviet Union and China, was being co-opted by artists. The work had the “look” of officially sanctioned art, but its imagery was either slyly critical of, or a comic riff on, Central Committee policies and sensibilities.
Since then, Chinese art has become a huge segment of the international art market—unsurprising, given the reemergence of China on the world economic stage. Nearly 1.4 billion people—20% of the world’s population—are Chinese. The number of artists is staggering, particularly those under 40 who came of age in the post-Tiananmen Square era. The volume and diversity of art being produced is enormous and in many ways resistant to categorization, that proclivity of art historians and critics.
After nearly 20 years of looking, the last three of them intently, I decided there is no way to completely digest the dizzying art scene coming out of China today. In Hot Pot: A Taste of Chinese Contemporary Art, I offer BMAC audiences an opportunity to sample a few ingredients (extending the hot pot metaphor)—themes I recognize as important to a world citizen.
First are the themes of image and identity. How do individuals and communities define and represent themselves? What is traditional/what is new? What is communal/what is individual? What is old China/what is new China?
Crucial to the discussion of old China/new China are themes related to the environment and politics. Throughout history, as economies develop they leave winners and losers, both human and environmental, in their wake. The major differences in the case of China are scale and perspective: scale because no country has ever had a population in the billions as it develops; perspective because the environmental and human costs are better understood, documented, and communicated than ever before. China’s leading intellectuals and artists are questioning, probing, exploring, pushing back against, and even outright condemning an official policy of growth-at-all-costs. Who is in/who is out? Who wins/who loses? What is gained/what is lost? What is fair? What is the common good? What are human rights? Human dignity?
The last ingredient I’ve chosen to explore is a theme I term reinterpreting artistic traditions. This may not seem “important to a world citizen,” but it is central to understanding Chinese art. And to understand the artistic expression of a culture is to better appreciate the perspectives of that culture’s people.
China’s is a 4,000-year-old perspective. For millennia China was the richest economy and culture in the world. But during the period in which the United States experienced its greatest growth, China was in eclipse. A century and a quarter of tremendous upheaval and loss was bracketed by the Opium Wars (1839–60) and the beginning of economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping (1986–90). During the Maoist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution near the end of this time (1966–76), artistic traditions were jettisoned along with, well, pretty much everything else.
Fortunately, artistic traditions and aesthetic sensibilities don’t vanish but transform. In a society like China’s, where the communal is privileged over the individual, an aesthetic that favors continual refinements over invention is unsurprising. More recently, given the international nature of the art world and of art training, young Chinese artists operate in both the local and the global world. Tradition and innovation thus bump up against each other in intriguing ways. The art produced in China today affords us an opportunity to explore a new generation’s view of a transformative moment in Chinese history—a moment that has enormous impact beyond China.
The artists in this exhibit serve up an imposing array of ideas and creative strategies. Painting and photographic styles range from meticulously crafted realism to painterly abstraction. Sculptural materials vary from stainless steel to latex to silk. Video, installation, and performance are deployed in new and inventive ways. The works are humorous or serious, prosaic or poignant, aggressively physical or coolly conceptual. As you sample from our Hot Pot, you will encounter varied ingredients that reflect and amplify aesthetic and human concerns of their creators. I invite you to enjoy this banquet.
— Mara Williams, Chief Curator
The work in Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art is on loan from AW Asia Foundation (Hai Bo, Huang Yan, Wang Jinsong, Wang Quinsong, Zhang Dali, Zhuang Hui), Chambers Fine Art (He Yunchang, Qui Zhijie), Eli Klein Fine Art (Cui Xiuwen, Han Yajuan, Li Hongbo, Liu Bolin, Shen Shaomin, Wang Lei, Zhang Dali, Zhong Biao, and Zachary Bako’s process photographs of Liu Bolin), Galerie Lelong (Lin Tianmiao), Mike Weiss Gallery (Liao Yibai), Dr. Wayne Yakes (Liao Yibai), other private collectors, and the artists themselves.
We are deeply grateful to Hannah Adkins, Bianca Cabrera, David Clements, Loretta Hirsch, Eli Klein, Christina Lee, Anna Ortt, Mary Sabbatino, David Sherman, Sarah Slappey, Taliesin Thomas, Larry Warsh, and Dede Young for their assistance in the development of this exhibit. Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art would never have come into being without the enthusiasm, expertise, and support of Adam and Cai Silver, to whom we extend heartfel thanks. Xie xie!