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PARIS — Contemporary art curators and other black-clad frequent flyers who go anywhere to see what’s next have found their new avant-garde. It’s embedded in the chaotic urban centers of the nascent market economy of the world’s most populous country, China.
The clanging, trisyllabic names of Chang Yung Ho, Wang Jian Wei and Yang Fudong have already been bruited about at Documenta, the Venice Biennale and other edgy art fairs.
Now these three protagonists of the Beijing scene are having a breakthrough moment in the West, says Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of a new exhibition of their work, entitled “Camera,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The same three will be back in Paris in June as part of a massive show of contemporary Chinese art at the Centre Pompidou.
“It’s not that they are unknown,” says Obrist, whose ceaseless travel and frequent collaborations with Rem Koolhaas and others make him the art-world equivalent of a cool-hunter. “Fudong has been at Documenta. Wei has been in [the] Sao Paulo [Biennial].” And Ho, an architect, had two projects on display at the prestigious International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. But to a larger public, their names probably won’t mean much.
“They are not yet as well known as Matthew Barney or other Western artists of the same generation,” acknowledges Obrist. “Camera” is not another “information show,” as Obrist calls large group exhibits that show a few works from many different artists. Instead, this is a timely, in-depth view of three key figures in contemporary Chinese art.
“We didn’t want to have an exhibition about Chinese art at the moment,” says co-curator Vivian Rehberg, adding that the show is structured in such as way as to “avoid the cliché of an exhibition that speaks only to a Chinese identity.”
The catalyst for the show was Chang Yung Ho. A practicing architect and lecturer at Harvard University, he knew Obrist from previous collaborations, while Wei and Fudong were friends from Beijing. Ho explains that the title of the show is a bilingual pun on the English term for a photographic apparatus and the Latin word for “room.”
Ho designed an installation of four structures, each named after a camera brand from a different country: the American Polaroid, Japanese Nikon, German Leica and Chinese Seagull. A Plexiglas structure, for instance, evokes the bellows of an old Polaroid — and also gives visitors a place to sit down and look at the art.
Under the influence of Obrist and his curatorial colleagues, MAM/ARC, as the museum is known, has become a showcase for video art, with highlights including Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle last fall, and an ongoing Steve McQueen show. Not surprisingly, “Camera” also emphasizes video, shown in Ho’s “modules” as opposed to the typical black-box projection room.
From Wang Jian Wei, fortyish, come two videos of a sociological flavor. “Square” juxtaposes footage of the revolt in Tiananmen Square with the artist’s own video of the square today, a place where tourists snap souvenir photos. “Theater” compiles numerous versions of the story of the White Hair Girl, a stock character in Maoist propaganda.
Yang Fudong, a young star in his late 20s, presents more narrative work. “Liu Lan” is a poetic 35-mm film about the sad beauty Liu Lan. With her long hair and fingers nimbly sewing, Liu Lan lives by a lake and pines for her fantasy love. “Honey,” by contrast, uses a character from popular Chinese spy movies. She is as much a sex symbol as a Bond Girl, but due to repressive official mores, she has to hide her va-va-voom — a Mata Hari in a cadet’s uniform.
Each of the works would seem to contain a critique of the government. That’s fine, says Ho, as long as none is too “confrontational.” State supervisors scrutinize popular media more closely than video art. What’s more, the profit motive has overtaken ideology as the consuming national concern. China’s new great leap forward to market capitalism has subsequently unleashed an explosion of new artistic production as well.
“It reminds me a lot of Spain in the Eighties, post-Franco,” says Obrist. “There is a kind of movità, or energy, when you get off the plane. It is difficult to explain but extremely addictive.”