87 Marshall Street
Building 4, Second floor
Western Artists in China
Opens February 2, 2008
China has captured the world's attention as well as an array of international artists and filmmakers. With booming factory culture re-shaping the nation's economy and monumental building projects transforming Shanghai's now-familiar skyline, the new China is provoking excitement and anxiety in the West.
While most of our perspectives on the enormous changes happening there come from limited news sources, Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China offers a look at China through a different lens.
The exhibition features works by artists addressing the complex issues facing China in the wake of industrialization and globalization — as well as their reverberations in the West. Works by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Patty Chang, and Catherine Yass, among others, are included.
Yass's monumental video installation Lock, for example, takes viewers on a journey through a lock of the colossal Three Gorges Dam, one of the most celebrated and most controversial projects in China's new development and a symbol of the conflicting opinions about China's future.
Like a surging tide, China’s manufacturing boom and explosive urban development inspire both awe and anxiety. For most Americans, our view of China is shaped by the homogenizing forces of the news media, but Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China presents nuanced, individualized perspectives from more than 20 artists and filmmakers offering a fresh look at this rapidly changing nation.
The artists — both established and emerging, from Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Sweden, and the United States — are engaged with China on a variety of levels. Many have had lengthy residencies, some have permanent studios there, others have made multiple visits; but they all look with new eyes at a country that remains somewhat enigmatic even as it sets new standards across many economic, environmental, cultural and geopolitical arenas.
The exhibition includes three new commissions by Roma Pas, Lucy Raven, and collaborators Oliver Lyons and Alexis Raskin. Major works by Tobias Bernstrup, David Cotterrell, Annika Larsson, David Thomas and the team of Patty Chang and David Kelley all make their U.S. debut at MASS MoCA.
Additional works by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Jules de Balincourt, Sarah Beddington Edward Burtynsky, Lana Lin, Walter McConnell, Michael Wolf, and Catherine Yass are included. Out of the 21 works on view, 12 are video installations. A portable medium, it is both practical for nomadic artists, and captures something of the pace and scope of the China spectacle. An extensive documentary film program will be presented in the galleries in conjunction with the show.
“The works in the exhibition provide personal glimpses at the astounding changes happening in China,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Susan Cross.
“The artists’ varied visions include a rich mix of the critical and the poetic, the fictional and the real, the past and the present. Seen together they offer a multivalent view of China, and one that acknowledges that as Westerners we may never fully understand this vast, complex country.
While many of the artists address the social and environmental conditions that have aroused international concern, they also impart the incredible feeling of potential and possibility that characterizes contemporary China.”
Eastern Standard is supported by Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, National Endowment for the Arts, the British Council, and Mondriaan Stichting.
Urban Development While the New York skyline has long been the quintessential image of the modern city, the silhouette of Shanghai has become an icon of a contemporary megalopolis. Tobias Bernstrup’s video installation Mantis City (2006) recasts Shanghai as a sci-fi landscape home to a giant praying mantis — reminiscent of Godzilla or King Kong clinging to the Empire State Building.
David Cotterrell reimagines Shanghai’s urban plan in response to the city’s quickly proliferating high-rises in his sculpture South Facing 4.3 (2006). Using over 1000 plaster models of luxury residential towers (quickly taking the place of more traditional housing) Cotterrell replicates officially sanctioned building designs. Each structure faces south at least fifteen degrees. Dictated by the Chinese government, the regulation recalls the traditional orientation of the Emperors’ residences and ensures a certain amount of light for each resident. Repeated endlessly, however, the utopian vision morphs into nightmare. With an accompanying trio of video “sketches” Cotterrell pays homage to the figures he imagines as the real heroes of Shanghai: the lone traffic conductors who attempt to exert control over the chaotic sea of traffic overwhelming the city.
In Electric Shadows (2007), a series of time-lapse videos projected on glass, Oliver Lyons and Alexis Raskin capture what they’ve described as “the new official China” alongside more vernacular images of a China that may be disappearing. Images of the contemporary Shanghai skyline, a wall of official newspapers in Beijing, and the newly opened National Theater near Tiananmen Square are seen next to vendors selling dumplings and couples dancing in front of the Worker’s stadium studies of more informal, communal uses of urban space.
Labor and Manufacturing A new video installation made for MASS MoCA by Lucy Raven looks at two periods of industrialization in China: today, and during the Cultural Revolution in the wake of the effects of the Great Leap Forward. Prophecy (2007) suggests a link between nationalism and work that has been an integral part of Chinese culture past and present, whether in the form of communism or free enterprise.
Two of Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs from 2005, part of his Manufacturing series, show colorful teams of workers in seemingly endless factories. The visually seductive nature of the images provides a dramatic contrast to the harsh reality they depict. The pink accents and the laundry hanging on each of the balconies of the otherwise bleak housing block pictured in Manufacturing #4, Worker’s Dormitory, Dongguan, Guangdong Province, also from 2005, hint at the individuals who make up the faceless rows of laborers.
Three Gorges Dam The Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world and a marvel of engineering, is framed as a particularly potent symbol of the country’s dramatic industrial growth and ambition. Catherine Yass’s film installation Lock (2006) takes viewers on a barge traveling through the monumental dam’s massive lock. Projected on two 12-foot-high screens on opposite walls of the gallery, the work captures the site’s metaphoric position at the border between China’s past and present as well as its potential progress and decline.
A diptych by Burtynsky from 2002 suggests the colossal changes in the local landscape caused by the dam project including many of the now submerged towns whose residents have been displaced. Images of these Yangtze River sites, dismantled brick by brick by those who once lived there (for reuse in their new homes), suggest the human, emotional toll of the project.
Flotsam Jetsam (2007), collaboration between Patty Chang and David Kelley, explores the relationship between landscape, identity, and imagination in the midst of the extensive changes at the site. The video details the process of fabricating a submarine and its launch below the dam, and then follows the submarine’s progress along the river and through the dam’s locks to the reservoir. Along the journey, locals enact performances of their dreams and fantasies inspired by personal and collective histories of the Yangtze.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla focus their attention on the changes happening in the Pearl River Delta – a central manufacturing site through the eyes of a group of turtles floating on a log as they drift toward the sea. This poetic work, Amphibious (Login-Logout) (2005) subtly reminds viewers of the environmental impact of China’s new development.
East and West Walter McConnell’s moist clay sculpture Itinerant Edens: Chinoiserie (2003) reflects the country’s rich cultural history as well as a familiar fantasy image of the East. Inspired in part by his tours of classic scholars’ gardens, the landscape, obscured by a veil of condensation, is directly translated from an 18th century French wallpaper pattern.
As the view of China changes from the outside, so does China’s view of itself. Patty Chang’s video Shangri-La (2005) took her to a rural town near the Tibetan border which, in 1997, named itself after the mythical paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Melding the fictional and the real, the video is exhibited with a sculpture constructed in the shape of the mountain visible from Shangri-La.
An Abundance of Images Roma Pas’ installation Rendering … (2005-06) highlights the impossibility of a singular vision of the current situation in China, despite the abundance of images available on the internet, in newspapers, and on television. Two projection screens display a changing series of images of construction sites shot in many cities. One after the other, familiar visions of China’s ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding slowly build up on screens like images opening on a computer. Workers, however, have been erased from the images, as have the buildings’ contexts.
Likewise, Eastern Standard does not offer a single view, but many varied impressions of a rapidly evolving country. David Thomas’ enormous photographic banner, In the Palms of their Hands (2007), which depicts Shanghai’s TV tower held between giant fingers — a familiar, joke photo snapped by countless tourists illustrates our desire to “grasp” our subject, even if it means diminishing it. At the same time, this play on perspective aptly communicates the exhibition’s aim – to present alternative perspectives while reminding viewers of the difficulty, absurdity even, of synthesizing such an enormous and complex subject.
Documentary Film Program A selection of documentaries from the United States, France, Germany, and Italy will be screened in the galleries — several investigate China’s industrialization and the lives of laborers. Losers and Winners documents the dismantling by 400 Chinese workers of a massive smelting complex in Germany in preparation for its reassembly in China. The relationship between the Chinese workers and the 30 German former managers who are losing their jobs quickly becomes strained. Directors Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken wryly turn their footage of the rising tensions into a poignant account of cross-cultural miscommunications and the emotions involved. Micha X. Peled’s award-winning China Blue exposes the plight of industrial workers in a Chinese blue jeans factory. The film follows a typical young woman who has migrated, like so many Chinese, from her rural home to a factory town to earn money for her family. China’s rapid industrialization is being accompanied by equally rapid urbanization. In Metropolis, report from China, artists Clemens von Wedemeyer and Maya Schweizer explore several Chinese cities in the hopes of creating a re-adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. In this experimental documentary the filmmakers combine interviews with workers and footage of the urban landscape with clips and passages from the original Metropolis, a film made shortly after the Industrial Revolution that imagined a megalopolis in 2026.
Several documentaries in the series also delve into more overlooked aspects of contemporary Chinese life. The Wise Cat Catches Mice by Italian filmmakers Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini captures the changes wrought on China’s massive rural population as well as communism’s lingering legacy. In Wasted Orient American Director Kevin Fritz follows the Beijing punk rock band Joyside on its first nationwide tour. Interviews with the band members reveal the malaise many Chinese youths are experiencing in the wake of the country’s new consumerism.