‘28 Chinese’ exhibit opens at Asian Art Museum

Rubell Family Collection, Miami/Courtesy
The Man on the Chair, 2008–2009, by He Xiangyu (Chinese, b. 1986). Wood.

This summer at the Asian Art Museum, 8,000 sheets of calligraphy paper hang suspended by cotton threads. Silence is palpable within Zhu Jinshi’s interactive “Boat” (2012) installation. A visitor walking through the towering tunnel seems to simultaneously advance and recede.

Like “Boat,” the exhibition “28 Chinese” reflects a concern that engages dualities of moving forward and gazing backward — dualities of inviting change and revering tradition. Harnessing media that spans from Qing Dynasty antiques to digital technology, the show — which opened Friday and runs through Aug. 16 — examines Chinese art’s relationship to its history and to its present-day concerns, including globalization and industrialism. The cross-disciplinary “28 Chinese” blends emerging talents and established figures, commencing a dialogue about China on the North American stage.

Visiting 100 studios across China, Miami art collectors Mera and Don Rubell acquired 48 pieces by 28 artists. Now on view as part of “28 Chinese,” these paintings, photographs, sculptures and video installations from the Rubells’ permanent collection take a hard look at the themes — transformation, process, subversiveness — that unify and characterize Chinese art today.

Felled trees become waterways become thrones in He Xiangyu’s “The Man on the Chair” (2008-09). The grove of chairs embodies the repurposing of material in an age of industrialism. Hunks of wood, salvaged from the pipes of aqueducts, are hewn into furniture that appears almost unadulterated. The chairs capture the conflict between the opposing spheres of commodity culture and nature, and meanwhile, their experiential nature makes art in museums all the more accessible.

An architectural form by Liu Wei, “Merely a Mistake” (2011), explores regeneration by synthesizing door frames, wood beams and acrylic board, extending its elements into a Gothic spire that recalls China’s modernizing skyline. Even the exhibition label affixed next to the piece acknowledges this modernity. “Making something new from something old seems to parallel China’s continuous cycle of building and transformation, architecturally and culturally,” it reads.

Social commentary is central to He’s critique of global capitalism, “Cola Project” (2008), for which he boiled 27 tons of Coca-Cola to ash and then generated the residue into ink while documenting the process. Far from being improvisational, He’s large-scale projects instead reflect contemporary art’s respect for process and transformation.

Also on view are sculptures — including He’s image of dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s corpse — that inquire sharply into China’s authoritarian leadership. Titled “The Death of Marat” (2011) after the French revolutionary, the satirical sculpture imagines an ongoing political dialogue that traverses history by referencing insurgents across time.

The politicized statements also include Li Zhanyang’s fiberglass figures of Mao Zedong and German artist Joseph Beuys, sharing a moment in “History Observed: Joseph Beuys & Mao Zedong” (2007), and Ai’s subversive readymade “Table With Two Legs” (2008).

Ai’s “Ton of Tea” (2005), one square meter of pu’er tea leaves, lends a fresh perspective on trade. His perspective is, at once, memorable and offbeat. “A whole ton of tea was pressed into a cube to look like a minimalist sculpture,” said Ai in an Ai Weiwei Studio statement. “The work provides a different vantage point to what is ingrained in Chinese history and customs.”

To engage visitors more deeply in understanding and thinking about art, the museum has appointed Karin Oen to serve as assistant curator of contemporary art, according to a press release. The museum’s summer programming includes talks, performances, activities and demonstrations — held in collaboration with organizations including the Chinese Cultural Center and the Asia Society Northern California — that offer visitors a highly engaging experience.

Indeed, “28 Chinese” captures China’s powerful artistic responses to a society that is rapidly changing. In a world of art that is never static, the Asian Art Museum presents a relevant survey of how history and cultural identity continue to shape China’s burgeoning art scene.

“28 Chinese” is on view at the Asian Art museum until Aug. 16.

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].