Chinese art exhibit is highly political

Britta Erickson Chinese art installation

1/4 Hoover Tower was installed at the Cantor Arts Center as part of an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art.


Zhang Huan’s My New York: #4 (2002), which is on view at the Cantor Arts Center through May 1 as part of the exhibit “On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West.”

Britta Erickson Yan Lei

Yan Lei, second from right, worked with helpers on painting West of the West, Stanford Project: Christmas Party as part of his artist residency on campus.

Wang Du's sculpture Youth with Slingshot, modeled on a news photograph of a Chinese protester outside the American Embassy in Beijing reacting against the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, has a prominent place near the entrance of On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West at the Cantor Arts Center. Like the figure in Wang's sculpture, many of the dozen artists who contributed works to the exhibit take precise aim at their subjects.

One target is particularly close to home. Huang Yong Ping's 1/4 Hoover Tower is a wooden representation of the campus landmark installed in the center's lobby. Huang, a founding member of a Chinese Dadaist group who now lives in Paris, used a staple gun to cover the nearly 19-foot-high structure with red, white and blue-striped plastic, a material widely used by the construction industry in China. Cut-out openings allow visitors to look inside the installation, empty except for two sentences on the inside walls: "A ton of food for a pound of history? Or a pound of explosives in exchange for a ton of history?"

According to the artist, the inscription is based on a statement former university president Ray Lyman Wilbur made about Herbert Hoover, who, as head of the American Relief Organization, organized shipments of food to be sent to Europe and Soviet Russia after World War I. "Hoover is the greatest packrat of all times because, whenever he leaves a ton of food, he picks up a pound of history," Wilbur said.

"Of course, he was talking about the 1920s. As everyone knows, today in Afghanistan and Iraq, after bombs, they airdrop food," Huang said in his proposal for the work. "There is never innocent food, and there is never a 'pure' or innocent collection of historical documents. My interest in the American think tank has to do with thinking about the relationship between so-called pure, disinterested academic organization and contemporary political reality."

For Chinese artists who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and many of those who followed, art and politics are inseparable, said Britta Erickson, guest curator of the exhibit. Erickson, who earned degrees from Stanford in art history and East Asian studies and has lectured in the Art Department, is a leading authority on contemporary Chinese art.

Artists who were adolescents during Mao Zedong's decade-long Cultural Revolution inherited a "singular outlook on life and the role of art," Erickson wrote in an essay for the catalog she authored to accompany the exhibit. Traditional brush-and-ink painting, unless used to depict revolutionary subject matter, and "art for art's sake" were unacceptable. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the only way for artists to make a living was in a government-run institution. Artists found ways to be innovative both within and outside the official art system, she said. China's post-Cultural Revolution artists "are politically savvy on many levels."

Contemporary Chinese artists have had to fight for a toehold in the international art market, dominated by the West, Erickson said. "China's avant-garde artists are doubly marginal," the curator said. "They are marginalized in their own country, and China's art is considered marginal by the international art community." That status is changing rapidly, however, Erickson added; she gauges interest by the number of requests for information about individual artists she receives. In the last few months there has been an incredible amount of interest in contemporary Chinese art, particularly by collectors, she said.

Chinese views of the WestOne of the biggest problems with exhibitions of Chinese art in the West is that they cater to Western expectations, presenting Chinese art as tied to past traditions or as an outgrowth of Western art, Erickson said. (Paintings by Zhang Hongtu in the exhibit simultaneously address both expectations: In Wang Shen—Monet, Zhang repaints a 12th-century landscape, originally created on a scroll, in the style of Impressionist painter Claude Monet.)

Other work in On the Edge cuts to the heart of China's interaction with the West. Bat Project I, II, III Memorandum documents Huang's "Bat" projects, which created replicas of parts of the American spy plane that was forced to land at a military airport on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese military plane. Three installations were halted or removed from exhibitions in China.

In My New York, photographs and a video show performance artist Zhang Huan in a post-9/11 work commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art. For the performance, Zhang wore a muscular body-builder costume made from raw strips of meat, symbolizing U.S. power, and walked through New York streets releasing white doves into the air and into the hands of (sometimes tentative) New Yorkers.

The West, an interactive computer-based exhibit by Qiu Zhijie, is an ongoing project, which uses video clips, interviews and photographs to present Chinese views of the West. (Among the mix of images drawn from popular and high culture is Minnie Mouse clad in Tang-dynasty court dress.) And Xu Bing, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award, has created a classroom in the exhibition, where visitors can practice "Square Word Calligraphy," which converts the English alphabet into a character system.

Erickson set out to choose the strongest work by contemporary Chinese artists that she had seen, and the result of her efforts brings together the work of some of the most prominent artists working today, she said. "It's not a huge show, but it includes very important works of art. I think it will appeal to all kinds of people, from children to prickly art connoisseurs to intellectuals who can excavate the deeper meanings."

Artists Huang, Yan Lei, Yang Jiechang, Yin Xiuzhen and Zhan Wang are participating in short campus residencies and creating new works for the show, which is on display through May 1. (Yin will create an installation, Fashion Terrorism, in the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, beginning March 14.)

On March 9, Erickson will guide a tour of the exhibit hosted by the Asian Staff Forum. Participants will meet in front of the Cantor Arts Center at noon. More information about the show is available online at or by calling 723-4177.