Chinese art at the Whitworth

One of the exhibitions shown immediately following the reopening of he newly refurbished and extended Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester was Unmanned Nature, an amazing installation in the Garden Gallery by the Chinese born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. That exhibition has now finished – replaced by the works by Gerhardt Richter, which was part of the Manchester International Festival.

The Chinese theme contiues, however, as the main exhibition currently showing is a display of contemporary Chinese art, filling three rooms, entitled The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now

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Uli Sigg is a Swiss businessman, former diplomat and art collector who has worked in China and became interested in Chinese Contemporary art.dsc05859_19088260254_o

The Whitworth’s website tells us that

The collection will form the backbone of the new M+ museum for visual culture in Hong Kong (due to open to the public in 2019) and the exhibition here at the Whitworth, put together in collaboration with our curators and colleagues from the M+ Sigg Collection, will be its only UK showing.

There is a chronological logic to the exhibition with works from each decade displayed in different galleries.

The “star” of the show, which will no doubt be the main draw, is Still Life (1995-2000),  an installation by Ai WeiWei comprising  thousands of Stone Age axe heads that fill a large part of the floor in the central gallery.

Most of the artists are unknown in the UK, with one notable exception.

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The Whitworth’s website tells us that the work is

an iconoclastic gesture designed to offset the value and importance of these ancient objects.

I’m not entirely sure just how it’s meant to do that unless it is working on the basis that value and importance reflects rarity and by having so many displayed together, these are undermined.

Zhang Huan‘s photographic work, Family Tree, is the result of a single day’s performance where nine calligraphy painters took turns to write lyrics on his face, gradually obscuring his features with a mass of ink. The work comprises nine photographs, showing how he work progresses and results in a face covered with a mass of ink. It doesn’t come across too well in this photo due to reflections in the glass.

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Another, earlier work by Ai Weiwei Untitled (Three Leaders) was on display in the first gallery.

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Nearby is a painting, with a photographic realism, of four laughing heads.

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This was another photographic work from a performance artist (I neglected to note his name).

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The artist has covered his body with paint and created an impression by lying on the paper. An accompanying display showed how it was created.

The third room contains more recent works. One I particularly like was the Looks like a Landscape by Liu Wei. It’s a huge digital photographic work made up of buttocks, knees and other body parts  put together to resemble a traditional Chinese landscape painting. The foliage on the “mountains” is body hair, and the figures – mosquitoes. Clever and effective.

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A number of works showed how China has changed – in deed is still undergoing dramatic changes.

These two photographs are of a group of woman. The lower one taken during the Cultural Revolution showing them dressed in the clothes associated with that period. The more recent upper one showing the same group of women, now older,wearing more modern Western style dress.

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I guess the point being made here is that changes have occurred that have meant that the Chinese people were forced to conform but now live in a “freer” society that allows individual expression. Well, I think nearly everyone would agree that is a good thing, but perhaps not all the changes that have been happening in China are so great. Some of the more recent works explore these changes – with China experiencing massive economic development with major impacts on the environment and people’s lives. And not all of these changes are for the better.

Photographs by Weng Fen from his “Sitting on the Wall” series feature schoolgirls with their backs to the camera, sitting on a wall and staring at cities undergoing major development and expansion.

Probably the most powerful piece to explore the impact of the ruthless economic expansion and marketisation is the video by Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006), filmed in a factory manufacturing light bulbs. Twenty minutes long, it’s in three parts.

The first, titled ‘Imagination of Product’, begins with a series of close-ups showing light bulb components being produced and assembled by automated machines, followed by scenes of people working very quickly at workstations that are arranged into a grid formation. The second part, ‘Factory Fairytale’, shows individuals dancing and playing electric guitars inside the factory, often with staff working around them. Some of these performers wear labourers’ uniforms, but one is dressed in a ballerina’s outfit and another in a long white dress. This section of the film ends with footage of a woman going to bed, while the factory can be seen outside her window. The third part – ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ – shows individuals inside the factory, standing or sitting completely still and facing the camera, and in many of these scenes the operations of the factory continue around them. The film finishes with shots of people wearing white t-shirts bearing Cantonese characters that collectively spell out the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ (Tate website)

To me, the film clearly illustrates that although the changes may benefit a small minority of people, the majority are exploited, subject to harsh working conditions, and alienated. They have have ‘no rights, no benefits, and no power’

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