Arsenal Montreal, a gallery in Griffintown, is currently hosting an exhibit of conteporary Chinese art, “Like Thunder out of China.” It is one of the first times that contemporary Chinese artists have been showcased in Montreal. The basis for the name of the exhibit is the Chinese phrase that refers to artists as “men with thunder and lightning at their heels,” because of their tendency to expose and critique the current order. As a result of their highly dissident nature, most of these artists are not permitted to exhibit freely in their country – several of them were also not allowed to travel to Canada – because of Canada’s strict visa requirements for Chinese nationals. The exhibition includes Han Bing, the Gao Brothers, Lu Fei Fei, Dai Guangyu, Zhang Huan, Qiu Jie, Wu Junyong, Chang Lei, Hung Tung Lu, Gu Wenda, Gao Xiang, Cang Xin and He Yunchang.
The idea for the exhibit was pitched to Arsenal by Margot Ross, a Montreal-based art consultant and curator. Ross felt that while contemporary Chinese artists had become a popular phenomenon both in China and in many big cities in the West, they remained barely visible in Canada. Pia Camilla Copper, a Montreal-based freelance curator and expert on Chinese and Iranian contemporary art, handpicked the artists. Her selection aimed to provide a broad range of artists whom she felt “were speaking about their country’s issues: urbanization, [the] one-child policy, spirituality, the burden of the past, the Cultural Revolution, and propaganda.”
The work is often highly critical of particular government policies. Lu Fei Fei’s The Story of Zhuyuan addresses the issue of unregistered children, an unfortunate consequence of China’s long-running one-child policy. Lu produced a series of photographs of two girls, who are either depicted in the countryside, holding up their nation’s flag, or in front of a government slogan that reads “a girl is always good.” The girls depicted in the pictures – elder sisters in two-child families – cannot receive basic services, such as education, because their births were unregistered. Their parents, disappointed that their first child was a girl, decided to avoid fines by leaving their daughters’ births off of official records, while trying to have another child who would hopefully be male. In China, families often face large fines or other serious consequences for trying to register more than one birth.
Lu uses the symbol of the nation’s flag and the government’s stern propaganda as a powerful element in her visual critique. In an interview with Copper, Lu explained that “in democratic countries, the flag is a symbol of glory and dignity, the symbol of the nation. In a country where people do not have the right to vote, the national flag represents the government’s will and power. The flag as well as the ‘One Child in Zhuyuan’ slogan signify the same thing […] Like the girl, the situation of women remains unnoticed. The situation of the girl child is similar to that of the Chinese people, helpless, coerced by power, without freedom or power to choose.”
The Gao Brothers’ irreverent sculpture of the former Chairman, Miss Mao, makes a caricature of the founder of communist China. Mao is presented in stainless steel with the absurd additions of prominent Betty Boop breasts, a Disney-like button nose, and a vampire’s mouth. Like Lu, the Gao Brothers are direct and unflinching in their political aims. As they told Copper during their interview for the exhibit, “this work exposes the truth that Mao’s politics are a lie [...] Miss Mao is the irony of Mao and his system and the people fooled by Mao’s politics.” The Gao Brothers’ father died at the hand of the Red Guards during the tumultuous and violent Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Miss Mao has been exhibited all over the world and has attracted the ire of the Chinese authorities, who have blocked and confiscated it several times at customs, and even destroyed one version of the piece.
Many of the works, including those by Zhang Huan, Han Bing, Cang Xin, and He Yunchang, can be classified as performance art. Most notable are the photos documenting He’s performance, One Meter Democracy, in which a 0.5-1 centimetre deep cut was made on the right side of He’s body, from his clavicle down to below his knee. The whole process is said to be executed under the assistance of a medical doctor, without anaesthesia. Before the cut was made, He held a pseudo-democratic vote to determine whether or not the procedure would take place. According to Copper, “many of the artists [such as] Cang Xin, He Yunchang, [and] Zhang Huan had a classical painting background, (often at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts) and wanted to break away from that. They also wanted to use their bodies to signal that they lived in a repressive dictatorship that could control those bodies.”
Contrary to what one might expect to find in a representative selection of dissident artists critiquing the current order, Lu FeiFei was the only female artist featured. Copper explained that “there are many Chinese female artists. In fact, China [has been a] a very egalitarian country since the advent of Communism. However, I just decided to include one because, often women artists are less political, more interested in the private sphere.”
That, unfortunately, is a fault in an otherwise exceptional exhibition. The artists represented are overwhelmingly male, and much of the work has strong anti-establishment overtones. While it’s great to present that narrative, it fits uncomfortably well with the way that China is typically understood in Western consciousness. If Arsenal’s main goal was to present the antipathy that Chinese artists feel towards their government, then it certainly succeeded. The works did not, however, represent other aspects of life in China, by choice, it seems. Given the way that Western media tend to represent only the worst aspects of China – pollution, corruption, and the trampling of human rights – it seems a missed opportunity not to represent the more human, every day side of life; the side that is rarely portrayed in North America or Europe. That said, we should be grateful to Arsenal for bringing such an arresting selection of Chinese contemporary works to Montreal.