February 4, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 9

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    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and guest curator Wu Hung, the Harrie H. Vandersteppen S.V.D. Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, have teamed up to present a novel showing of contemporary Chinese art. “Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the 20th Century” opens Thursday, Feb. 18.

    “This is the first (exhibit) of its kind organized by an American university,” said Wu. “The whole show is about what is happening now throughout the Chinese art world.”

    Wu chose the exhibit’s title because it communicates the uncertainty and momentariness of the works and the experiences that inspired them.

    The exhibit, which features the work of 21 artists from the People’s Republic of China, will demonstrate cultural changes in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, said Kimerly Rorschach, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum. All but a few of the works––most of which are being displayed for the American public for the first time––were produced during or after 1996, Rorschach said.

    During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), artists were repressed; however, since the 1980s, the arts have bloomed anew, Wu said. This interruption sets Chinese experimental art apart from contemporary art in other regions of the world, he added. The work in “Transience” represents neither underground nor official art, Wu said. “Some of the artists are making comments on Chinese society. They continually push the boundaries––test the limits––of what the government will accept,” said Wu, who interviewed 60 Chinese art critics, professors and artists in order to track the trends of contemporary art in his native country.

    He found many artists are turning away from the commercialization that is increasingly shaping the Chinese art world as market-style economic reforms take hold. “They are saying ‘we cannot sacrifice art and our tradition for commercialization,’” Wu said. Consequently, many of the works in the exhibit are critical of commercialization, he added.

    “Some of them incorporate useful elements from traditional Chinese art,” Wu said. For instance, artist Xu Bing uses the technique of ink rubbing, while another artist, Wenda Gu, invents characters that have no meaning. “These artists empty out the content but leave the form alone. They don’t reject the formal tradition entirely,” Wu said.

    Larger museums in Chicago could not mount such an exhibit because they, too, are dependent upon commercial success, Rorschach said.

    “In some ways, we can be more daring because we don’t have to worry about mounting blockbuster exhibitions of household-name artists. We can take more of a chance because we’re not dependent upon gate revenue,” Rorschach said.

    “To some extent, we can avoid the commercialism. We can pursue things that we think are intellectually interesting in accordance with our mission and things that reflect research and teaching interests here at the University.”

    Wu challenges the public to look at the art as pieces produced by individuals, all of whom have worked as artists for at least seven years. This exhibit is “not just the bird’s-eye view but also individual flowers and trees.”

    Wu’s hope is that “Transience” will contribute to the future of art history education in this field. “We need books to develop the interest. We need to attract people’s attention. Most students are interested in contemporary art because it is closer to them. Now there are few scholars in the field––few books. We must build a foundation,” he said.

    “Transience” will open with a public reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18. The event will include a performance by Beijing artist Yin Xiuzhen and a talk by Wu. In addition to the 21 exhibited works, the Smart Museum also will display photographs and documentation of more than 100 works submitted by artists but not chosen for the show.

    A virtual tour will be available on the museum’s Web site at http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu after the exhibit opens. The museum also will present several events related to the exhibition, including a seminar titled “Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the 20th Century” (Feb. 19); a film screening, “Good Morning, Beijing,” (Feb. 27); a concert by Min Xiao-Fen (March 28); and a symposium titled “Global Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Art” (April 17).

    Public exhibition tours will be offered at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 28, March 14, March 28 and April 11. The Smart Museum is located at 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. For more information, call (773) 702-0176.