Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

November 10, 2018–February 24, 2019

One of the Largest Exhibitions of Contemporary Art from China Presented in North America

Bracketed by the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the spectacular pageantry of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World presents an extensive survey of an historical period of Chinese contemporary art. It looks at the bold movements that anticipated, chronicled and agitated for the sweeping social transformation that brought China to the center of the global conversation. The exhibition was previously presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The show’s West Coast debut examines how Chinese artists have been both critical observers and agents of China’s emergence as a global presence through a concentration on the conceptual and performative practices and social and political critiques of two generations of artists.

SFMOMA has a long history of presenting exhibitions of important contemporary Chinese artists. The museum organized Inside Out: Chinese Art in 1999 — the first exhibition in the United States dedicated to featuring works created since 1986 by artists from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as artists who emigrated from China. It has also presented Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection (2008) and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea (2009).

“Art and China after 1989 brings together a dynamic group of two generations of artists who were active during a transformative period within the history of China and Chinese art. This exhibition updates our audiences from where our watershed exhibition in 1999, Inside Out, left off and highlights the importance of continuing to challenge our assumptions about Chinese artistic traditions and the global impact that they and China have made on our world,” said Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture.

About the Exhibition

Featuring the work of more than 60 key artists and artist groups living in China and abroad during the onset of globalization, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World presents over 100 works of photography, film, video, painting, sculpture, ink, performance, installations and participatory social projects. These works from private and public collections around the world will be displayed in six thematic chapters that fill SFMOMA’s seventh-floor contemporary galleries.

Visitors will have their first encounter with Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World upon entering the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium off the museum’s Third Street entrance. There, artist Chen Zhen’s dramatic Precipitous Parturition (2000), an 85-foot long writhing dragon sculpture created from found materials including bicycle inner tubes, bicycle parts and toy cars will be displayed suspended from the ceiling. The work offers a sly commentary on China’s dramatic transition from an analog nation of bicycles into a highly industrialized nation whose cars emerge from the belly of the dragon.

Organized in six chronological, thematic sections, the exhibition includes:

1989: No U-Turn — The first section focuses on the exhibition China/Avant-Garde that opened at the National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989 and presented performance art, installation and ink abstractions that defied easy explanations but announced a new direction for modern art in China. It also features work addressing the Tiananmen protest movement that arose within months of that show, and the June 4th massacre that ended the 1980s decade of liberal reform.

New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation — In the aftermath of the events of 1989, artists experienced a crisis of confidence towards authority systems, bureaucracy, language and ideology and turned towards conceptualist practices to expose processes that perpetuate structural authoritarianism.

5 Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism, Realism — Impacted by the sweeping changes brought about by economic liberalization, urbanization and globalization in the early 1990s as China turned from socialism towards free-market capitalism and morphed into “the world’s factory,” artists responded with a resurgence of realism creating work that explores the conditions of daily life in China.

Uncertain Pleasure: Acts of Sensation — Artists looked beyond China as they began to participate in international biennials and reconnect with contemporary currents through travels and publications. This section focuses on the development of extreme durational performance art and video art as key tools to explore the tension between individualism and collectivism during the mid to late 1990s.

Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between — This section explores the parallel history of Chinese artists working abroad during the 1990s and early 2000s as they master the “transexperience” of living between multiple cultures and worldviews, and those within China who begin to critique their own complicity in a newly global art world.

Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives circa 2008 — When skepticism of the validation generated by the awarding of the Beijing Olympics in 2001 combined with the catastrophic events of the Sichuan earthquake and the global financial collapse of 2008, it yielded concerted social activism in the form of multi-year, utopian-themed projects. Facilitated by the Internet, artists, collectives, activists, critics and curators sought to take art outside museums and galleries and into society itself, restoring the revolutionary purpose of art to change society.

The titular work of the exhibition, Huang Yong Ping’s two-part installation Theater of the World (1993) and The Bridge (1995) opens the exhibition on the seventh floor. This two-part sculptural installation is a metaphor for accelerating globalization and explores the duality between social chaos and coexistence through a presentation of insects and reptiles inhabiting a cage-like version of the panopticon, an 18th-century structure created for omnipresent surveillance. SFMOMA’s installation of Theater of the World and The Bridge will replicate the altered presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York where, in response to vociferous protests, it was displayed without live insects and reptiles and with an accompanying artist statement. Two historic video works in the exhibition, Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003) also will be presented in deactivated states as in the New York presentation and will be accompanied by artist statements as gestures memorializing the works. Now part of the history of the exhibition and of the three works, these artist gestures contextualize the way in which the art works were met with criticism and protest prior to their actual display in New York.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World is organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Major support for Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World is provided by Susy and Jack Wadsworth. Generous support is provided by Shannon and Dennis Wong, and Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This exhibition is organized by Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and guest co-curators Philip Tinari, Director, UCCA, Beijing; and Hou Hanru, Artistic Director, MAXXI, National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome. At the Guggenheim, Xiaorui Zhu Nowell and Kyung An provided curatorial research and support.

The curators worked with an international advisory committee that has met under the auspices of the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, and the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing.

The SFMOMA presentation is organized by Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts; Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture; and Eungie Joo, curator of contemporary art.

Image details: Cao Fei, RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei), 2007. Color video with sound, 6 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Young Collectors Council with additional funds contributed by Shanghai Tang. © Cao Fei.