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Tales of Our Time at the Guggenheim

by Stephen Kaye
Wed Nov 23rd, 2016

Into the small spaces on the upper rings of the Guggenheim Museum one can find a show of startling ambition.  Seven young Chinese artists tell tales of our time through their art.  They were given a theme chosen by the two curators who wrote separate introductions printed in the shows’ daunting catalogue.  If one looks at the art, one detects a serious concentration of intention, but intending what may be illusive. The catalogue helps. This show is heavily curated; that is, the intention of the curator (there are two, but the primary credit goes to Xiaoyu Weng) shows through as a powerful force.    

The artists, we learn, are grappling with the age-old questions of identity in a changing world. The changes that sweep over China, and indeed, most of the world, ask us to place ourselves in a history that is spoken or shown or written as myths or tales. Every time has its tales, or myths.  These artists express their own ideas of what myths need showing, telling or explaining.  The conflicts between globalization and growing nationalisms, between a common identity and the individual, between authority and freedom, between official history and reality; between progress and nature: these are the themes. There is a sense of place, of boundaries and of loss.  

A video of a calm sea with a small fishing boat in the distance becomes a sea with several small boats that becomes a sea covered with larger boats who shoot at and sink the small boats; they in turn are shot at by larger boats that are shot at by even larger boats until we have total war.  The climax is a flood of words that covers the sea; all memory of what we have just seen is obliterated by the flood of words that pour off the screen we have been watching and across the floor, surrounding us.  In the End is the Word

In a glassed in room we see a robotic machine sitting on a round floor.  At the feet of the robot is a pool of what might be, and probably isn’t, blood.  As the blood tends to run off the round surface, the robotic arm reaches out and adroitly sweeps the blood back into the pool with a yard long squeegee.   This action is continuous.  The robot senses when the blood is about to reach the edge and quickly responds. Blood is splashed on the walls, so it looks like a messy slaughterhouse.  This is machine working against the forces of gravity.  It is also madness, horrifyingly mechanical, horrifyingly omniscient.  It portends an uncomfortable truth about the world we live in, the surveillance capacity of the state and its ability to act quickly to stop us from escaping.  That metaphor can be extended in many directions. Can’t Help Myself

Among the curators’ comments: 

“[W]e wanted a utopia, but we got a dystopia.”  “the absurdity of our destiny.”

“The blood-soaked eagle’s claws suggests America’s military expansion.”

Sun Xun makes a projection of drawn characters representing early forms of life that appear, morph into different shapes and disappear.  It is the beginning of creation; it is mythological time; there is a coal mine, a town and environmental degradation. The cycle of formation and destruction, of birth and death, impermanence, fragility.  These symbols are open-ended, but the point is clear.

Photographs are a cross of dada, surrealism, photorealism, randomness, geography. They show a distant discontent, impersonal and also subjective. The totality is disconcerting.  That seems to be the message.   It’s not personal, it’s just existence and how these artists see it.  The artists seem disengaged.  There is a suggestion of something wrong, but it is not a moral suggestion: it’s just the way it is and we can’t do anything about it, except: we can express ourselves in art. 

For a video interview of Xiaoyu Weng, go to: