Great walls

Epic visions of contemporary China at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum.
By EVAN J. GARZA  |  February 27, 2009

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FAMILY TREE: This Zhang Huan self-portrait belongs to a series of several photos in which the artist’s face is slowly and completely covered.

“Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection” | Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem | Through May 17

Slideshow: Images from Mahjong at Peabody Essex Museum.

"Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum opens with a pair of interesting choices. Liu Xiaodong's Eating (2000), an oil painting of shirtless surfside Chinese men standing behind a pile of crabs on a boulder, will appeal to New England cultural affectations. But it's Hai Bo's They Recorded for the Future (1999) that sums up the show's intentions. It's a diptych of posed photographs, one a black-and-white portrait of 16 women donning dark-colored Communist-era garb, the other — hung directly beneath it — showing the same women in colorful day dresses and blouses 25 years later. Executed here with surprising wit, the concept of re-examining the past by way of the present is at the very heart of "Mahjong."

Uli Sigg was the Swiss ambassador to China and Korea for much of the 1980s and '90s. He and his wife became patrons of Chinese art and artists, and as such they were able to buy large amounts of cutting-edge work. Their collection is a vast and brilliant assembly of Chinese works created in the last 40 years, and by juxtaposing it with its own outstanding permanent collection of Oriental and Asian work, the Peabody Essex has provided an exciting and edifying context. These contemporary pieces teem with perspectives bred from Chinese streets and rural villages, reflecting immediate reactions to a speedy Westernization, thousand-year-old artistic traditions entrenched in Chinese culture, and political and social change on a massive scale.

"Mahjong" marks the debut of PEM's first contemporary curator, Canadian-born Trevor Smith. Formerly the curator in residence at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, Smith was also curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York from 2003 to 2006. "In the game mahjong, tiles are shuffled and combinations are made anew," he tells me over a cup of coffee in the museum's café. "As a curator, I'm really fascinated by the potential that one has to make new connections for people, or, in a museum like this, to have the opportunity to lay out these incredible contemporary pieces next to historical work."

Installed in a small side gallery, Wang Jinsong's Standard Family (1996) is a grid of dozens of framed photos, each featuring an image of a standard three-person Chinese family — father, mother, and child — posing in front of a red background. The color of luck and good fortune in Chinese culture, red now represents not only the country's Communist inheritance but the blood spilt enforcing the socialist republic's one-child policy. Effortless and subtle in its presentation, Wang's work also raises the question of what the future holds for Chinese youth. In Weng Fen's photo On the Wall — Guangzhou (II), a young schoolgirl sits on a ledge gazing up at a seemingly monstrous skyscraper — an allusion to the country's mad dash to modernity and Westernization. Xu Bing's Himalaya Drawing (2000), in which Mandarin symbols for "mountain" and "water" are drawn together in ink on Nepal paper to form rolling hills and lakes, subverts (and also revisits) shan shui, a traditional form of Chinese landscape painting practiced since the 10th century.

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Related: Slideshow: Sigg Collection at Peabody Essex Museum, Lost in translation, Maritime after time, More more >
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