“Tales of our time” presents Generation X’s perspectives on place and history at the Guggenheim New York until 10 March 2017.
“Tales of Our Time” features eight newly-commissioned works by Chinese and Taiwanese artists and collectives, including Chia-En Jao, Kan Xuan, Sun Xun, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Tsang Kin-Wah, Yangjiang Group and Zhou Tao.
“Tales of Our Time” is the second of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative, which seeks to commission new works relevant to Chinese contemporary art which will then enter the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. All the artists included in the exhibition were born between 1970-80, thus suggesting that the works on display in “Tales of Our Time” offer a particular generational perspective on the the themes of the exhibition: the retro-alimentative relationship between place and history and how the narrating of history has contributed to the shaping of geography, landscape, architecture and notions of belonging.
The exhibition’s curators Hou Hanru and Xiaoyu Weng helped to shape these themes in discussion with the artists, each of whom was selected for their “socially aware” perspective and the way in which each artist is actively repositioning and challenging current dialogues about art from Greater China in an international context. The exhibition’s most successful works tackle our collective fears about the numerous ways – political, ecological, technological – that humans might destroy the world.
“Tales of our time”
The exhibition takes its name from the 1936 book Gushi xin bian (Old Tales Retold) by Lu Xun, a leading influence in modern Chinese literature. The text is a collection of fictional stories that Lu Xun based on ancient Chinese fables and legends. Thus, as its title suggests, Lu Xun is retelling old tales, using their new iterations to comment on the problems of his era. “Tales of Our Time” is an updated version of Lu Xun’s book in the form of an exhibition, with the artists exploring both personal and national histories in an attempt to rewrite or alter them – and in doing so, reflect the state of present-day China.
Chia-En Jao and Kan Xuan: experimental map-making
Chia-En Jao (b. 1976, Taipei) has travelled and exhibited extensively across the globe since completing studies in Europe. His practice – deeply rooted in his local surroundings – has more recently delved into colonial histories and the cross-cultural tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. His anthropological and collaborative approach has led him to work with civilian protestors, taxi drivers and immigrant workers from Southeast Asian countries.
For video installation Taxi (2016), the artist recorded conversations between himself and various taxi drivers in Taipei, each of whom he had asked to take him to a site of historical controversy within the city (examples include Chang Hwa Bank, the Presidential Office Building, the Grand Hotel, or the National Taiwan Museum). Chia-En Jao sits in the back of several cabs en route to these Taipei landmarks and records the drivers animatedly chatting about their lives and their relationships to these places. Abstract discussions about the meaning of nationhood sometimes slip into current events. The taxi drivers’ narratives offer a plural and personal map of Taiwan.
Also engaged in experimental map-making is artist Kan Xuan (b. 1972, Xuancheng, Anhui Province). In preparation for her multimedia installation Kū Lüè Er (2016) the artist travelled across China for five months, photographing and researching the remains of 110 ancient cities, all important in the history of China’s dynasty history. She then took her travel images and, after editing their colour, arranged them to play on a loop in stop-motion across 11 flat-screen monitors. The installation also includes a projection of hand-drawn maps that the artist sketched from memory.
The inconsistencies and incoherencies that arise between the photographs and the hand-drawn maps offer a meditation on the relations between storytelling and map-making. Her hand-drawn maps propose a counter-representation to the dominant grand events of Chinese national history. For Kan Xuan travel is the best way to know about place and history, through direct observation and listening.
Sun Xun and Zhou Tao: mythological time
Although interested in traditional modes of representation, such as ink painting and woodcut printing, Sun Xun (b. 1980, Fuxin, Liaoning Province) makes complex animated films from his work, composed of up to five thousand single frames. In “Tales of Our Time” Sun Xun is exhibiting Mythological Time (2016), a surreal animation set in his northern hometown, Fuxin, which was once home to the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia. Tanks, miners, fossils and mountains are Sun Xun’s protagonists. Disconnected vistas scroll across the long screen, recalling the axonometric compositions of Chinese landscapes as well as contemporary dystopic cartoons.
Zhou Tao also uses video to explore China’s industrialisation and environmental degradation. Zhou Tao’s two-channel video Land of the Throat (2016) was shot in South China’s Pearl River Delta, the first region of the country oriented to capitalist production in the era of Deng Xiaoping. Like Sun Xun’s Mythological Time, Zhou’s Land of the Throat roams abandoned sites, this time around Guangzhou and Shenzhen, avoiding character and plot in favour of melancholy and sometimes surreal shots that flow together as a dreamscape. Both film works refuse to locate themselves before the viewer in the past, present or future, suggesting that contemporary time is rather an amalgamation of the three as “myth” – as Sun Xun’s artwork title suggests.
Tsang Kin-Wah and Yangjiang Group: filling place with language and conversation
The Chinese artist collective Yangjiang Group has, since 2002, been hosting gatherings in its hometown where people come to play soccer, eat dinner, practice calligraphy and drink tea. As part of the group’s commission for “Tales of Our Time”, it re-created their art-as-life participatory interventions at the Guggenheim, with a focus on calligraphy and tea. Yangjiang Group hosted one instance of their tea gathering during a mini-symposium on art, urbanism, literature and their intersections at the Guggenheim New York presented in conjunction with “Tales of Our Time”.
Tsang Kin-Wah (b. 1976, Shantou, Guangdong) is the only Hong Kong artist in the exhibition. His video installation In The End Is The Word (2016) explores the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. It is, like Zhou Tao and Sun Xun’s work, quite apocalyptic: a quiet harbour gradually fills with ships, jockeying for position like pieces in the Hasbro game Battleship. Tensions heighten as the harbour grows more crowded, noisy and polluted, until finally a cathartic rush of words – phrases from Derrida, Nietzsche, Sartre and others – come streaming down, clearing the screen. The work ends with a single whale swimming in the bay, spouting mist into the sky.
Artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu: “mopping up the place”
Nearly all of the works in “Tales of Our Time” are video based, apart from Can’t Help Myself (2016), a gigantic robot equipped with a single arm attached with a squeegee, installed in a room-size see-through chamber. The robot-sculpture was programmed by Beijing-based artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Described by the press release as a “guard” of sorts, the robot’s duty is to mop up a pool of dark liquid resembling blood as it starts to seep away. The more the substance oozes, the more frantically the robot moves in an attempt to contain the liquid, shovelling the liquid in a move that leaves behind smears and traces of red. The work is a feat of contemporary programme, operating according to the following logic: when a sensor detects that the liquid has flowed past a certain boundary, the robotic arm swoops down and cleans it up off the floor, and splashes the white gallery walls with the red fluid. The result is the enactment of a scene that recalls various tropes and genres at once, hilariously combining slapstick with science fiction, comedy with slasher movie, workers rights documentary with horror flick.
“Tales of Our Time” offers an insight into how the so-called ‘Generation X’ may be approaching the big themes in art and life: history, place, time. The strength of the exhibition “Tales of our Time” seems to be the breadth of tone – with works shifting between the cosy, the surreal, the horrific and the ludicrous.
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