Mighty Hazy Metropolis

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Meridian Peers into China's Dense Urban Jungle

The three decade-long diplomatic dance between the United States and China takes an intriguing, artsy spin this month at the Meridian International Center.

“METROPOLIS NOW! A Selection of Chinese Contemporary Art” showcases the work of some of China’s most compelling visual artists, who aim to help us understand what it’s like to live in modern Chinese society, as it rides the waves of urbanization and globalization.

They give us a good glimpse — but one can’t help but feel there is something they’re not telling us. Thirty-one artists contributed 52 different works, including paintings, sculpture, video and mixed media, to the exhibition, which commemorates 30 years of formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing.

“Metropolis” shows us the immensity of China’s cities, and the isolation one can feel even in the midst of all that humanity. While very contemporary — one painting contains an element that shows Barack Obama giving a speech — some of China’s more traditional artistic media are represented as well. Silk, rice paper and porcelain make multiple appearances.

The exhibition trumpets China’s embrace of technology and the consumer culture, openly celebrating materialism in more than one work. But it reveals little of the social unrest percolating under China’s authoritarian government or the unease that many feel about the country’s rapacious growth. In any case, it does feature some serious young talent gauging the temperature of a society at a crossroads in its red-hot expansion.

Weng Fen’s “Bird’s Eye View” depicts two seemingly adolescent girls standing at the precipice of a towering building. With their back to us, they gaze into the horizon, itself jammed with even taller, more imposing structures, including some still under construction. They look into their future, but because we can’t see their faces, it’s unclear whether they view it as bright or bleak.

Gao Lei’s “Building No.35-302” incorporates freaky half-man, half-monsters from a videogame combined with digital photographic images to create a Salvador Dalí-esque scene in an abandoned building. This illusory world — with its indecipherable characters and rubble-strewn floor — suggests violence but again, we can’t be sure.

Han Yajuan’s “Before the Big Night” is an oil on canvas morphed into a garish fun house of materialism. The painting depicts a young woman’s room, her youthful obsession with consumerism, and at least her idea of sexy — if “Dior” and “Prada” carefully painted onto the soles of shoes in a closet gets your pulse racing.

“Missing I,” an acrylic on canvas piece by Liu Ye, borrows from Western paintings with its traditional, almost simplistic image of a young boy dressed as a man, carrying two suitcases. The melancholic work conveys the sense that kids are forced to grow up too fast — an idea that is certainly not exclusive to China.

The Embassy of China reached out to the Meridian International Center to be a partner in the exhibition, which builds on the center’s history of collaboration with China on artistic, professional and cultural exchanges.

“Who could have predicted that 30 years ago when [President Richard] Nixon went to China, we would have an exhibition depicting the economic ties between the two countries,” said Stuart Holliday, president of the Meridian Center, at the exhibition’s heavily attended opening.

Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong proudly suggested that the exhibition — jointly curated by the Meridian and the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing — signaled a new day for China’s level of social tolerance.

“I think you can see from all of these [artists] not just progress for an economy, but also social progress,” he said, generating hopeful applause.

“METROPOLIS NOW! A Selection of Chinese Contemporary Art” runs through July 26 at the Meridian International Center’s White-Meyer House, 1624 Crescent Place, NW. For more information, please call (202) 667-6800 or visit www.meridian.org/metropolis/.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014