Li Zhanyang in Beijing
Source:Artinfo Author:Pey Chuan Tan Date: 2008-08-09 Size:
By turns irreverent, radical, and grotesque, Li Zhanyang’s work stems from firsthand observations of Chinese society. In his 2006 exhibition “Scenes,” the artist, based in Chongqing, Sichuan province, responded to the changing face of his quickly modernizing country.


By turns irreverent, radical, and grotesque, Li Zhanyang’s work stems from firsthand observations of Chinese society. In his 2006 exhibition “Scenes,” the artist, based in Chongqing, Sichuan province, responded to the changing face of his quickly modernizing country. Now, in his new solo show, “‘Rent’ – Rent Collection Yard,” at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing through August 24, he offers a more personal body of work, informed by experiences with the Chinese art scene.

“Rent” is Li’s most complex sculptural installation to date, a congregation of 34 life-size fiberglass figures, featuring absurdist narratives and acerbic wit. The title and inspiration for the show come from one of the best-known examples of Chinese communist art — the Rent Collection Courtyard. Housed in the former manor house of the feudal landlord Liu Wencai, the collection comprises 114 large-scale clay sculptures commissioned by the communist leadership in 1965, just prior to the Cultural Revolution, to depict the landlord’s “brutal exploitation” of farmers and the harsh conditions under which farmers lived and worked. Li is not the first Chinese artist to reference the work; at the 1999 Venice Biennale, Cai Guo-Qiang replicated the original Social Realist sculptures but left his clay pieces unfired so that they would disintegrate over the course of the exhibition, much to the consternation of the Chinese media.

Li’s “Rent” parodies the high mindedness of both communist and contemporary art in China. By combining modern kitsch with detailed Baroque expressionism, he reveals the latent conflicts and power relations hidden beneath the gloss of the art world. In a sculpture entitled History Observed, a shamanistic Joseph Beuys bends over a sanguine Chairman Mao. Sweeping his hand across the dynamic interplay of figures before them, Beuys sets the scene for the evolution of art in China, as if contemporary Chinese art were born from collaboration between these two unlikely allies.

The rest of the sculptures portray a series of revolutionary concepts and supposed pre-revolutionary social ills (Paying Rent, Foot Washing, Raping, Oppressing, Dying a Martyr), but the installation’s overall tone is a far cry from the original’s sober didacticism. Li maintains a keen sense of irony and sarcasm, as can be seen in Foot Washing, where the artist Ai Weiwei, in a position evocative of the figure of Liu Wencai in the original Rent Collection, is getting his feet washed by a group of fawning supporters, suggesting that today’s art stars are perhaps not so different from the feudal lord. (Considering the timing of Li’s show, it is worth noting that both Cai and Ai have played major roles in the Beijing Olympics, though Ai, co-designer of the Olympic Stadium, has withdrawn his support of the games in protest over political conditions in China.) Oppressing depicts Li’s alter ego staring intently at the scene from a corner; as a distant onlooker, he takes in the trials and tribulations of contemporary Chinese art.

Here, Li selects five shows to see in Beijing this weekend.

1. Mao Tongqiang: Tools at China Art Archives and Warehouse, through August 10

“Mao lays over 30,000 used axes and sickles across the floor of the gallery space, which gives a different meaning to everyday objects. This creates a menacing effect and provokes the thoughts of the viewer. The work functions as found art and also references China’s history of feudalism and communism.”

2. Unmoved at Galleria Continua, through August 28

“Some highlights: a giant dumpster continuously crashes into a wall; on the other side of this wall is a hyper-realistic vision of a retirement home, where fiberglass and silicone figures of old people in wheelchairs circle round the gallery. Overall, the feeling of stasis is very unnerving. It’s interesting to see how the various works inform and interact with each other.”

3. Our Future: The Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, through October 12

“This exhibition is a showcase of artworks from the Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection, and it’s a good introduction to the development of contemporary art in China. The large pieces by Wang Du, Ai Weiwei, Sui Jianguo, and Huang Yong Ping are particularly commanding within the exhibition space.”

4. Shi Jinsong: Fire His Breath, Jade His Bones at Platform China, through August 24

“Here the artist emphasizes the ‘materiality’ of contemporary art by using jadeite and fire to great effect. A jadeite sculpture is hit against a wall by a motorized mechanism, while a large piece of charcoal burns within the exhibition space. Add a car engine with periodic explosions, and an atmosphere of fear is created. But it is captivating nonetheless.”

5. Henk Visch, Sui Jianguo: Ships at Sea at C-Space, through September 30

“The Dutch artist Henk Visch and the Chinese artist Sui Jianguo are both renowned sculptors. Sui borrows from Dutch painting traditions to create a sculptural homage to Visch. What makes it special, though, is that the sculpture is suspended in air, tilted to the longitudinal degree that separates Holland from China. There’s a timeless quality to this.”

[Editor] Mark Lee