Asian Art News
By Lucy Birmingham
China: Crossroads of Culture & Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium at Mori Art Museum
In China, a boom in new construction and rapid economic changes has unearthed both epoch-making archeological discoveries and an outpouring of creative work by young Chinese artists. The archeological finds and the resulting forced rethink of Chinese history has been a popular subject for many recent museum exhibitions in Tokyo. But the Mori Art Museum, in a move away from the pack, has offered a unique comparative look with not one, but two China-focused exhibitions. One ancient and one modern. Foreign influence is the binding theme of these two simultaneous exhibitions. How artists have revealed those influences in both ancient and modern times is the Museum’s fresh approach.
The first exhibition titled, “China: Crossroads of Culture” offers a glimpse at a 400-year period between the fall of the powerful Han Dynasty in AD 220 and the beginnings of the great Tang Empire in AD 618. This period was originally considered a time of chaos and war with little in the way of cultural development. But artwork discovered in excavations over the past 30 years has revealed a very different story. That in fact this was a period of rich assimilation of foreign cultures including those from Mongolia, Siberia, India, Persia, Central Asia, Byzantium and even Rome, a period greatly influenced by trade along the Silk Road. No longer thought of as a culturally barren period it is now considered to be the essential foundation of the Tang Dynasty — the golden age of Chinese civilization. Of the remarkable 364 pieces of excavated artwork displayed in the exhibition, over half are National Treasures. Metal, glass, ceramics, Buddhist sculptures, textiles and murals comprise the show. 43 museums and institutions from across China offered the pieces with cooperation from some of the country’s leading art agencies and organizations. Pieces have been added to this Mori show since the exhibition was seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in Autumn 2004 and the Hong Kong Museum of History in Spring 2005. This is one of the finest collections of art that has ever been exhibited outside of China. History-making in its own right.
Ride up the long escalator to the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Tower Building and you enter into a quiet atmosphere with subdued lighting, carpeted floors, and walls painted with maroon and other muted rich colors befitting a show of ancient works. The pieces are divided into five sections all reflecting foreign influences in five significant historical periods.
In the section focusing on the evolution of Buddhist art, one comes literally face to face with a female "Standing Bodhisattva" from the Sui dynasty (581-619) whose sublime smile and gentle features are eerily life-like. Perhaps her eyes will suddenly open and she will tell the story of her creation. Without a word however, the simple flowing lines of the thin robes clinging to her body explains influences from India. Her truly life-like appearance was a style followed by what became the universal Tang style of Buddhist sculpture. This style emphasized realism and volume, influencing much of what we now consider to be classic Buddhist art.
In the final section highlighting art of the Tang Dynasty's "world empire" during the 7th century, the influences of foreign traders from far away lands is frighteningly obvious. One can only imagine how bizarre it must have been for the Chinese in ancient times to see a blue-eyed foreigner with large protruding nose and full beard. The "Tomb Guardian with Leonine Head" from this period, reflects this sentiment. Foreign traders were not only a source of exotic wares but also a frightening curiosity. It's common to see guardians of this kind baring their sharp teeth in a posture ready to attack. But this guardian need only show his wild eyes and strange facial features, no doubt effective in warding off any kind of illicit intruder — human or spirit.
Walk just a bit further and suddenly you will find yourself riveted forward to the 21st century into a bright, white-walled, open gallery space. The jump into this second exhibition titled "Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium" is fun and visually exciting. The 19 contemporary Chinese artists represented here were all born in the late 1960's and 1970's. Like the previous adjacent exhibition, this is also art work representing Chinese culture in transition — in modern-day form. The disappearing traditional landscape, new urbanism and changing social values are the weighty subjects dominating the works. But overall, the view seems tongue-in-cheek, with an edge of wry humor.
Wang Qingsong's "photo-tableaux" titled "Follow Me!" from which the exhibition is named, shows the artist as teacher sitting in front of a blackboard covered with writing in Chinese and English. Written at the top center like a title are the words: "Let China walks (sic) towards the world! Let the world learns (sic) about China!" harking back to the days of the bold communist banners. Foreign symbols like the corporate logos of McDonalds, Nike and Mercedes mix with a myriad of messages. The artist says that he simply scribbled down the phrases. Some reflected his own opinion, sometimes the opposite.
Yang Zhenzhong's "Light as Easy" series is a fun upside-down look at Shanghai's Pudong district with its highrise buildings typifying the country's new urban landscape. With his finger, the artist is precariously balancing an upside-down Shanghai Tower, the most powerful symbol of the city's new development while trying to maintain his own balance. This balancing between the speed of change and one's own normal pace is a challenge in today's China and aptly reflected in Yang's work.
Artists reflect their society. Changes brought through foreign influence can offer a cornucopia of creativity. Here we see it at the Mori Art Museum's fascinating China show in both ancient and modern form.