China sits atop a gold mine of contemporary art that few people have ever seen, either inside or outside the country. An exhibition near Boston unveils an unexpected side of China – colorful, winsome, and touched with a subversive kind of humor.
The art falls roughly into two categories: a celebration of the individual over the collective experience, and the adaptation of traditional methods and forms into entirely new objects. From juiced-up portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong to misty landscapes composed of human bodies, Chinese contemporary art has emerged as a heavyweight contender on the global scene.
Proof can be found in the exhibition "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. About 100 objects, from paintings and photographs to installations and video, offer a glimpse of the vitality and diversity of Chinese culture.
Today's art is built on top of a turbulent history, affected largely by the rise of Communism in the 20th century. Mao's Cultural Revolution was responsible for the loss of tens of millions of lives from 1966-76. Families were decimated. Cultural artifacts were destroyed or spirited away. Artists were assigned to farms or forced to make propaganda images of happy, productive workers.
After Mao's death in 1976 and the loosening of government restrictions, artists were able to see examples of Western abstract art for the first time. In the beginning, they copied images they saw in art magazines, but a desire to express the turmoil of recent events soon won out. By the mid-1980s, artists had moved toward a uniquely Chinese vocabulary, says collector Uli Sigg. While Western art fixated on Abstraction, the Chinese continued to depict figures, often done in brightly colored styles that emulated Pop Art. Their pent-up anger toward Mao found expression in irreverent makeovers of his official portrait, including a recent one by Yu Youhan in which the Chinese leader is given the Andy Warhol-Marilyn Monroe treatment, "Untitled (Mao/Marilyn)" (2005).
For collectors such as Mr. Sigg, this burst of experimentation after such long isolation makes contemporary Chinese art extraordinarily compelling. They argue that the West hasn't seen a similar ferocious need to make art since the 1940s. "The urgency and necessity that provoked the new Chinese art is more authentic than it is currently in Western art," writes gallery owner Arne Glimcher in The Daily Beast (www.thedailybeast.com).
Held up against the current art scene in the West, the best of the Chinese work feels fresh, urgent, close to the bone.
"It's remarkable how they've emerged under the boot heel of a Communist state," says David A. Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Finally, of course, the art has to transcend all that, it has to be of more than historic significance."
The Sigg collection touches on historic milestones, such as Socialist Realist propaganda paintings, but it doesn't stop there. The exhibition includes paintings that poke holes in the mythology of the contented worker, dubbed Cynical Realism. Artists such as Yue Minjun and Geng Jianyi create images of faces frozen in huge, grotesque grins, suggesting not just stereotypes of uncomplaining workers but also, underneath, a darker, bleaker vaudeville performance. The Chinese are acting their part in a collective society, keeping their true feelings hidden.
The growing consumer culture also takes a hit. Artist Wang Guangyi co-opts the image of proud workers, making them part of a Chanel No. 5 perfume advertisement. In a clever slam against both the influence of Western marketing and the Communist drive to obliterate the old, artist Ai Weiwei took an urn dating from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and painted the Coca-Cola logo on it.
Not all the objects in the exhibition contain overt political messages. Some embrace traditional skills but with a modern twist. Wang Jin's "The Dream of China" (1977) recreates the luxury and beauty of a life-size ceremonial robe – complete with detailed embroidery – out of polyvinyl and monofilament.
Such attention to detail and craftsmanship remains an important feature of Chinese art. The focus in art academies is almost exclusively on technique, says artist O Zhang. She and other artists would like to see theory and criticism added to the curriculum, in the way those subjects are taught in Western institutions.
This lack of theory in Chinese art education creates a stumbling block for furthering an acceptance of contemporary art, says Sigg. Without critical discussion and evaluation, no context exists in which to present contemporary art to the public. "If no one ever sees this art, how will you understand it, and if you don't understand it, why would you collect it? It's a downward spiral," he says.
Sigg, a Swiss businessman and former ambassador to China, began visiting artists on business trips to China in the mid-1980s. He traipsed from rural villages to tiny cinderblock city apartments, looking for art that could tell the story of China's remarkable evolution. "A collector has no way to do this anywhere else," he says. "And it could not be done again." With no gallery system then in place, Sigg, who learned some of the language, was able to develop relationships with the artists as both a patron and adviser. His collection now includes about 2,500 works by more than 200 artists.
Sigg started buying in the early '90s when prices had not reached the stratospheric heights they would in another decade. The market took off around 2003, as word spread about this undiscovered cache of new Chinese art. Galleries popped up in Beijing seemingly overnight and auction houses in the West saw record-breaking sales. Several dozen artists became millionaires.
The current global economic situation has depressed prices and challenged the rapid growth of galleries, says Mr. Ross. "Half of the 300 galleries in Beijing's 798 area [the main gallery district] have closed since June, although some may reopen for the summer tourist season," he says.
The market holds little interest for Sigg, who has resisted the siren call to sell some of his collection. His goal is to add to the collection and continue to document the changes in Chinese art. He hopes eventually to house the collection in China where the public can see it, but the nation has to be ready for it, he says. He estimates that in another 10 years, Chinese officials will be more open to art that does not fit into traditional, historic categories.
Sigg collected Western art before he became interested in that of China. He says, "As a businessman, I thought, 'I will understand more about China if I collect this art.' But instead, I learned about the enormous complexity of this continent, this society," he says. "Everything is possible and impossible at the same time."
•The exhibition continues through May 17 at the Peabody Essex Museum (www.pem.org).