Visual Arts

At Rubell Miami gallery, the best of contemporary Chinese art

Several eye-catching sculptures and installations will likely be the main conversation pieces in the Rubell Family Collection’s latest exhibition, 28 Chinese. That they are not necessarily the best this superb show has to offer is a testament to just how strong and important it is. Unless you have visited galleries and studios lately all throughout China, you will not have seen most of the surprising and striking work revealing how deep the contemporary art movement has sunk into today’s China, and how the mixture of Eastern and Western concepts and aesthetics has produced an amazing and prolific output.

But back to those sculptures. One of the first works you encounter is a room-size immersive tube from Zhi Jinshi called Boat, made from rice paper, bamboo and cotton. The 2012, off-white, womb-like tunnel almost serves as an introductory portal to the rest of the exhibit. Walk through it back and forth, and you get to feel the subtlety of the traditional Asian use of materials by Chinese artists and how those traditions are also constantly challenged. Gone are the days — though really only since the 1980s — that numbing Socialist Realism was the norm and abstract sculpture was prohibited. While Boat is not the most innovative piece here, it is undoubtedly one of the most memorable.

Also on the ground floor, to the right of the entrance, is an installation that is darker but no less tantalizing. He Xiangyu created the Cola Project from 2009 to 2011. The artists instructed workers in northern China to literally boil up 127 tons of Coca-Cola in a factory.

The result is grotesque. In an undeniable reference to his home country’s reliance on coal, the fossil fuel that is almost choking its major cities to death, these black mounds piled up in the Rubell space are actually made from soda rather than coal. The point is that the American product (one wall is filled with some of the empty Coke bottles) is also choking us, regardless of borders or hemispheres.

He, now a Beijing-based artist, also provides another piece that leaves an indelible impression. Up on the second floor, where most of the art in this exhibit resides, He has made a fiberglass figurative sculpture with human hair, dressed in a suit, face down on the floor. It’s a representation of the man who is arguably China’s most famous artist today, Ai Weiwei, dead on the floor. Ai has been persecuted by the Chinese government for a number of years, and the statement here is clear.

In another room, He has made a replica of himself laid out for a funeral, called My Fantasy (2012), in which his features are eerily realistic. Without doubt, if you hadn’t eard of He Xiangyu before, you will now.

From these 28 artists Mera and Don Rubell decided to show in this exhibit (they traveled China for several years to come up with this roster), many other works reference a political and social conundrum: a thriving new superpower that nonetheless may have lost its way, or its soul, in its determined move to fast forward. The show includes paintings, sculptures and some truly stunning video.

One comes from Hu Xianqian, a 2008 single-channel video called Sun. This piece should put to rest an idea that contemporary Chinese art still lags behind (or somehow still copies) Western art in its cutting-edge expression. It’s an amazing eight-minute film of a naked, apparently black man sunning on a lawn chair, viewed from front and back. But, in fact, it’s the artist, who wanted to become like his African friends. He braids his hair and lies in the sun for six months. China has always had a complicated relationship with the Third World countries it supports; while the Communist nation wants to live up to its egalitarian mission, it has also been a place inhospitable to foreign faces and customs. African students in particular have had a hard time fitting in. Hu addresses this straight on — and his video is also a beautiful sight.

Another strange and unsettling but gorgeous video comes from Yan Xing. In this black-and-white film from 2012, the artist appears to “play” another man with his cello bow, in what he writes is a nod to a 1964 performance by Korean-American artist Nam June Paik. (For the opening during Art Basel, Yan also had a performance piece involving his sculpture of David, photography and discarded clothing.) Like many 21st century artists, his influences are global and come from all eras, regardless of country of origin.

Yan and the other artists have provided a written description of their work, printed in English and Chinese and posted on wall plaques — an important element of 28 Chinese. The Rubells have produced a huge catalog with photographs and these mini essays from all the artists that beautifully augment the exhibit. Chinese calligraphy, which is incorporated in a number of pieces here, has always been thought of as a form of art itself. And direct translations are sometimes hard and misleading. So the Rubells and curator Juan Roselione-Valadez made sure both languages would be equally presented.

Without these narratives, it would be hard to decipher the truly ground-breaking work of Zhang Huan, who has one of the oldest pieces in the show, from 1994. The C-print still from a performance called 12 Square Meters shows the naked artist covered in what looks like black sores. But read the text and the troubling image becomes more intense. The artist describes his hard-scrabble life when he first moved to Beijing, finding a studio on the outskirts of town surrounded by garbage dumps and filthy public toilets. On one trip to one of these bathrooms, he was swarmed with flies, and he decided to make a filmed performance of such an excruciating experience. In it, he eventually came to a Zen-like acceptance of his state — a peace that might be difficult for Westerners to image, and for that reason alone, all the more affecting.

It’s work like these that make 28 Chinese not just important for Miami, but a reminder that we are being exposed to some of the more interesting shows being exhibited today, in any hemisphere.