Mao and Coca-Cola

New waves of Chinese art hit the Bay Area -- from SFMOMA to BAM and beyond
2005 Untitled (Mao/Marilyn)
by Yu Youhan

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is in the grip of full-on Fridamania when I first pay a visit to "Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection." Nonetheless, Yue Minjun's terracotta warriors attract photo-ops: a little girl poses next to a solitary Yue sculpture with his hands behind his neck, while five other Yue statues (each a life-size body — barefoot in white T-shirt and blue jeans — with an enormous head: eyes closed, mouth frozen in anxious "smile") stand in formation near the exhibition's threshold.

A single Yue also welcomes visitors to the quieter, more expansive "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" at the Berkeley Art Museum, where 25 more Yue statues (from the 2000 installation 2000 A.D.) and numerous oil-on-canvas renderings of Yue — including a chain of 13-or-so Yues looking down on everyone — await inside. A decision to use this icon of cynical realism as a host of sorts unites the SFMOMA and BAM shows, which also feature a number of the same artists: Bird's Nest Stadium designer and provocateur Ai Weiwei; satirical painter Yu Youhan; gay gazer Zeng Fanzhi; repetitious self-portrait specialist (like Yue) Fang Lijun; disturbing dreamer Yang Shaobin; chilly portraitist Zhang Xiaogang; candid snapper Liu Xiaodong; mordant physical observer and landscape artist Liu Wei; Tiananmen Square lookout Yin Zhaoyang; and Li Songsong, who coats memory in cake icing.

A collection of work dating from 1988 to 2008 by 25 artists, "Half-Life of a Dream" is less expansive than "Mahjong," which draws from Uli Sigg's world's-largest collection of contemporary Chinese art and dates back to the late stages of the Cultural Revolution. Its conceit is also more specific and restrictive: digging beneath the Beijing Olympics slogan "One World, One Dream," the SFMOMA exhibition taps into the myriad dream facets or "masks, shadows, ghosts, reveries" (to quote from Jeff Kelley's titular essay) that drift through pre- and especially post-Mao China.

This dream theme is clear and to the forefront in paintings such as Liu Xiaodong's 2007 Xiaomei and Zhang Xiaogang's 2005-6 Untitled, but it grows strained when applied to, say, Liu Dafang's urban photorealism. At times, it obfuscates the layers of a work, as when the complex mother-daughter vision of Yu Hong's 2006 She — White Collar Worker is summarized with the quasifeminist remark that "women remain trapped in dreams of themselves." Regardless, "Half-Life" presents more than a few standout works: Gu Wenda's hair-raising united nations — babel of the millennium (1999) and Sheng Qi's autobiographical political memorial My Left Hand (2001) are especially formidable. Its dream analysis fits most snugly and dramatically around one of the most recent pieces — and the exhibition's climax of sorts — Sui Jianguo's The Sleep of Reason. There, an eternally resting Mao is surrounded by multicolored masses of toy dinosaurs.

Here's a Mao, there's a Mao, everywhere's a papa-oom-Mao-Mao in the relatively playful "Mahjong," where Sun Guoqi's 1973 Chairman Mao with the New National Emblems greets viewers with false cheer at the first of five floors (leaving aside the lower levels and snaky hallways, where some of the most provocative work resides).

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