By now, the word has spread everywhere in the art world: China is the future. Everyone is in a frenzy, with all the major galleries jockeying to get a Chinese artist in the rotation. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insiders say that the order has come from the top down that all departments should reorient themselves to add a focus on Chinese contemporary art.
This certainly represents, in part, an authentic interest in a thriving Chinese scene, fruit of the transformation of a rural and tradition-bound society into an urban and capitalist one, squarely focused on the future. But the indomitable air that Chinese art has right now is obviously driven by blind speculation as well. The current show of Chinese video art at MoMA satellite P.S.1, featuring work by 8gg, Cui Xiuwen, Dong Wensheng, Cao Fei, Hu Jieming, Huang Ziaopeng, Li Songhua, Liang Yue, Lu Chungsheng, Ma Yongfeng, Meng Jin, Xu Tan and Xu Zhen, co-curated by David Thorp and Sun Ning, shows both sides of this uneasy situation.
The phenomenon can be summed up by exploring the title of the exhibition itself, “The Thirteen.” On the one hand, it’s clearly meant to evoke a kind of supernatural aura, and, in fact, the show is anchored by two longer videos, both with real mystery to them. The 28-minute Drifting Lantern (2005) by Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970) is the first thing one sees as one enters the darkened galleries, with an entire wall dedicated to its projection. It focuses on a single image: a glowing, pumpkin-shaped orange lantern. Accompanied by a lush soundtrack of erhu, flute and voice, and isolated on a black background, the glowing form bobs forward and backwards, in and out of the screen like a playful spirit.
Occasionally, however, fragments of other images break the blackness, allowing the viewer to become aware that the lantern, in fact, is suspended on a chain, carried by a woman who holds it with a ceremonial steadiness as she advances through streets and plazas. (…)