Drop all your notions about Chinese art when you visit both the Tampa Museum of Art and St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts beginning Saturday. That’s when both museums will unveil a trailblazing exhibition, “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists.”
The installations, photography, videos, paintings, drawings and mixed-media works by 27 young Chinese artists will shatter your notions about a traditional China.
“You have to understand the world at this moment to see this show,” said Todd Smith, executive director of the Tampa Museum of Art. “China is now part of the global art network.”
“China’s vibrant art scene is writing a new chapter for world art,” said Kent Lydecker, director of the Museum of Fine Arts. “It’s exciting for the Museum of Fine Arts and the Tampa Museum of Art to take the lead by bringing these amazing artworks to Tampa Bay.”
The two have been working for some time at forging the extraordinary across-the-bay relationship that has made this exhibition possible. “We started talking almost two years ago about a joint project of some sort. We’ve spent a full year collaborating on parts of this,” said Smith. “You have to see both parts of the show.”
“I would encourage visitors to put aside any stereotypes and be ready to be surprised,” said Lydecker.
Barbara Pollack, a New York-based curator and China expert, assembled the exhibition. She began writing about the exploding Chinese art market in the 1990s and traveled there in 2004.
“I expected a third-world country,” she said. With its skyscrapers and new infrastructure, the China she found was a surprise. “This is a 21st-century country!” she said. “New York is provincial and old-fashioned by comparison.”
Pollack has divided the show between the museums along thematic lines. The works at the Museum of Fine Arts deal with politics and the environment. Among them are Liu Di’s 2010 photo-shopped concoctions that are absurd, funny and serious. In “Animal Regulation, No. 4,” his oversized panda squatting on a housing project is a cutting commentary on how China’s omnivorous urbanization is upsetting the balance between humans and the environment.
The works at the Tampa Museum of Art deal with personal themes. In Chi Peng’s 2004 “Sprinting Forward,” the artist is naked, alone and anonymous in front of massive buildings. The scene is reminiscent of Big Brother’s ever-present surveillance in George Orwell’s “1984.”
Chi Peng also reflects the loneliness and disconnectedness of the young generation, most of whom are products of the government’s one-child policy.
In a country where two-thirds of the population is younger than 35, these artists are between 27 and 36 years of age. They were born after the death of Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese leader who controlled China’s population growth, tried to sever the country’s ties with its history, demonized intellectuals and cut off contact with the West. He also tore peasants from the farms in an effort to build up heavy industry.
Mao’s headless statue can be seen in Qiu Xiaofel’s sarcastically-named painting, “Utopia.” It shows a ravaged, stripped-bare landscape in front of the hazy glimmer of what might be an endless metropolis in the distance.
The 2010 painting, on view at the Tampa Museum of Art, was done after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when entire traditional neighborhoods were razed to put up modern buildings.
The displaced people found themselves uprooted and alienated — as do many of these artists, who do not have siblings or the traditional village support systems. This is in a nation where 75 percent of the Chinese once were rural dwellers. By 2025, 70 percent are expected to live in cities.
In Huang Ran’s 2012 film, “Disruptive Desires, Tranquility and the Loss of Lucidity” (also on view at the Tampa Museum of Art), a young couple find themselves unsure of how to begin a romantic relationship because of their confused, lonely upbringing.
This generation has turned to global art trends to feed its creativity. Unlike the closed-off repressive atmosphere that characterized China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, these artists grew up in a different world.
They have full access to the world art scene as long as they don’t directly challenge the political status quo.
In fact, the Chinese art scene is considered the most dynamic one globally, with 400 galleries and 700 new museums opening in the past few years.
Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious art fair with an offshoot in Miami, recently has staked a huge presence in Hong Kong.
The artists have also formed artistic collectives. Pollack, who has followed many of them for years, has visited their studios and formed friendships with them. “Lu Yang took me to a club called ‘Mao’s House’ where there was a rock group, ‘Second Hand Rose’,” she said.
Lu Yang’s 2011 videos, at the Museum of Fine Arts, feature a Tibetan-Buddhist god, Vajrasattva, with a monster headache. “Lu Yang is wedding something ancient with something brand new,” said Pollack. “She is using neuroscience to analyze Vajrasattva’s brain for what he would need to feel better.”
Xu Zhen, who is the CEO of the wryly-named artist cooperative MadeIn (as in Made in China), fashioned a huge tapestry called “Fearless” (at the Museum of Fine Arts).
From lizards on steroids to Europeans scurrying around like cartoon figures, from a Chinese warrior to an ancient Greek sculpture, Xu Zhen has populated an East-meets-West tableau. The entire scene is elevated on a grey stand on the bottom of the tapestry, as if the entire fantasy is on a stage set.
“Anybody can make a Chinese work of art,” he told Pollack. “Just throw in some dragons and Maos.”