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China's visual awakening

On a cultural cusp, artists capture the country's past and project its future in a uniquely unbridled era.

July 16, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Santa Barbara — TEN pairs of black cotton Chinese shoes line up on a platform at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. Plain, boxy and pathetically ordinary, they look like standard-issue footwear, the only kind available to most Chinese women before the country's economic revolution and still worn by those stuck in poverty. But the shoes on display were not produced in a factory or handmade by peasants; they were meticulously crafted by Beijing artist Yin Xiuzhen and her mother.

While the shoes are all the same size, the insoles track the artist's life from childhood to adulthood in photographic portraits printed on colored paper. Cut into sole shapes, with each image split between two shoes, the faces flicker in and out of focus as viewers walk around the installation. Yin, who often uses discarded clothing in her work to evoke memory, time and experience, has likened shoes to boats that carry people great distances. In her self-portrait, simply titled "Yin Xiuzhen," the shoes encapsulate a journey of personal development and tumultuous national history.

Labor-intensive as this work is, it's one of the most modest pieces in "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China," a traveling exhibition of 130 works by 60 artists. Including wall-size photographs of elaborately staged tableaux, wall and floor installations of backlighted transparencies and videos screened in special viewing rooms, the show occupies about 8,000 square feet of galleries at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and all but the lobby space at the nearby Contemporary Arts Forum.

But "Yin Xiuzhen" expresses the exhibition's central theme with poignant clarity. In their various ways, all the artists grapple with rapid change in China and try to figure out how they fit into the new society. No longer required to make propaganda for a repressive government but steeped in the history of Chinese art, culture and politics, they have emerged as individuals who express themselves in terms of their nationality.

"Between Past and Future," the first comprehensive exhibition of innovative photo and video art produced in China since the mid-1990s, was curated by Wu Hung, a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago who has played a leading role in introducing contemporary Chinese art to the West, and Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Santa Barbara was to have been the last stop on a two-year tour -- after New York, Chicago, Seattle, London and Berlin -- but the itinerary has been extended to include the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Oct. 26 to Feb. 18.

The curators offered the show to Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and Asian Art Museum. Phillips made a presentation at MOCA but was eventually told that an exhibition from a single country would not fit into the museum's program. Scheduling conflicts prevented a booking in San Francisco.

Critical opinion of the show has been mostly positive. Holland Cotter of the New York Times deemed it "important" and "perspective-altering." Amid a flurry of praise in London, Adrian Searle of the Guardian judged it "extremely rewarding." But Joanna Pitman of the Times of London dismissed much of the art as "the kind of work churned out all over the developed world by self-obsessed second-year art students."

To curator Phillips, the exhibition "represents a distinct period, the point at which the artists were recognized and appreciated by a big international audience and digital technology gave them the means to make enormous prints and achieve technical perfection." The time was also right for the artists to make a big splash in the international art market. Those who have watched the prices of their work increase 10 times or more within a few years have hired assistants and moved out of hovels into villas and high-rise condominiums, he said.

New Chinese photography and video captured Phillips' attention in 1999, when he first traveled to China.

"I was impressed by the quality and intensity of work by artists who were so confident and determined to make a place for themselves in the art world," he said. Eager to organize an exhibition, he made several return trips, teaming with Wu in late 2002 after they discovered that they were working independently on nearly identical projects. The result is a landmark show with a catalog that has become an important resource for curators and collectors. It's also a readable primer for anyone who wants to understand the context and meaning of the works on display.

The historical backdrop is, of course, the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, nearly two decades before any of the works in "Between Past and Future" were made. During the last 30 years, the field has evolved from documentary work and imitations of Western styles to experimental, conceptual artworks created in an original language, often on a grand scale.

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