Contemporary Chinese women contemplate progress at Bowdoin

Something must break
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  November 14, 2013

‘URBAN FICTION (IMAGE 10)’ C-print by Xing Danwen, 2006.

The march of progress isn’t always positive. Take the many complicated valences of “Breakthrough,” an engaging exhibit of contemporary Chinese women artists at the Bowdoin Museum of Art. You might read the show’s title as either a) some qualitative assessment of feminist progress, b) some vaguely jargony shorthand for historically marginalized artists “breaking through” barriers and into the art world by making serious work, or c) a frame for old models of social and cultural identity being obliterated by new ones. Of the three I felt most comfortable viewing this art using the lens of the last, but it’s that definition where the term’s confident ring is most misleading.

While feminist progress is most certainly something to celebrate, gender is probably not the most useful framework for viewing this show. The liberated female subject is present throughout, but the works here seem also to lament a dwindling cultural unity, ironically a symptom of the loosening social codes and strictures that have helped to empower women in China. It is precisely this collision of narratives that both complicates “Breakthrough” and makes it most successful, giving visitors a lot to think about without rattling their focus with the beating drums of identity politics.

Across sculpture, painting, print photography, and digital media, the eight artists of “Breakthrough” plot channels from Chinese cultural and art historical traditions toward a modernized, technologically mediated world, one in which their country has a rapidly changing identity. Culling from classical and literary themes and plugged into a strongly contemporary aesthetic, each piece of art taps into a sense of displacement or discontinuity; that they’re made by women means the layers of meaning are even thicker, as classical Chinese art often reflects a society with more than its share of repressive gender roles.

The C-prints and videos of Cao Fei explore the complicated dimensions of virtual reality, in which young women role-play fantastical identities existing fundamentally beyond the reach of their real lives, which the artist hints are far more disconnected. In “Peach Blossom,” a video and photography series by Chen Qiulin, a woman wearing elaborate makeup and a wedding dress (played by the artist herself) is depicted wandering through the rubble of an urban landscape in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In most photographs she is alone, and to say she’s liberated in this context misses the point: her wedding gown is an absurd flash of cultural insignia set against the coldly impersonal backdrop of wreckage, here surely representative of an upheaval far greater than ecological disaster.

Similar tensions are present in Zing Danwen’s “Urban Fiction” series, which juxtaposes the structural beauty and social atomization of modern urban development. Zing makes foreboding cinematic scenes from architectural scale large digital prints. Seemingly idyllic in their Westernized urban splendor, the darklit skyscrapers and condominiums in her images are populated with tiny figurines at work or play (including representations of the artist herself), yet each image seems pregnant with a profoundly inescapable emptiness.

This disjunction of cultures can even be grotesque. Cai Jin’s fleshy red oil paintings of banana leaves, slathered defiantly onto the foreground of silk fabrics bearing printed patterns of traditional Chinese embroidery, are as aesthetically ghastly as they are conceptually sound. Beyond the tangibly awkward fusion of styles, the corpus of the plant shamelessly brings our attention to a natural, suggestively human form, proposing an alternative concept of beauty to the rhythmically perfect forms.

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