The Rubell Collection’s “28 Chinese” exhibit, opening to the public today, is a must-see for anyone who is actually here in Miami to see art. By that I mean this show is not for you if you’re just here to go to a litany of parties that involve “reminder” emails about a “luxury brand” presenting something by someone you’ve never heard of at a place you’d never go were it not for the free “libations” advertised on the invitation.
But do see this show if you are here to stretch yourself, to experience surprise and joy and even once a while a smidge of revulsion-but-in-a-good-way.
For someone whose familiarity with contemporary Chinese artists doesn’t extend far beyond the work of the internationally celebrated artists and social activist Ai Weiwei, the gift of this show is that Don and Mera Rubell, along with their son Jason and collection director Juan Roselione-Valadez, have assembled what amounts to an extremely well contextualized and exciting display of up-and-comers among contemporary Chinese artists.
That context is needed for Westerners like me, who found myself bringing my own associations to the works, associations that were often interesting (at least to me and my running buddies at Art Basel), but still, off. For example, as a lover of Abstract Expressionism, I couldn’t help but exclaim how Lan Zhenghui’s large black and white paintings evoked Franz Kline, or maybe a colorless Robert Motherwell – until Don Rubell with a twinkle in his eye set me straight that my Western associations, as with “Ab Ex,” as he put it, may not at all be familiar to some of these Chinese artists, or their publics.
Most but not all of the artists presented are of a younger generation than Ai, whose work is included, most notably the form of an enormous block of Pu’er tea leaves compressed into a cube “to look like a minimalist sculpture” (Ton of Tea, 2005). Of this, Don Rubell urged me to lean in and “take a whiff!” (The several works of Ai’s here and this exhibit as a whole make this a worthwhile companion show to the extensive presentation of Ai’s work on view as of this week at the brand new Pérez Art Museum Miami.)
But Ai’s influence and import is felt deeply here too. In fact, one of the most arresting works is a 2011 life-size fiberglass sculpture of Ai dressed in the suit worn by People’s Representatives during People’s Congress meetings. It is positioned on the floor in a way that to Western eyes immediately called (erroneously) to mind last year’s major Internet meme called “planking.” The artist, He Xiangyu (born in 1986), notes in the catalog for the exhibit that Ai’s position on the ground facing down “at once alludes to his entrapped position and his status as an idol. It also reflects an individual’s actions as well as the essential connection and speculative relation between fate and the power structure.”
Other works here are political that way too – some more subtly, like the cornerstone of the show, Qui Zhijie’s Memorial for Revolutionary Speech (2007), which explores and showcases propaganda over generations and eons, in calligraphy that is so far from modern Chinese, that as Don Rubell put it, it is to a Chinese viewer what reading Chaucer’s English would be to us.
This exhibit was a labor of love – more specifically the labor of 100 artist studio visits in China over a dozen or so years. In the catalog’s introduction, the Rubells explain in their typically open and self-deprecating fashion the hows, whys, and wherefores of the many trips they took to assemble the show.
A standout and likely crowd-pleaser will be Zhu Jinshi’s nearly Serra-sized hanging sculpture Boat (2012), designed by the artist in paper, bamboo, and cotton thread and assembled in situ by the artist’s brother working hand in hand with employees of the Rubells.
Though Zhu was unable to travel for the exhibit’s opening, a number of the artists will be on hand this week.
The exhibit will be at the Rubell Collection until August 1, 2014, at which point Mera Rubell said that like a number of their other thematically focused shows, they expect it will travel.