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Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection

Mahjong: Themes and Combinations

Sun Guoqi and Zhang Hongzhan: Divert Water from the Milky Way Down, 1973–74; oil on canvas; 72 x 124 in.; Sigg Collection.

Li Shan: Rouge—Flower, 1995; silkscreen and oil on canvas; 51 x 72 in.; Sigg Collection.

Yu Youhan: Untitled (Mao/Marilyn), 2005; oil on canvas; 63 x 48 in.; Sigg Collection.

Zhou Xiaohu: Parade, 2003; installation: clay figures and video; 29 ft. x 87 in.; Sigg Collection.

Luo Brothers: Untitled, 1999; collage and lacquer on wood; 48 x 96 in.; Sigg Collection.

Gu Wenda: Myths of Lost Dynasties, 1999; ink on paper; 126 x 80 in.; Sigg Collection.

Wang Jinsong: Standard Family, 1996; installation: 116 color photographs; 7 x 9 in. each; Sigg Collection.

Our major exhibition this fall, Mahjong, takes its name from the centuries-old Chinese game enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Relying on rules and chance, mahjong involves collecting matching sets of tiles; the skill lies in recognizing opportunities for making high-scoring combinations. The exhibition, like the game, is made up works that, combined in different ways, create surprising and thought-provoking opportunities to view and appreciate contemporary Chinese art.

Thematic arrangements of works in the galleries elucidate these sets and create an opportunity to explore China’s art and society over the last forty years. There are no strict rules for the way the art is arranged in this game of mahjong, but these divisions help track the themes of cultural, societal, and artistic change from the Cultural Revolution to the present. They are:

The Cultural Revolution: Mao and Beyond
Words and Meaning: Beyond Calligraphy
Tiananmen: The Gate of Heavenly Peace
East Meets West: The New Consumerism
Alternative Landscapes
Individual, Society, Family
Conflict and Societal Ills
Tradition Revisited
Beijing: The Changing Horizon

Art of the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of the cult of Mao, as well as its decline, are explored in works that set the Sigg Collection apart from all others. Seldom does one see the heroic images of the early, highly optimistic phases of the 1970s—when artists were sent into the countryside to learn from the workers—alongside the art of the next thirty years that documents a rapidly changing society. Works like Sun Guoqi’s Divert Water from the Milky Way Down (1973–74) show the valiant common people who came together to forge a new nation through their own sweat and tears. The equally idealistic portrait Chairman Mao with the New National Emblem from 1973 depicts Mao with a smooth, unlined, radiant face as mandated by the government.

Contrast this with three portraits of Mao in the same gallery, and it becomes clear how the artist’s role in describing his world changed in four decades. The 1986 portrait of “grid” Mao by Wang Guangyi, with its gray-hued Mao image overlaid with a red grid, somehow escaped censorship because it was understood at the time to represent “rationalism.” This was followed some ten years later by the portrait by Li Shan, Rouge—Flower (1995), from a series the artist did based on a well-known portrait of the young Mao. The purposefully feminine quality of the image and the meaning of the lotus flower hanging from his lips increase the sense of an androgynous Mao. Li Shan’s work challenges the viewer to think about what treating the image of the great leader in this ambiguous way means. Finally, a work from 2005 by Yu Youhan, glibly titled Mao/Marilyn, completely removes Mao from any heroic stature and instead treats his visage as if he were a celebrity enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame. Within this one gallery the mood of the nation as depicted by its artists shifts from one of dictation and control by the state to societal and individual exploration.

Artists in the show also take a closer look at Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace), the iconic center of power in China. Zhou Xiaohu’s Parade (2003) puts the history of this emblem and the nation on view in his large-scale installation of activities in the square, from 1949 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China through 2049 and the arrival of both dinosaurs and space ships as well as animated androids. Subtle political references to the state of society are presented in a 1996 performance piece by Song Dong, Breathing, which places him flat-out prone on the stones of the square on a cold winter’s night. Contrast this to the bleak images of appropriated spaces photographed by Shao Yinong and Mu Chen in their Assembly Hall series (2002), and we begin to detect a new identity for the political icon in China.

Political pop and the new consumerism in works on view in Gallery 5 confirm the artist’s reflection of a society that is no longer anchored in tradition, but that through exploration and exploitation has recast itself as a nation eager for the materialistic wealth of the West. The wholesale appropriation of images of Western goods is most readily seen in Wang Guangyi’s large panels titled Chanel No. 5 (2001), and in the garish work of the Luo Brothers. An art historical and cultural appropriation takes place in Zhou Tiehai’s huge airbrushed images of pseudo-European-dressed figures topped with camel heads borrowed from the tobacco industry. With these works the artists challenge the rush for China to accept the products of the West blindly and indiscriminately.

Included in several galleries are works by artists who explore language, stretching the traditional understanding of calligraphy from a means of linguistic communication to one of visual confusion through repetition that obscures and obfuscates meaning. Indeed, at the hands of Xu Bing in Book from the Sky (1989) and in Gu Wenda’s Myths of Lost Dynasties (1999), a new Chinese language, without meaning, is invented. The long-honored tradition of Chinese landscape painting is challenged through alternative media as in Feng Mengbo’s 2007WCSSXL01 (Wrong Coding Shanshui) (2007) and Liu Wei’s digital photo It Looks Like a Landscape (2004).

Of the many strong and persuasive currents in Chinese art today, perhaps the most troubling to observe and yet most compelling are those images that attempt to define an individual’s relationship to society. In the atrium Gallery B, the installation of multiple figures 2000 AD by Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun’s paintings of men, mouths in grimace and eyes closed, are but two examples portraying issues of personal identity. Questions of the individual within the family structure, as in Wang Jinsong’s Standard Family from 1996, or within a crowd of colleagues or classmates, as in Hai Bo’s They Recorded for the Future (1999), are a large part of identity in a rapidly changing society.

Social change, urbanism, the complex relationship between state and individual, as well as of individuals to one another, are explored by the artists represented in the exhibition. The journey from state-controlled art with prescribed form, content, and meaning to a new art full of personal anguish, vision, and beauty is fully traveled in Mahjong.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art

Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection is supported in part by Carmen M. Christensen; the Wakerling and Bei Shan Tang Endowments; Barclay and Sharon Simpson; Rena Bransten; Bonhams & Butterfields, Auctioneers & Appraisers; Wen-hsin Yeh and James C. Sha; Gwong-yih and Angela Lee; The Alafi Family Foundation; Joachim and Nancy Bechtle; The Blakemore Foundation; City National Bank; Tecoah and Tom Bruce; Nancy Livingston and Fred Levin/The Shenson Foundation; and other generous donors.

Education programs are made possible by the generous support of The W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley, Ginger and Moshe Alafi, Barclay and Sharon Simpson, Judy Webb, and other generous donors.