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Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection

Mahjong: Installation Art

Wang Du: Stratégie en chambre, 1998; installation: mixed media; dimensions variable, approx. 33 x 33 ft.; Sigg Collection. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Yue Minjun: 2000 A.D., 2000; painted polyester; 25 figures, each 74 x 18 in.; Sigg Collection. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Ai Weiwei: Whitewash, 1995–2000; installation: 132 Neolithic vases and white paint; dimensions variable, approx. 49 x 49 ft.; Sigg Collection. Photo: Sibila Savage.

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

Installation art is a relatively new phenomenon in China, and Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection provides an excellent opportunity to experience some of the most exciting and intriguing works of the last ten years. Four works not to miss in Mahjong are Ai Weiwei’s Whitewash (1995–2000); Wang Du’s Stratégie en chambre (1998); Yue Minjun’s 2000 A.D. (2000); and Zhou Xiaohu’s Parade (2003). These artists approach their material from highly individual viewpoints, reflecting strong interests in personal expression, social commentary, and political satire.

Wang Du’s complex interweaving of toys, newspapers, and sculptural figures in Stratégie en chambre, on view in Gallery A, is a direct comment on the way that the media influence our perception of the world. A dense assemblage of newspapers (most are European) carpets the base of the installation in a variety of haphazard and regimented stacks, as if piling up at our doorstep all the news of the world. The figures emerging from the newspapers—a boy with a gun, youths with mouths open in defiant protest, and larger, looming representations of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in heated debate—create a sense of violence and strident anger that is heightened by the swirling toy jets and helicopters hanging above them. At first glance the toys strewn through the installation may appear to be anomalies in this world of adult strife, but upon closer examination they too are distorted and clearly un-childlike in their constructed behavior. The artist has created an environment that asks the viewer to question what the media have created and whether they offer a valid interpretation of events.

With its identical figures of a man with eyes tightly closed and mouth wide open in an alarming smile, Yue Minjun’s 2000 A.D. speaks to issues of individuality, uniformity, and identity in a rapidly changing society. Yue’s work, which immediately confronts museum visitors in the Bancroft Lobby and in Gallery B, is a compelling if somewhat frightening vision of the individual melding with the group to become totally undifferentiated. Yue is considered a mainstream artist of the “Cynical Realist” school; whether working in sculpture or painting, he depicts the same unseeing figure with relentless repetition.

Directly opposite Yue’s work in Gallery B is Ai Weiwei’s Whitewash, consisting of 122 Chinese Neolithic storage jars dating to about 3000 BCE. Ai has covered about a quarter of these earthenware jars, originally decorated with mineral pigments mixed with a clay slip, with an industrial white paint. The installation of the jars on the floor allows the viewer to see the vessels from above, as they were originally intended to be seen, emphasizing the highly symmetrical nature of the designs. The whitewashed vessels appear ghostly, as if the artist were intent on rewriting history as the original design and the past itself are obliterated.

Zhou Xiaohu’s large installation Parade, on view in Gallery 4, takes a narrower view of history. It focuses on the iconic image of Tiananmen, the huge public square that has been a part of Beijing history for hundreds of years and continues to be the main parade area of the new China. Using small clay figures (you can see how they’re made in the accompanying video) to represent four distinct periods, Zhou re-creates scenes from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, through the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution in 1969, to the open-door policies of 1999, and into the future when, according to the artist’s vision, dinosaurs return to Earth just as spaceships land.

Be sure to see these important installations during the Mahjong exhibition’s final days in Berkeley; it is highly unlikely that they will ever be on view together again.

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.