Review: Fantastic works of young Chinese artists bridge the bay

Surrounded by his paintings, artist Sun Xun stands back to take in the installation he’s been working on for days in a gallery at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, which is hosting the historic “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists” exhibition showcasing 27 artists, along with the Tampa Museum of Art.
Surrounded by his paintings, artist Sun Xun stands back to take in the installation he’s been working on for days in a gallery at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, which is hosting the historic “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists” exhibition showcasing 27 artists, along with the Tampa Museum of Art.
Published Jun. 16, 2014

The kids are all right.

"Kids" is perhaps a stretch for the 27 men and women in their 20s and early 30s whose work populates "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists" at the Tampa Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. But that age range is well below the median associated with "mature" artists. Yet there is such maturity in this exhibition, both technically and intellectually. An adult self-awareness balances the youthful self-absorption. The tone and tenor of the 100-plus works range from somber to giddy.

First some housekeeping: You probably know already that this exhibition is shared by the museums in a unique partnership. You're meant to see it as a unified whole. So as I write about it, I'm not going to specify which works are in which museum. Yes, going to both museums is a commitment. I went in a single day and spent about six hours (including travel time) but I walked through slowly, went back and forth, took a lot of notes and watched all the videos (sometimes more than once), so my visit was longer than would be typical.

You shouldn't feel you need to go to both museums on the same day, though. Also, yes, two admissions are required but a combination ticket for $20 saves you $7 on regular-price adult tickets. Keep in mind the "$5 after 5 p.m." deal Thursdays at MFA when it stays open until 8 p.m. and the "pay what you will" policy at TMA on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. As a member of either museum, you pay no admission since they share membership reciprocity. I also recommend, if you can afford it, the excellent catalog with articulate but accessible essays, especially one by curator Barbara Pollack ($29.99 plus tax).

Now back to the show.

What these artists have in common is that they were born when the repressive Cultural Revolution was ending and China was entering its post-Mao Open-Door era. So, unlike older artists, who were usually subjected to censorship, punishment, even jail, these artists work in comparative freedom.

Most were born under the One-Child Policy that can be seen as blessing and curse. While they have had the undivided attention and resources of their parents that have contributed to their sense of individuality, they also bear the mantle of their families' hopes and dreams, not to mention the centuries-old tradition and expectation that children care for their parents as they age.

The most visceral example of this dichotomy is Ma Qiusha's wrenching video, From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili. For almost eight minutes, she faces the camera and tells her life story beginning with her parents' disappointment that she wasn't a boy. They realized she needed to stand out and have a special talent early on, so they bought an accordion for her. After "no exciting progress" with it, her mother realized she could draw so, beginning at age 8, she took classes after school and on weekends.

In a dispassionate voice and neutral expression she talks about the intense pressure she felt, especially after her parents essentially mortgaged their home to pay for her higher education at a prestigious art school. During the narrative, we notice that she has difficulty speaking, and when she finishes, she opens her mouth, revealing a razor blade that has been nicking her tongue during the performance. The 2007 film is dedicated to her "loved mother and father."

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I hope this doesn't sound condescending, but like many other works with a spoken or written component, the translation in this one from Chinese to English can be quirky and slightly, charmingly "off."

There is great exuberance in the galleries, too. Fearless by Xu Zhen (who works within his "cultural production" company MadeIn) is a jaw-dropping "tapestry" of mixed media on canvas measuring about 10 by 20 feet. It looks like a history of the world, interpreted and condensed by the artist, with a nod to Hieronymus Bosch. It's loaded with texture and cultural references. Presiding over the richness is a fantastical phoenix spreading its real-feathered wings.

Even though most of the artists aren't overtly political, government policies that have shaped and changed their lives inform many of the works. Another huge piece, an oil painting by Qiu Xiaofei, is a passionate impasto elegy to a China laid waste by rapid urbanization. A headless statue with an arm raised in a Mao-style salute is its cynical signoff as is its title, Utopia.

Jin Shan also used the utopian ideal as a framework for No Man City, a large sculpture occupying its own gallery. It's divided in half, the first looking like a giant origami sculpture inspired by Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. It begins with a vortexlike cone and angles its way to an architectural model inspired by an old blueprint for a utopian village. It's beautiful. Made of paper, it appears light enough to blow away, something that is only imagined. Flitting over it and gallery walls are silhouettes of small painted cutouts created by his father, an aspiring artist who had to choose a more acceptable career during the Cultural Revolution.

Another installation is grounded in reality. Irrelevant Commission is a collective of nine artists who contributed About Family to the show. A chandelier is made of humble items from their families' kitchens, such as an old kettle, chipped saucers, mugs, bowls, a shell. It's suspended above a loom from one of the families, threaded with bright string that bursts through the top onto a gallery wall like a rainbow. The objects act as surrogates for parents and grandparents connected to their sons and daughters through the transformative and preservative power of art.

There is sometimes a fine line between introspection and navel-gazing but these artists navigate it. Disruptive Desires, Tranquility and the Loss of Lucidity by Huang Ran and Yan Xing's Arty, Super-Arty are subtle but intense explorations of thwarted desire.

Yan is openly gay, which in the past would have been untenable and is still rare today. In his black-and-white, noirish film, several vignettes present him in the company of other men. They are motionless at first and then make small gestures that never connect with each other.

Disruptive Desires features an attractive young man and woman who find themselves alone in a school science lab during a rainstorm. He sits on a carousel horse while she walks back and forth. They are obviously attracted to each other but too shy at first even to make eye contact. They begin to speak about memories of their fathers that seem like non sequiturs. Meanwhile, she unwraps pieces of chocolate and pastes the gold foil onto the horse. By the end of the piece, the sun has come out, the lab is empty and the horse is covered in foil. (I have to confess that a nonrelevant thought kept trying to take over my appreciation of the work: That's a lot of chocolate!) It's achingly sensual without a single physical gesture between them.

The most endearing works (if serious art is allowed to be endearing) for me are Untitled (The Dancing Partner), a video by Liu Chuang; Flying Blue Flag by Hu Xiangqian; and Liu Di's Animal Regulation series.

In Untitled, two white sedans are filmed (presumably from a helicopter) as they drive on crowded Beijing highways. They remain side by side at the minimum speed, causing traffic jams, slowdowns and probably, if we could hear other drivers, loud epithets in many languages. Through the day, into the night (don't worry, it's edited down to about five minutes), they stay together and we begin to think of them as close friends, even lovers, metaphorically holding hands. On a production note, I have no idea how the artist filmed this without getting his drivers arrested on a traffic violation.

Flag has the engaging and attractive young artist, dressed in a suit, marching around his village soliciting votes for an upcoming election for village leader. He shows residents his plans for business development, "bribes" one with a cigarette, and listens to lots of advice. It's artifice, of course, and we don't know whether the bemused villagers are in on the joke or humoring him.

Liu's computer-manipulated photographs of urban settings, each inhabited only by a giant animal, are a pushback by nature on urban encroachment.

I think of Sun Xun's gallery installation as a sort of cabinet of curiosities. He hangs paintings of animals, landscapes and people along with random things such as a house, a hand, a camera with "Forbidden History" written in Ukrainian on walls he has painted as lush backgrounds. On another wall are portraits of people whose faces sometimes resemble rock formations. I think of this show overall as something of a cabinet of curiosities with unexpected wonders to be discovered.

I could write twice this much about "My Generation" and the many works that also deserve recognition. I wish I had the space and you had the time. Since we don't, I entrust you to see for yourself all the wonders in both museums.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.