London has been graced with great art exhibitions this year. From the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern to the beautiful Ballgowns exhibition at the V&A museum and the excellent From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Academy, Londoners have been spoiled for choice. And today, we are even more spoiled. Why? Because the Art of Change: New Directions from China exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre opens.
I got a lucky sneak preview of the exhibition on Wednesday night when Cathay Pacific, one of the exhibition’s sponsors, invited me to a private viewing. Not since I explored the 798 Art District in Beijing have I seen such a great display of Chinese contemporary art.
As the name implies, Art of Change focuses on the ephemeral nature of life and the Eastern philosophy of the acceptance that all things are subject to change. Nine contemporary Chinese artists—Xu Zhen, Madein Company, Yingmei Duan, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Wang Jianwei, Gu Dexin, and Chen Zhen—all had works on display.
From performance art to mixed media, the exhibition was alive with an eclectic mix of works. In one area was a giant white box by Madein Company from which various objects popped out of at random, jack-in-the-box style. In another was a beautiful array of works by Liang Shaoji dedicated to silk worms, complete with live worms in a small room.
Further in was a tiny doorway that led to a dark room filled with trees. In the middle was a woman who walked and hummed, staring visitors closely in the eyes before choosing one to whom to hand a small scrap of paper. Created by Yingmei Duan, it was both beautiful and haunting.
Another highlight of the Art of Change exhibition was a room with nothing but Xu Zhen’s young man bending backwards in an impossible-to-maintain stance. At first he looked like a sculpture, but on closer inspection, he was real. Hovering in the air, he seemed to harness all of the potential energy in the room, leaving visitors itching with anticipation of movement.
Upstairs in the Hayward Gallery were a number of sculptures, including two large dinosaurs by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu and one tower that was rumored to be made of human fat. There were several video screens showing everything from fighting dogs on treadmills to Wang Jianwei’s ping pong players, who were playing an odd version of the game.
Behind one of them was a seemingly magical light-emitting cabinet with drawers that could be opened by visitors. That was upstairs from one of my favorite works in the exhibition, one by Gu Dexin that featured a room full of golden-framed photos of hands holding various pieces of meat. In the center was a mirrored column on which sat a clear case with a slab of meat in it.
Beyond that were a scene by Chen Zhen that looked like a room, but with everything painted brown, and a series of small models built with colorful candles. It almost looked like a child’s art project, but with more sophistication behind it.
All throughout the Art of Change exhibition were archive areas with large posters and interactive screens depicting the evolution of Chinese contemporary art from the 1980s to the present. They gave uninitiated visitors like myself a bit of background and context for what we were viewing, which was helpful given the sparse descriptions of the works on display.
Also scattered throughout the gallery were some of the most thought-provoking things in the exhibition: people. One performance art work consisted of women and girls in blue striped pajamas shadowing various visitors as they walked through the rooms. It was both intriguing and unnerving, and certainly unique.
At the end of the exhibition, I felt like I knew a bit more about Chinese contemporary art, and like I myself had been changed for having seen it. You will, too. If you’re going to see one of the many art exhibitions in London this year, make it this one.
Art of Change: New Directions from China runs until December 9th, 2012 at the Hayward Gallery in London.