Exhibition: ‘The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now’ at The Whitworth, Manchester

This week, I’ve been slowly getting back into the swing of wordgirl life after some downtime for to deal with unpredictable Amoy tiger tummy (as standard), so I’m (glad to be) back on the social and art circuit and the routine of work….although, I’m still trying to be mindful of the fact I need to be more restful this month (a 2015 buzzword that my life doesn’t assimilate to…I prefer “mindlessness” to “mindfulness”…a great article here from the Guardian on this dichotomy). I’ve even had a few weeks off from social media (very unlike me) but I’m back now. Are you ready?

Anyway (as usual I digress), on Tuesday, I spent the day in Manchester for meetings. In the morning, I went to see (my family at) the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), where I was Research Curator (2012-2014) to talk about ‘The Temporary: 02 – Rarekind China’, the next project from ‘The Temporary’ series focussing on street and urban arts from China and the UK (I’ll blog about this properly another time)…some incredibly exciting developments ahead for CFCCA’s 30th birthday next year. Watch this space.

CFCCA in tray

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In the afternoon, I went to see Ed Watts from The Whitworth to talk about curating one of their ‘Thursday Lates’ events in response to ‘The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now’ exhibition that opened that evening. This week, The Whitworth crowned ‘Museum of the Year 2015’ by the ArtFund (an amazing achievement, well done Maria!) since it’s stunning £15 million extension, redesign and reopening (they’ve called it a “reinvention”) at the end of last year. I’ll keep you posted on the event as it develops…thinking a late summer performance party at the moment with a foodic edge…

‘The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now’ showcases only part of the M+ Sigg collection put together by Swiss collector Uli Sigg. The only chance to see it in the UK, it displays in a chronological curatorial format eighty works from four decades, what they’ve coined as “fast-moving art”. This latter comment I would contest as many of the works present historical interpretations of a socio-political China through the years, rather than more dynamic artworks (through their content or media) although I understand the reference may be towards the pace of economic change in China as the history and development of a Chinese art market is short.

It was a particularly exemplary summer Tuesday evening for the exhibition opening…sunshine beaming through The Whitworth’s new glass corridors at the rear of the building into the upstairs exhibition spaces creating a visual dialogue in its own right. Stunning. Surrounded by so many familiar friends and colleagues from the contemporary Chinese art world there that night…Uli Sigg, Collector; Lars Nittve, Director of M+ Hong Kong; Isabella Tam, Curator from M+ Hong Kong, Lu Peiyi, Curator, and so, so many more…it felt like a coming together of a family somehow. The opening was accompanied by a traditional soundtrack provided by a female Chinese string musician that in part, and as many of my colleagues and I discussed, made the event into an object of nationhood, “Chineseness” and “the other”, conflicting against the exhibition’s want to show the dramatic progression and invention of contemporary Chinese art since 1970 to now.

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The exhibition claims to span forty years, when in reality the most recent piece is from 2006, the film ‘Whose Utopia’ by Cao Fei, which presents the secret dreams of workers in a regimented light bulb factory. I worked with and co-commissioned her 2013 film ‘Haze and Fog’, a project I’m incredibly proud to have worked on, so I always feel content in the presence of her work. Therefore, to not show work from 2006 to the present day completely misses what I would say is the “fast-moving art” of and from China – the Chinese art market boom – as this was the time when Chinese artists clearly recognised and cultivated a new and experimental contemporary art practice individual from its international counterparts and the Western art canon. However, the exhibition does provide a needed and broad-based overview of the foundation of contemporary Chinese art…the term avant-garde could be used too.

Highlights (for me) came from works that represented early subversion in Chinese art from the 1970s such as ‘Paint Box’ by Zheng Ziyan, a tiny paint box constructed to escape official inspections, and ‘Brown Book No. 1’ (1988) by Zhang Peili, archival documents and a pair of latex gloves where the documents were randomly sent to select students along with latex gloves to paint to emphasise the hidden aggression inflicted by the standards and restrictions imposed upon art and society in China.

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From a museological perspective, the exhibition must be praised for its physical curation where the use of space was educated and sensitive, leading you through the chronology with ease, clearly guiding audiences to understand and acknowledge a progression in concept, materials and style…with a punch of scale and impact from works including the floor-filling installation ‘Still Life’ (1995-2000) by Ai Weiwei, a mass-display of thousands of Stone Age axe heads and an iconoclastic gesture designed to offset the value and importance of these ancient objects, also the first work you see placed in the central space, alongside ‘Family Tree’ (2000) by Zhang Huan, a photographic work the result of a single day’s performance where nine calligraphy painters took turns to write lyrics on the face of the artist, gradually obscuring his features with a mass of ink. From these two works you get an immediate sense of what contemporary Chinese is and stands for. Powerful, arresting, testing, experimental, questioning of its history and envisaging a future. Furthermore, the show dictates that contemporary Chinese art is in part no different than contemporary art from other world regions. It is the socio-political history of China and China’s place in globalism today, that bears influence on the Chinese artists’ practice making it so distinct.

If this exhibition was part of a meal, it would be the starter/appetiser course…an opportunity to get a solid grounding and education in contemporary Chinese art…to be used as a starting point, keeping you hungry for the main course the more recent (the last ten years) generation of contemporary Chinese art. Go and seek, view and experience…be hungry.

On show until 20 September 2015, artists in this exhibition include: Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei, Chi Xiaoning, Feng Guodong, Geng Jianyi, Hai Bo, Huang Rui, Huang Yong Ping, Kan Xuan, Liang Yuanwei, Lin Yilin, Liu Heung-Shing Liu Wei, Song Dong, Wang Guangyi, Wang Jin, Wang Keping, Wang Peng, Weng Fen, Xing Danwen, Yang Fudong, Yangjiang Group, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhang Huan, Zhang Peili, Zhan Wang, Zhang Wei, Zhang Xiaogang and Zheng Guogu.

There’s a pretty good review from The Economist called ‘Documenting History’ – read here and another by Robert Clarke from yesterday’s Guardian Guide that’s well…brief. I always feel like Guardian Guide reviews are the Twitter of the art review land. There’s only so much you can say…

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4 responses to “Exhibition: ‘The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now’ at The Whitworth, Manchester

  1. Great to see your getting back on form my dear!

    I leave the green and pleasant land back to the excitement and lights of Shangers on the 29th and it would be super lovely to see you. Let me know when you might have some free spots….

    x

    Liz

  2. Pingback: Chinese Contemporary Art on Show (UK): Summer 2015 | Rachel Marsden's Words·

  3. Pingback: Chinese Contemporary Art on Show (UK): August to October 2015 | Rachel Marsden's Words·

  4. Pingback: M+ Sigg Collection at The Whitworth, Manchester, UK: A review, sort of | Amy Jane Barnes·

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