What pops into your head when you hear the phrase "Chinese art"? Delicate calligraphy on paper, with black ink washes of the distinctive mountains of the Far East? Carved jade? The ranks of terracotta warriors unearthed from an enormous tomb in 1974?
All real, of course, but also so "past-centuries." Contemporary Chinese art, just like contemporary Western art, is multimedia.
For the first contemporary art exhibit he has curated at The Ringling, Fan Zhang, Helga Wall-Apelt associate curator of Asian art, has filled a room in the Searing Wing of the museum with startling, large-scale photographs and videos.
In two photographs by Liu Bolin, a human figure is painted to match exactly the background, in one case the iconic "Birdcage" stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in another a wall covered with stuffed toy pandas. They share the main title "Hiding in the City" and are reflective, said Zhang, of continued prohibitions against artistic expression in China. The photographs also make reference to mass production and the loss of individuality.
"There is no difference between the artist himself and other commodities," said Zhang.
In a triptych by Wang Qingsong, a train car is empty, then holds only the artist, then is stuffed with emigres from the Chinese countryside to the cities.
"It's really some kind of portrait of China today," said Zhang. "Some are full of hope, some have lost their focus and really don't know what to do."
In yet another photograph, a male figure is plunged headfirst into a street as if he had crashed to earth like a rocket. That photograph, "Li Wei Falls to the Earth," is part of artist Li Wei's "Falls" series. Li will be at The Ringling on Nov. 17 for a performance in the museum's courtyard as part of the exhibit.
"The artist is trying to suggest that lots of Chinese people have to make a hard landing," said Zhang. "It's a metaphor for the hard landings in life; you can only dive into the unfinished future to deal with new situations."
Several of Li Wei's Mirroring series photographs also are in the exhibition, unsettling works in which the artist's disembodied head appears to float in an urban scene. "Mirroring: Tiananmen Square" is reflective, literally, of the face of Mao Zedong that hangs over the site of the 1989 pro-democracy rallies that ended with a declaration of martial law and the deaths of hundreds of protesters. The "Mirroring" series, the images of which are created by the artist putting his head through a panel of mirrored glass, is "on some level a new attempt to see ourselves and our surroundings in a different way," said Zhang.
Zhang dealt directly with the artists in curating the show. "The beginning question for me is why is Chinese contemporary art so popular in the west," he said. "It's contemporary, it's new, it's more accessible to the western audience and also it looks not so different from western art in form and content."
A triptych of huge color images by Wang Qingsong resembles traditional Asian art on first glance. They appear to be carefully arranged vases of peonies. But step closer, and the flowers reveal themselves to be fashioned from raw meat.
"The artist is trying to criticize the mindless pursuit of materialism," said Zhang, "the superficial splendors that cannot last long. Things look beautiful, but cannot last long...even your fortune."
EXHIBIT PREVIEW SEEING THE UNSEEN: PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO ART IN CHINA NOW. Through Feb. 28 at the Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. 359-5700; www.ringling.org.
“Conversation and a Movie: “The Rising Tide: Ambiguity, Confusion and Contemporary Art,” Robert Adanto’s documentary about the emerging post-Mao art scene in China, will be screened at 2 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Historic Asolo Theater. The film will be introduced by the director and then followed by a post-screening discussion. Tickets are $5.