press release

China’s Past and Present - In Two Simultaneous Exhibitions

In a rare programming coup, this summer the Mori Art Museum presents two major exhibitions about China. The first, China: Crossroads of Culture draws mainly on excavations from the last 30 years, including over 100 National Treasures, to show for the first time the dynamic, hybrid nature of China’s culture in the first millennium. The second, Follow Me!, takes up the same challenge in the current millennium, looking exclusively at the generation of artists born after 1970. From its dawn through to the present, Chinese art has been forged through a continual process of interplay with art from other cultures - The Mori Art Museum will show how.

This summer the Mori Art Museum presents an exhibition of art and cultural artifacts from ancient China that is unprecedented in scope and quality. With over 200 items – over half of them designated National Treasures – assembled from over 40 institutions across mainland China, the exhibition will show how, from its earliest phases at the onset of the Christian era, Chinese culture was born and molded through a continual process of exchange between the kingdoms, empires and tribes located to the east, west, north and south of the Silk Road.

China: Crossroads of Culture examines the period from the Eastern Han (25-220AD) to the Tang dynasties (618-907AD), when successive waves of conquest, trade and immigration centered around the Silk Road set off a major transformation in Chinese civilization. An astonishing range of creative expression ensued, from ornaments in jade, bronze, gold, silver, metal, stone and wood to textiles, works on paper, as well as wall paintings. The exhibition features examples of each, with objects varying in size from a spectacular, two-meter high, towered pavilion in earthenware from the Eastern Han period, to three beautiful, 6th century Byzantine coins in gold.

Other highlights include gold artifacts of the nomadic peoples of what is present day Mongolia and Siberia, who occupied North China after the collapse of the Han dynasty at the beginning of the third century, and luxury articles of glass and precious metals imported from Byzantium and western and Central Asia during the fourth to the sixth century. The exhibition also includes several important sculptures, influenced by Indian art, associated with the early spread of Buddhism in China.

Mori Art Museum Director, David Elliott, commented: “This exhibition throws a completely fresh perspective on the traditional art history of China by showing the impact of trade along the Silk Road as well as the movement of armies and peoples across this vast terrain. The works in it show clearly the vitality and quality of the very wide range of cultural influences that contributed towards the ‘Golden Age’ of the Tang Dynasty.”

China: Crossroads of Culture is planned with the collaboration of a wide network of Japanese specialists and museums led by Professor Sobukawa Hiroshi from the Institute for Research in Humanity at Kyoto University. New additions have been made since the exhibition was seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in Autumn 2004, and the Hong Kong Museum of History in Spring 2005.

To demonstrate how cultural exchange continues to be an important stimulus for creative activity in China today, the Mori Art Museum simultaneously presents Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium, an exhibition of art by contemporary Chinese artists born after 1970. (See separate release for details.)

A full-color catalog will be published in Japanese and English to coincide with the exhibition.

The period of about 350 years from the fall of the Han Dynasty in AD 220 until the unification by the Sui Dynasty is known as the Wei-jin Nanbeichao period. Until recently, this was regarded as a time of turmoil during which China was divided from east to west and north to south, however, recent research and the latest excavations, primarily conducted by scholars from mainland China and the United States, have changed this traditional viewpoint.

The Wuhu people that established states in the northern region had an ardent Buddhist faith that came from India, rather than a belief in Confucianism or Taoism—China’s traditional religions. In the southern dynasties, heirs to the classical culture of the Han, a culture of tasteful elegance bloomed in the nobility. At this time, Chinese culture reached its zenith as a result of the migration of peoples from northern Asia as well as through vigorous trade with the West. Western styles newly introduced from India and Central Asia were adopted and mixed with the traditional aesthetic sense of the Han people and this transformation profoundly affected the whole of Chinese culture.

The most dramatic and revolutionary historical perspective that emerges from this research is that foreign culture had the greatest impact on the formation of Chinese art at this time and this in turn influenced the high classical art of the Tang Court that epitomizes Chinese culture. The traditional historical view that foreign culture eroded the essence of Chinese art and destroyed its supremacy can no longer be sustained. Previously, although the research on individual ages such as the Han or Tang dynasties progressed, there was no general survey of the development of Chinese civilization. This exhibition has adopted the new perspectives that have emerged from this research.

The exhibition clearly shows some of the earliest affects of globalization in the collision and integration of Chinese with foreign culture in about 200 works; it includes not only Chinese art and artifacts but also work brought to China through trade with India, Persia, Central Asia, and even from as far as Greece or Rome.

Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium

Contemporary Chinese Artists Ride Current Wave of Globalization. Nineteen Artists Born After 1970.

As the Chinese economy and society develop at breakneck speed with rapid urbanization, futuristic architecture and different ways of looking at the world, young artists have become increasingly involved in responding to, measuring and fixing these changes. Art in China has become intimately involved with such day-to-day issues of contemporary life. To coincide with China at the Crossroads, an exhibition that examines the many different cultural influences that fed into Chinese art from the Eastern Han to Tang Dynasties during the first millennium of our era, Follow Me! presents the work of nineteen young Chinese artists who are confronting issues of history versus the reality of globalization today. After the strict ideological control of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese art began to revive during the 1980s. Now a new generation has evolved that looks at the past as an exotic object and embraces the delights and pitfalls of global culture with ironical and laconic fervor.

Everyday life and alienation in the vast future metropolis are recurring motifs that can be seen in the work in the exhibition as are the traces of the Cultural Revolution that now seem to be like relics of an ancient time. Here artists are searching for permanence and value in a world that seems both unstable and unsure of its future. An awareness of the effects of terrorism on urban living is evident. The seduction but also the emptiness of consumerism is faced in the process of establishing how to navigate the powerful forces of homogeneity in globalization in order to establish and celebrate human difference. Sometimes with melancholy, sometimes with optimism, the artists in this exhibition reflect on the complex cultural influences on contemporary life and on how they may be best portrayed with both beauty and passion in their work.

Mori Art Museum Director, David Elliott, commented: “In a short space of time contemporary Chinese art has become firmly established on the world stage. This exhibition examines the work of the youngest generation of Chinese artists who are reacting not only to the culture in which they have grown up but also to the changing of their environment owing to the effects of economic development, rapid urbanization and foreign influence.”

A full color catalog will be published in English and Japanese to coincide with the exhibition.

About Follow Me!

The exhibition title comes from a work by participant artist Wang Qingsong called Follow Me. Dressed as a teacher, Wang stands in front of a blackboard covered in Chinese and English characters and graphics. While Nike and McDonald’s logos hint at the current wave of Westernization and democratization, the text in the middle of the board - “Let China walks towards the world! Let the world learn about China!” - suggests something much deeper. On the surface an expression of adulation for the developed world, it also raises the question of who, in this new century, will do the leading. It heralds a sea change in values that is of relevance, it would seem, to the entire world. In the large cities and the Economic Development Zones of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) the influence of internationalization and globalization has been strong, and each is undergoing deep and rapid change. Many of the artists focus on this jaw-dropping propensity for urban transformation: in his Light as Easy photo and video series, Yang Zhenzhong makes disorienting, inverted images of the high-rise skyline in Pudong, Shanghai; Lu Hao makes transparent models of the buildings on wheels, which visitors can move via remote control in a game-like work called Building Dodgem; and, Shi Yong uses a lightbox to trace the edge of Shanghai’s unique high-rise skyline in Shanghai Sky. Meanwhile, other artists have set about documenting their country’s development. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen photograph old abandoned community halls – a kind of symbol of the collective memory and political dramas of the previous century – while Cao Fei and Ou Ning have made a documentary video on the development of the San Yuan Li region, including interviews with citizens in this area (which was once the focus of the farmers’ rights movement during the Opium War). In Weng Fen’s photo series Sitting on the Wall, the viewer is left to wonder what the young girls sitting with their backs to the camera are thinking as they look over the brand new city that lies before them.

The scope and speed of the change now sweeping China is so great that it of course impacts on people’s lifestyles too. This is the theme of Cao Fei’s Hip Hop, a video depicting factory workers and old women in Mao suits dancing in the street. Chen Shaoxiong’s Streetscape has a similar focus – it is a three-dimensional collage of cutout snap shots of people walking, poster boards, bicycles and cars. Other works, such as Yin Xiuzhen’s installation Beijing Opera, recreate a scene of citizens enjoying music in the park.

The rapid rise in the use of photographic and video media in contemporary Chinese artistic expression can be gleaned from the prevalence of such works in the show. But there is much more. Follow Me! also features: painters such as Chen Wenbo, who makes cross-sections of life from unlikely angles; innovative artists such as Xu Zhen, who makes his own conceptual approach by mixing together a number of techniques; and, video artists such as Yang Fudong, who presents the lifestyle of the young generation in China in a style that deliberately pays homage to the traditional aesthetics of the East. The exhibition shows that in China today a new and diverse form of art is emerging, and that it has the potential to completely upturn all our preconceptions of what it means to be “Chinese.”

China: Crossroads of Culture
Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium
Kurator: David Elliott

mit Cao Fei, Ou Ning, Chen Shaoxiong, Chen Wenbo, Liu Zheng, Lu Hao, Shao Yinong & Muchen, Shi Yong, Wang Qingsong, Weng Fen, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, Yang Zhenzhong, Yangjiang Group  (Zhen Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Yin Xiuzhen, Zhou Tiehai