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28 Chinese | A Very Modern Exhibition in San Francisco
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28 Chinese | A Very Modern Exhibition in San Francisco

Picture of Matthew Strebe
Updated: 24 April 2017
The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco’s latest exhibition, 28 Chinese, is alternatively strange, wonky, and riveting. For those who love modern art – or even those who don’t – this is certainly an exhibition that is not to be missed. 28 Chinese opens for public viewing on June 9.

True art is always the compression of the universal into the particular. Wrought from heretofore-inert matter, the confines of a canvas or the discrete lines of a sculpture come alive with the coiled power of the artist’s emotive genius. Art speaks, imploring the viewer to see things truly, unvarnished by the passage of time, absorbed in the boundless expanse of eternal aesthetic truths. Ashurbanipal’s palatial friezes or Raphael’s Academy do not dull in meaning as the stones chip or the paint fades. The pathos of loss does not wither with the changing of forms.

It appears superfluous, then, to apply categories like ‘ancient,’ ‘classical,’ or ‘modern’ to what is timeless. And yet, 28 Chinese, the latest in the Asian Art Museum’s rotating collection of temporary exhibitions, is quintessentially modern. There seems to be neither artist, nor art, nor viewer implied in the works of these post-modern glitterati. Each piece scoffs at the very notion of eternity, finding in the momentary attainment of clarity all the meaning required. Denuded of overt symbolism, their abstraction becomes a blank slate for the projection of the viewer’s internal states. And drained of essence, anti-essentialism becomes the defining trait.

Take Liberation No. 1, the work of artist Liu Wei. A pastiche of interlocking bars, it assaults the viewer with garish, clashing colors that break against the limits of vision like the surf of an angry sea. Each line slashes, cutting deep into the flesh of order and meaning to the point of incoherence: ‘My works have no specific meaning – this is left for the audience to decide,’ Wei wrote. ‘But they wipe a layer of dust from the surface of reality, forcing it to expose its true face.’ This truth lies, perhaps, in the shape of a computer’s motherboard. A futuristic bar code comes a close second. An opening shot from a sequel to Blade Runner places a distant third. Wei says of this piece that it is ‘pure logic into color,’ yet logic implies an unassailable insight into meaning, which this piece clearly lacks. Perhaps the best advice comes from the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man: ‘Accept the mystery.

A certain fascination with violence predominates amongst some of the artists, transcending mere visual assault. A self-portrait by Ai Weiwei comes in the form of a suited corpse, lying facedown in one of the permanent exhibition rooms. One photo has a naked man covered in the rib bones of a slaughtered cow. Another, Untitled Room No. 2 by Chin Wei, appears to be a murder scene. A man sits collapsed on his writing desk, dead. Blood streams from the edges of the tables, down his legs, and splatters on the floor in thick, heavy, and voluminous dribbles. It is not blood that flows from the veins of the subject, however, but ink. What might this stylistic appropriation of violent death possibly mean? Perhaps he is a metaphor for the chimera of Chinese scholastic achievement. Maybe he represents the overpowering love affair a writer feels for the written word. He could even be the product of a fever dream. Wei’s clues resemble tealeaf reading: ‘I hope to face some taboo issues and attempt to express existing contradictions.’

Perhaps the strangest of all was the quasi-lecture, quasi-performance art piece organized as part of the Asian’s First Thursdays. Conceived of by Beijing-based artist Yan Xing, it starred two academic Sinologists in what sometimes veered into a polite barroom brawl, at other times into an academic debate, and still at others into a theatre of wild outbursts. ‘God bless the Chinese Communist Party!’ one of them intoned into his microphone. ‘It was the best frenemy I ever had.’ As the rounds of verbal sparring went on, obscure references and impenetrable jargon jockeyed for top billing in this spiraling caricature of the Ivory Tower. As he sat against a sculpted column of the Corinthian order, sipping on whiskey and snapping photos, the artist’s mission became increasingly clear: this was a mockery of art itself. Creation without creation, this lecture was an organization of elements interacting without the input of the artist. It formed a destruction of boundaries so complete that the line between reality and performance was completely effaced – the brochure, after all, promised nothing less.

Alternatively strange and incomprehensible, beautiful and ugly, 28 Chinese consistently follows the contradictory philosophy of modern art on a course into the absurd. While not lacking in technical expertise, much of the work seems intoxicated on its own edgy meaninglessness. Or, even more strangely, unaware that it is meaningless at all. This is an exhibit that is for some omissible, for others, remarkable. What it is not, however, is forgettable.

Matthew Strebe

Matthew is a writer, philosopher, and part-time dragon slayer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find him dining at the next big place, playing in the sun, or talking to strangers on BART.