Great Walls

Expectations are high for the MCA's new digs, and its Chinese photo show is terrific.

The show is divided into three sections -- "Strangers in the Cities," "Power Politics" and "The McDonaldization of China" -- but these divisions are not clearly manifested in the installation, because, to some extent, each photo in the show could be shoehorned into every category. However, the three topical headings do serve a pedagogic function, and Segraves uses them to lay out the story of China today. And you know what? It's a pretty tough place.

"Strangers in the Cities," the first and smallest section, is installed in the entry space and in the small gallery just beyond it. The first piece is "Circumstances of the Youth," a color photograph by Liu Jin of nine adolescent girls lined up against an indefinite background, all in U.S.-style, Made in China clothes. Liu is interested in exploring how the rapidly changing urban environment creates both freedom and doubt. Another Liu is less ambiguous -- and a lot less lyrical. "By the Lake" is a shot of a young woman posed as though she's committed suicide next to a very polluted body of water.

There are many displaced rural people in China's big cities, and that's the topic of Zhu Fadong's photos. In one series, "This Person For Sale," he records a performance in which he walked the streets of Beijing wearing a sign indicating that he was for sale.

"Knickknack Peddler," by Wang Qingsong, photo 
enlargement.
"Knickknack Peddler," by Wang Qingsong, photo enlargement.

The second section, "Power Politics," is the largest, occupying two side galleries and half of the main space. This extra attention makes sense, considering that the Chinese Communist Party controls the government and has absolute power over the Chinese people. The events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese army opened fire on demonstrators, is the subject of a series of photo assemblages by Liu Wei. In each there is a photo of a victim's grave placed on the left, a text panel in white on a black field describing the person's life in the middle and, on the right, a photo of the place where the person was shot. These pieces are elegantly composed and appropriately somber in mood.

The catastrophe of June 4, 1989, has become a general symbol of protest in China, as is clear in "Tiananmen," by Sheng Qi. The image is not about the uprising at all, but is actually about AIDS. In this digital print of assembled photos, Sheng poses himself in Tiananmen Square wearing an army jacket with a red AIDS ribbon on it. He is nude below the waist, and his penis is wrapped in gauze. Other Shengs include photographs of his disfigured fist, which is a permanent record of his cutting off one of his fingers in protest of the Tiananmen struggle.

Less disturbing, but equally powerful, are a group of digital-print posters by Zhao Bandi that address a variety of issues, including AIDS, SARS and unemployment. Zhao is always pictured with a stuffed panda, and his pieces invariably include politically charged captions in Chinese and English. The Zhaos are very pop, and though most them are more than five years old, they look very fresh. Also compelling are the photo assemblages in digital prints by Bai Yiluo, notably "The People #3," made up of 2,100 individual portrait photos used to create larger, ghostly images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

The last section is "The McDonaldization of China," and though it is not as large as "Power Politics," it's still pretty extensive, installed in part of the main space and in two large side rooms. This section is the key element of the show and is surely a factor in the very clever title, OVER A BILLION SERVED. One photographer, Wang Qingsong, dominates this portion with seven large digital prints, essentially constituting a small solo. The tour de force is the majestic and monumental "Knickknack Peddler," a staged street scene that refers to traditional Chinese scrolls both in composition and in its exaggeratedly horizontal format. It also takes up the topic of the destruction of traditional Chinese culture by the U.S.-style junk flooding the big cities.

OVER A BILLION SERVED at the MCA is absolutely awesome. The work is so unusual and so good that the show easily holds up to repeated viewings. I guarantee that anyone interested in the visual arts will come away from it with a lasting impression, recalling some of the pieces for a long time. Anyway, I know that's what happened to me.

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