Great Walls

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

It would be an understatement to say that there's a lot of excitement surrounding the marvelous idea of constructing a new building to house Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. And even if the MCA hasn't yet mounted a campaign to raise the $3 million to $4 million needed, the process is well apace in other ways.

It started last spring, when Continuum Partners managing director Mark Falcone, whose wife, Ellen Bruss, is on the MCA's board, donated land at 15th and Delgany streets, worth $800,000, to provide a site for a new building.

Last fall, the MCA sent out a request for qualifications to architects around the world. The museum received responses from more than forty architects and firms, and a selection committee narrowed the list to six finalists. Rather than require them to outline specific proposals for a new building, the committee simply asked the finalists to explain their individual styles and theoretical concerns as illustrated by their existing work. This is not unlike what the Denver Art Museum did when selecting an architect for its expansion. Daniel Libeskind was chosen to design the now-under-construction Hamilton Building based on work he had already done elsewhere, and not on any specific ideas he had for the DAM's structure.

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

The MCA process got started on February 9, when Snøhetta, a firm from Oslo, made the first public presentation to a standing-room-only crowd at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Because of overcrowding there, the subsequent presentations will be held at the Temple Events Center at 16th Avenue and Pearl Street. This past Monday, February 16, it was London's Adjaye Associates who took their turn. The remaining four finalists will be making presentations on subsequent Mondays, with Gluckman Mayner Architects from New York set for February 23; Mexico City's TEN Arquitectos with Denver's Humphries Poli Architects on March 1; Predock_Frane Architects from Santa Monica on March 8; and Tucson's Rick Joy Architects on March 15. The winner will be announced by the MCA at the annual meeting on April 20.

The six architectural firms are working in similar neo-modernist veins, and in that sense, they may be described as post-post-modernists -- a very cutting-edge thing to be. Museum director Cydney Payton believes that vanguard architecture is a must for the MCA, and it's hard to argue with her -- especially in light of Libeskind's wilder-than-wild DAM structure going up on the other side of downtown. The expressionistic collision of planes that form the Hamilton Building automatically set the bar higher for the designers of local buildings who aim to be up-to-the-minute; this effect has been especially profound on the design dreams of the folks at the MCA.


It will be several years before the new MCA is completed, so for the time being the museum remains in its present home in Sakura Square. Director Payton's taste for innovative architecture is matched by her taste in art, and since she took over a few years ago, the MCA's program reflects that -- particularly the unusual and courageous shows held this season. For the first half, the MCA featured a political art show made up of new pieces from around the world addressing a variety of social issues. For the second half of the season (happening now), it's politics and more, in the spectacular OVER A BILLION SERVED: Conceptual Photography from the People¹s Republic of China.

The provocative show is elegantly filled with photo-based pieces that are true trailblazers, not only in the context of traditional Asian art, but also from the perspective of Western contemporary art, from which they arise. This work is aesthetically, philosophically and technically distinct, making the whole show absolutely captivating.

Contemporary art from Asia has generated a lot of interest in this country. About five years ago, new Japanese art made its U.S. debut; then, a couple of years ago, Chinese art became the latest thing. The MCA has been on top of this trend: OVER A BILLION SERVED is hardly the first time the museum has displayed contemporary Asian art.

The MCA show is being partly sponsored by the Asian Art Coordinating Council, and it was curated by the group's executive director, Julie Segraves. The AACC, headquartered in Denver, was founded in 1987, and Segraves came on as its first director. "We do exhibits on a wide range of topics," says Segraves, who has put together more than forty shows for the group. "There is always some sort of context in the exhibits in which people are able to learn about a particular country through art; our goal is to educate the American people about Asia."

That's surely what's going on in OVER A BILLION SERVED. Most viewers will learn a lot about Chinese politics, society and culture. The experience is enhanced by the captions Segraves put together to explain the works' many oblique images, events and ideas, which are commonly understood by Chinese audiences but not by most American viewers. "I wrote short essays on the pieces," Segraves says, "because people can't hope to fully understand the photos just by looking at them."

Segraves came up with idea for the show during her business trips abroad. "I go to China every year, and this gives me a good view of what's happening in contemporary art there," she says. "By the mid-'90s, I started to notice that contemporary conceptual photography was really coming on." Segraves points out that fine-art photography was virtually non-existent in China before 1980, meaning that the work in the MCA show is the product of a tradition that's not even 25 years old!

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.

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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