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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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Concrete Horizons: Contemporary Art from China

We all agree that Wellington city is a great place, so how can we take it around the world with us when we go on the big OE and escape our student loans? Well Yin Xiu-Zhen, one of seven Chinese artists in the Adam Art Gallery’s current Concrete Horizons exhibition, has the answer—it’s called ‘City in a Suitcase’. Xiu-Zhen has made a series of suitcases which each contain the sights, smells and sounds of major cities from around the world. Her latest suitcase made especially for the Adam Art Gallery exhibition is, of course, good old Wellington. Including a fabric beehive and wind turbine, the piece is a clever yet humorous reminder of globalisation and urbanisation on all levels.

Concrete Horizons is a collection of mixed media, photography and video installations from some of China’s cutting edge contemporary artists whose works are a far cry from the conventional idea of Chinese art. The seven artists explore China’s newfound detachment from its traditional identity as it races to catch up with the rest of the world. Four of the artists have also come to New Zealand to talk publicly about their works and the issues surrounding the rapid urbanisation and reconstruction of their society.

The idea of building and destructing walls and barriers is a theme common throughout the works in Concrete Horizons. Of course the most famous barrier in China is the Great Wall itself. Undoubtedly the most exciting artwork in the exhibition is artist Song Dong’s ‘Eating the Great Wall’. This site-specific installation commenced two weeks ago when the artist created a 12 metre-long model of the Great Wall of China out of wafer biscuits. Dong then encouraged the audience at the exhibition opening to eat the biscuits whilst he filmed them. This process still continues until all the biscuits have been eaten away revealing 12 television screens playing distorted images of China’s cityscapes. Visitors to the gallery are encouraged to eat the biscuits, which range from orange to peanut butter flavour, as the process of eating the art is as important to Dong’s work as actually creating it.

The dismantling of Dong’s great wall and the subsequent revealing of the televisions underneath is representative of the knocking down of the metaphorical barrier which recently opened up China to the rest of the world. Like other artists in the Concrete Horizons exhibition, Dong sees this opening up leading to the inevitable western influence on the country. The result of which has been a rise in consumerism and a socio-economic disparity between rural areas and the new mega cities. Dong says that eating away the Great Wall is like eating away the spine of China. ‘Eating the Great Wall’ achieves a clever combination of novelty factor, political message and audience accessibility and interaction.

The wall image is also found in Wang Wei’s ‘Temporary Space’ photographs and ‘Dong Ba’ media installation. The works comment on China’s aim to urbanise further the traditionally agrarian society and to westernise the cities and buildings themselves. The result of which is Wei’s documentation of peasants out in a demolition site salvaging cartloads of bricks, sold for basically nothing, to be used to build China’s new cities. We also see the advertisement promoting the tacky faux Mediterranean apartments that they are busting their guts to make. The accompanying black and white photos show the same peasants perform a pointless exercise of building up four walls around themselves and then pulling them down again. Wei’s work also reminds us of the immense labour that went into the Great Wall of China itself.

Concrete Horizons is a critical look at China as it prepares itself for the Beijing Olympics and the ensuing scrutiny of the rest of the world. The artists use their own media to present their arguments in an interesting and sometimes humorous way. Yang Zhen- Zhong’s piece ‘Light and Easy’ is video of a man balancing the city skyline on his middle finger and is a simple way of telling us his obvious anti-capitalist message. The art in Concrete Horizons transcends cultures and the cautionary message that it gives us about over zealous urban development is one that is relevant the world over. For those making their first visit to the Adam Art Gallery this week this is one you should enjoy, and don’t forget the free biscuits.

Adam Art Gallery
21 February – 9 May 2004

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