There's so much. One piece after another after another. The Berkeley Art Museum's nine packed galleries give a clear indication of the Swiss art collector Uli Sigg's obsessive-compulsive drive towards collection.
Mahjong: Contemporary Art from the Sigg Collection offers over 140 works of Chinese contemporary art, all drawn from Sigg's private collection. Together, the works in Mahjong tell the story of a dreamworld called "China," but that dreamworld may, or may not, bear any resemblance to the real thing.
Sigg began collecting Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, trying, as he notes, "to cover the whole spectrum" of Chinese contemporary art production, and assemble a collection that embodies "Chineseness." His encyclopedic impulse is admirable, but the results are less neutral, and less documentary, than he might lead us to believe.
Sigg, like so many others who work with Chinese contemporary art, treats Chinese as a veiled "Other." The curatorial approach to Mahjong draws heavily upon Orientalist tropes. Due to the Cultural Revolution, the story goes, China was hidden from the Western gaze, and her artists were cut off from contact with the West. Chinese art, like Chinese history, was supposedly divorced from the world, and Chinese contemporary art developed in that secret space. Chinese contemporary art, then, cannot -- and should not -- be judged on par with Western art. The same standards cannot apply to Chinese contemporary art. Chinese contemporary art must be judged on separate terms. Often, the object's ability to convey "Chineseness" becomes a key determinant of its value as a work of art. And because that narrative of Chinese art history continues to dominate the discourse, most criticism and scholarship -- and consequently, most curatorial approaches -- continue to embrace this double standard.
Most critics and curators of contemporary art would find it laughable to organize a show around the essential principles of "Frenchness" or "Americanness," yet curators of contemporary Chinese art continue to incorporate essentialist notions of "Chineseness" into their shows. To put it bluntly, in every show about Chinese art, there must be a panda. (There is at least one panda in Mahjong. It appears in Zhao Bandi's A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman (2003).) Can you imagine if every show about contemporary American art included an American flag, or worse, Mickey Mouse?
In Mahjong, the objects hit all the familiar high notes -- we observe cosmopolitan scenes from Beijing and Shanghai, we encounter elements drawn from China's Classical past, we enjoy Chinese calligraphy, porcelain, and embroidery, we revel in exquisite glazes and sumptuous silks. In other words, the objects conform to our expectations of "something Chinese." We need not possess knowledge of Chinese geography nor history to take pleasure in the spectacle before us.
The China that we encounter at the Berkeley Art Museum is protean, changeable, but still deeply inflected with Orientalism. This China is less a geographic place than a free-floating construct. In the past decade, the concept of China has taken on an intense, almost totemic significance. In our century, China re-emerged as a major player on the world stage, a development that startles -- and unsettles -- many in the West. The overheated Chinese contemporary art market was largely driven by a Western desire to own and know the slippery, mysterious Oriental "other."
Witness the Western -- European and American -- fascination with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a fascination exemplified by the press's curious mixture of admiration and disgust, denigration and celebration, towards China and its people. In China, they eat scorpions on a stick. In China, they drink Coca-Cola. The Chinese are at once potentially human -- and utterly alien. The tropes of Orientalism return, now broadcast in high definition.
Taken as a group, the works in Mahjong convey that same unsettling mixture of fear and fascination. In the exhibition, China often comes across as grotesque and somewhat sinister, a place where the human figure is continually under stress. For example, Yue MinJun's paintings feature grotesque, mask-like figures, dressed in everyday garb, but performing unorthodox, and highly disturbing, actions. 2000 A.D., Yue's large-scale installation, features row upon row of the same grinning figure, his face contorted into something resembling a death mask. Dressed in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, barefoot, with his eyes shut and his hands crossed behind his back, the man seems neither happy nor relaxed. Taken en masse, Yue's figures remind me of the Chin dynasty terracotta warriors, who were buried with their master in lieu of the usual human sacrifice. Wang Jin's Ice Wall depicts frenzied villagers tackling a wall made of ice, tearing objects (described as "highly desirable consumer goods") and bearing them away.
There is also the other China, the beautiful and desirable one. We encounter this particular dream China in Mahjong as well, in the form of Wang Jin's haunting 1997 work, The Dream of China, where a translucent plastic (or PVC?) copy of an embroidered silk court robe hangs suspended from a large metal hook, a gossamer mirage of exotic beauty. And we meet it again in Shi Guorui's photo-panorama, Shanghai, China, 15-16 October 2004, and in the pseudo-calligraphy practiced by Gu Wenda and Xu Bing. This is the Orient that is mysterious and fascinating, that beguiles us but remains veiled.
Despite its scale, Mahjong is more a show about Western visions of China than a show about contemporary art practice in China. We come away from the show with very little new knowledge about contemporary China -- we can leave, in fact, without ever figuring out the proper geographic relationship between Shanghai and Beijing -- but with plenty of insight into the West's projections of China and the Orient. Until Western curators figure out a different way to narrate Chinese art history, we will continue to rehearse our own Orientalist versions of that story, and our shows about Chinese art will continue to resemble a hall of mirrors, continually reflecting our own gaze back at us.
Mahjong: Contemporary Art from the Sigg Collection is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum through January 4, 2009. For more information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.