It seems relatively rare for MoMa to feature East Asian Contemporary Art. Maybe they’re not too eager to jump onto the bandwagon of Chinese contemporary art, thinking it too much of a fad and a trend, thinking that it’s not yet clear which of these artists are the true masters whose works will become classics. Maybe it’s because Asian contemporary works like those I’d like to see don’t quite mesh with their conception of “modern art” and/or with the museum’s mission statement or something to that effect. Maybe the American/European faction on the board is too powerful. Or maybe those running the museum are just stuck in the 1950s-80s.
In any case, in something of an exception, MoMa is currently devoting a large space on the second floor to a project by Chinese artist Song Dong. He and his mother have taken all of the objects she had pack-ratted away over the years out of her home and organized them around the gallery – scraps of cloth here, old newspapers neatly tied in a bundle there, bottle caps, old appliances, empty PET bottles, and so on. As the gallery labels explain, a Chinese saying, wu jin qi yong, translated in the exhibit as “waste not,” is a defining philosophy for at least one generation of Chinese… everything can (at least theoretically) be put to another purpose, and so there is no call to throw it out. If the artist’s mother’s home was indeed limited to the size of the wooden skeleton of a structure in the center of the gallery, then it must have been exceedingly crowded indeed.
(Actually, while they do refer to this tiny structure, about two or three times the size of my cubicle, as her house, I find it extremely hard to believe, given how much space one needs just to cook and sit and eat and sleep, let alone live a whole life, let alone hoard all these worthless possessions. It’s like the size of the so-called zero-yen homes you find made of blue tarp lining the shores of the Sumidagawa in Asakusa.)
In any case, it is a most interesting exhibit. It’s aesthetically culturally very interesting, from the perspective of the historian or anthropologist, in the way that each and every item is distinctly Chinese, or at least distinctly different from what we are used to in the US. The Coke bottles are a different size and shape, and the labels are in Chinese. Much of the old clothing is one kind or another of Chinese clothing, not Western dress. The appliances are different sizes, styles, shapes, brands, and makes from what we have here in the US. And so, as a traveler, a visitor, an explorer of other cultures, intrigued by things as minor as the way different people can each think their version of the Coke bottle is the normal, regular, typical style, and that it’s strange that it should look different in another country.
If the artist says it is, and MoMa says it is, then that’s more or less good enough for me. The artist, and curator, both had rather insightful and interesting things to say about the meaning and symbolism of the project, so that’s something.
But even if it isn’t art, I think it quite interesting, both culturally/aesthetically, and culturally/sociologically; that is, both for what it looks like, the designs and styles of all the objects presented, and also for what the hoarding phenomenon, “waste not” philosophy, and age, quality, and condition of the objects tell us about Chinese culture.
Definitely an interesting exhibit; the only one I saw that day, I think it was absolutely worth the $0.00 I paid to get in. I’m really glad I didn’t have to pay the full $25 they ask for regular admission, given that I have little interest in the rest of what they have on display.
One of the artists in the New Museum‘s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, Liu Chuang, did something similar, arranging the objects worn and carried by an individual on a table. Each table was a profile of a different random, average Chinese person, their clothes, bags, cellphones, ID cards, books, and other possessions describing and defining them.
Certainly a pattern if not a trend, and a fascinating peek into the culture of current-day China.
All photos my own. Courtesy of MoMA’s allowing photography in their galleries.