Saatchi / Serpentine: Two Takes on Asian Art
Endeavouring to demonstrate a shift in focus from Western to emerging global economies, two recent exhibitions, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China at the Saatchi Gallery and Indian Highway at the Serpentine Galley exhibit the work of two of the fastest growing economic powers in the east, China and India. As auction sales have proved, non-western art is becoming increasingly prominent on the international art scene.
The Saatchi Gallery relocated, remodelled and kicked off its inaugural exhibition featuring new art from China bringing together Saatchi’s favourite Chinese contemporary art finds. Several critics have expressed disappointment in Saatchi’s range of exhibited works arguing that his selection is not edgy enough nor does it meet expectations of visitors wanting to see new art from China. Admittedly, there are pieces here that have circulated around the West as well as China, and as well as pumped through the salesrooms. There are also a few gimmicks, such as Love It! Bite It!, (2005-07) in which Liu Wei creates a Western city using nothing more than rawhide dog treats and Sun Uuan and Peng Yu’s Old Person’s Home (2007), a work comprised of wax versions of anonymous retired political figure heads buzzing around in motorized wheelchairs. Sensational, no doubt, but they are also fun crowd pleasers and no less works of art than the paintings and sculptures that share their gallery space.
The exhibition boasts a lot of great talent, particularly, Li Songsong, whose interest in the power of images materialises in his powerfully presented oil paintings that border abstraction while simultaneously celebrating the materials that he uses. He works exclusively from historical photographs and places familiar scenes out of context altering their meaning, forcing politically charged images into subjectivity. For instance, with his painting Cuban Sugar, the artist comments on a time when China was forced to engage in domestic sugar trade with Cuba to cut inflation. Songsong's divides his canvas into several different scenes in his representation of the events that took place during this period of Chinese crisis, thus fracturing its political potency. The artist's montage operates as a painting inside a painting suggesting a layered and disjointed approach to historical interpretation. His style is expressionistic, it is clear that his interest lies in the manipulation of paint and the play on deceptive qualities of images often achieved with photography.
Another artist worth checking out is Zeng Fanzhi. On display is his a painting from his Hospital series, which resembles something that you would expect from Francis Bacon. In his grotesque parody of thought and action, figures are painted in an almost graffiti like manner with exaggerated body parts emphasising their gestures of pain and anguish. His subjects maintain a feeling of remoteness from the horror that surrounds them in Fanzhi's A&E Waiting Room.
Also exploring art from the east, albeit slightly west of China, the Serpentine engages with art from India through its exhibition Indian Highway displaying works that range from painting, sculpture, and photography to online art and video from both emerging and established artists. The exhibition aims to demonstrate the importance of the road in relation to transition, movement, and links between rural and urban India by exposing the ‘information superhighway’, which is integral to the country’s economic strength. This point is not entirely clear to visitors. Although the Serpentine endeavours to encompass artists’ examinations of both political and social issues such as environmentalism, religious sectarianism, globalisation, gender, sexuality, and class, it is unsuccessful due to the gallery’s limited space. The show proves to be overwhelming and unfocused leaving visitors with a sense of confusion. Artists range from infamous old timers, such as MF Husain described as the Picasso of India (there is no question as to why as his work reveals obvious influences) to emerging young artists such as Subodh Gupta, described as India’s Damian Hirst, not least due to the inflated price tags attached to his works. His “office” which occupies a gallery of its own is comprised of old chairs, battered desks, filing cabinets and cupboards overflowing with files all of which are chained up and padlocked. The Raj administration and the bureaucracy of India's own civil service is undeniably insinuated alongside conflicts of imprisonment versus freedom.
Whereas the work of Amar Kanwar whose eight-screen video installation, The Lightning Testimonies, was displayed in Germany’s Documenta 2007, addresses the plight of women in India, and events such as those in 1947, during Partition, when more than 75,000 women were abducted, abused, mutilated and murdered. Videos depict present-day protests with naked women taunting soldiers at a military base and accusing them of rape as well as elderly women recalling the violence of the past. The room is transformed by frenzied hysterics, old photographs, songs, weeping, harsh realities, and symbolism. To indulge in Kanwar’s display properly takes time; it is extremely well produced, thought provoking, and emotional and could have certainly stood on its own.
Of course, it is impossible to present a comprehensive view of China and India’s contemporary art scene in one exhibition; nevertheless, despite criticisms The Revolution Continues conveys a clear message and represents those Chinese artists that are most prominent in today’s art market. On the other hand, Indian Highway overwhelms visitors with a massive amount of selective works seemingly aimed at a Western audience, which is simultaneously insulting to both Indian artists and Western audiences.
The Revolution Continues is certainly the more concise exhibition. While both exhibitions showcase the hot eastern artists on today’s international art scene, in doing so they run the risk of displaying these works as a brand that is Chinese or Indian art rather than emphasising the individual artist, despite featuring the big named artists. Further, they can also be accused of “westernising” the exhibitions by selecting works in which they feel would most appeal to a Western audience rather than showing works that represent each country, which seems to be an unavoidable dilemma.