CHINA IN THE SHADOW OF THE FREEDOM TOWER
Somehow, I never got to the China Institute Gallery at its old headquarters on East 65th Street, though I had heard through a rival institution, the Asia Society Museum, that it had been favored over the Asia Society by Henry Robinson Luce, founder of my former employer, Time Inc.
Having been born and raised in China by missionary parents, Luce remained passionate about the country and its culture in his maturity (sometimes to the embarrassment of his employees, for example in his espousal of the cause of the exiled Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek).
As an ex-employee of his, I didn’t feel the same compulsion to keep informed on all things of interest to a Sinologist. But when I read (possibly in an email from the China Institute’s public relations firm) that its gallery had moved to the newly-trendy financial district and was now located at 100 Washington Street, I determined to take the plunge.
Not the least reason for my determination was the advance promo for its inaugural exhibition, “Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China, 3rd – 6th Centuries” (through March 19). As curated by Willow Weilan Hai, director of the gallery, this show promised to offer more than 100 ceramics, sculpture, calligraphy and painting from a period roughly corresponding to the decline of the old Roman Empire in Europe, and directly succeeding the Han Dynasty in China.
The Han Dynasty had at least nominally managed to unite all of what is today the People’s Republic of China, although in its earlier days, its leadership had come from the western part of the country, and later on from its eastern part. But in 220 AD, it finally disintegrated altogether.
A period of dissension, diplomatic intrigue, rival dynasties, wars, messianic peasants’ uprisings, and chronic instability set in—and lasted until 589 AD when the rulers of the Sui Dynasty to the north finally managed to subdue the south and once again unify the country.
This intervening period is called the “Six Dynasties” period because during this period, at least five and maybe six brief dynasties managed to maintain some sort of order in most if not all of the southern part of the territory formerly ruled by the Han Dynasty.
Their capital city came to be what is today called Nanjing (Nanking during World War II). Nanjing is located on the delta of the Yangtze River and this natural boundary afforded protection against marauding northerners, who dominated that part of present-day China where its present-day capital of Beijing is located.
This northern area became between 303 and 439 the seat of what is called “Sixteen Kingdoms.” Many and maybe most of these were ruled by rival invading ethnic groups (not unlike the barbarians overwhelming the Roman Empire to the west).
Some of these invaders were related to the ancient Huns, and belonged to the same nomadic tribes that in time would invade what is today Turkey; some were Mongolians (akin to those who would also at one point overrun the Danube Basin),, and some were Tibetans. (Just like today, this was an era of widespread migrations.)
Anyway, despite the frequent political upheavals, this period of “chaos” was also a period of rich cultural development. In the north, the invading barbarians gradually adopted the culture they nominally dominated, and became assimilated in their turn.
In the south, especially, great advances were made in medicine, astronomy, botany, and chemistry – to say nothing of a flowering of the arts, especially literature but to a degree the visual arts as well.
In religion, Confucianism was slowly but surely giving way in the popular mind to Daoism and Buddhism (the latter imported from India, and especially important in the north).
But – as in the Han Dynasty, and in successive ones as well --the tombs of the wealthy and especially the royalty were embellished with all manner of food, textiles, pottery and images of people and animals to accompany the spirit of the dead one into the future. As I have always had a thing for Han Dynasty tomb sculpture, I was pretty sure I’d like what would be on view at “Art in a Time of Chaos.”
Nor was I disappointed, though the struggle to view the work on view was off-putting. Having read that the temporary entrance to the gallery was at 40 Rector Street, I determined via google that the Rector Street station on the R subway line would be closest—and it was.
However, 40 Rector Street turned out to be an office building, with the China Institute on the second floor, and a full impedimenta of turnstiles at the ground-level entrance only activated by electronic employee passes, plus an eagle-eyed concierge to vet mere visitors’ credentials before allowing them in.
China Institute officialdom says that when the main entrance to the galleries, around the corner at the street level entrance of 100 Washington Street is completed, at some indeterminate point in the future, this will no longer be a problem, but for now (and for who knows how long), you will either need the influence to call ahead and make a private appointment, or you will need to bring photo ID if you want to see this show.
What’s even more aggravating is the fact that when you get upstairs, and may wish to check your coat, there is only a “self-service coat-check”, with closets open to the general public and a sign prominently posted saying that the China Institute isn’t responsible for any losses.
When I tried to enter the galleries where the art is displayed, I was told by the second receptionist on duty that I had to leave my tote bag (which is also my purse) outside – because some of the items on view weren’t in vitrines and small enough to put in my tote.
Not only did this turn out to be not true, but the receptionist had no suggestions as to where I could park my purse with some assurance that nobody would walk off with it – though I eventually persuaded her to let me leave it next to her desk.
No museum in Manhattan prevents me from taking my tote into their display space, nor does any other gallery, public or private. In fact, I haven’t had this problem since I visited the Barnes Foundation in the 1970s –and even the Barnes had lockers where you could stash your purse.
I will say that when I revisited the gallery a few weeks later, I was allowed to bring my tote into the exhibition area. But all I can say is that this initial experience led to me entering the exhibit not in the best of moods.
All that said, the exhibition itself is between 50 and 60 percent stunning; breathtaking, heartbreakingly lovely -- well worth the aggravation, in other words.
It’s not a large show, with only five smallish gallery spaces, and none of the art on view is very large, either, but much of it comes from tombs only discovered since the late 20th century, in the wake of the extravagant building boom that the Chinese have been embarking upon for the last 20 or 30 years.
Most of this work has been lent by two museums, one in Nanjing and the other in Shanxi (which is in northern China). Little of it has been seen in the U.S. before.
True, the last two of the five galleries, with calligraphy (often if not always in the form of rubbings) and painting on scrolls (in suspiciously-bright color reproduction), didn’t do that much for me. I don’t say that this historical period is lacking in such splendors, just that this exhibition doesn’t convey their full richness to me. But the first three galleries, in which are displayed ceramics and sculpture, marvelously do.
The third gallery, with rich red walls, contains the largest sculpture in the show, though even one of the largest here, a handsome tomb guardian warrior from the Northern Qi Dynasty (570), can't be much over four feet tall.
Somewhat but not much smaller are charming figures of little ladies, figures on horseback, oxen pulling carts, and all manner of animals: sheep, camel, hen, dog, pig, lion and just plain “animal.”
Some are carved out of limestone, soapstone, etc., while others are made of earthenware or other ceramics, and they are all quite charming.
Here too are a bodhisattva and several other Buddhist figures, all executed in a style distinctly reminiscent of Indian sculpture and thus indicating the source of the religion itself.
I must say, however, that I found even more beguiling the first two galleries, although both are rather small and most of the work in them is even smaller. It is all ceramics, and the finest of it is celadon, a form of ceramic, very often porcelain, that has been tinted with a pale green glaze.
The second gallery, painted a reddish pink terracotta color, has three wondrous “spirit urns:” large vases or jars whose towering covers are embellished with all manner of little people, houses, and/or birds.
Here too are a jaunty little dog in a “kennel” that looks more like a circular ashtray, and a small henhouse with two .tiny hens poking their beaks out of holes in the henhouse.
Best of all, though, is the opening gallery, painted a royal purple, and boasting three shiny clear vitrines. To the right, as one enters, is the smallest vitrine, with just one large (ish) covered vase.
On the left wall is the largest vitrine, with celadon artifacts: a small stove, two incense burners, a censer, a lamp, a fruit-tray, two spittoons and so on.
But right in the middle, facing the entrance, is the star of the show: a medium-sized vitrine housing ten small figures from the Wu period (220-280). In the center is a small “authority figure” seated on a couch.
It is surrounded by nine equally small attendants, standing in a half-circle. Four are musicians—one drummer, two zither players, and one who was probably playing a wind instrument (though that has broken off).
Of the remaining four, one is a foreigner, as indicated by his pointy cap. One wonders what he made of this singularly Chinese but ravishing convocation!
FROM THE ANCIENT TO THE CONTEMPORARY
The new International Center of Photography Museum, which opened to the public this June, is located at 250 Bowery, quite close to East Houston Street.
It is as aggressively accessible as the China Institute Gallery is reticent about its charms.
Entering the ICP from the street, one finds a large, square lobby that doubles as a coffee shop. It has tables, chairs and a counter at which one can purchase fairly pricey sweets, beverages and other yummies without having to pay any admission to get to the principal exhibition spaces (the China Institute Gallery offers no food or drink—I was forced to grab my decaf at a Dunkin Donuts half-way back to the subway).
Moreover, there are a couple of free art exhibits in the entry space for the ICP. One, which may or may not be permanent, is billed as “a real-time surveillance ‘clock’ by David Reinfurt, and the other is an exhibition wall for temporary exhibitions.
The “clock” picks up film footage of people walking by on the street outside and projects it onto the back wall of the space, where it turns into rather nervously stuttering and garishly-colored semi-abstract patterns.
The temporary exhibition wall, when I was there, featured some fairly nice black-and-white photographs of urban street scenes. These photos, I was told, had been taken by students participating in an ICP “outreach” program in the Bronx.
No doubt when these students are further along in the program, they will be taught how to make unattractive photographs. This I say upon the basis of the inaugural exhibition in the galleries that one had to pay admission in order to enter.
“Public, Private, Secret” (through January 8, 2017) is the exhibition in the exhibition space that you have to pay to enter (you also have to enter this area if you want to use the restrooms).
Organized by a team headed up by Charlotte Cotton, the museum’s curator-in-residence, this show, according to the media release at the museum’s website, aims (with its accompanying events program) to “explore the concept of privacy in today’s society.” It also “studies how contemporary self-identity is tied to public visibility.”
This provides a rationale for mounting an extensive selection of exposé-type images created not only by traditional photography and cinematography but also by all the newsiest ways of making pictures.
We get online images, for example, including YouTube and Instagram, plus every last little way of using your smart phone to capture yourself, your friends, and total strangers, in ways that make them look embarrassed or ridiculous.
This is a show where Cindy Sherman & Andy Warhol are the reigning deities, and where novelty and technique are at a premium. Many of those reviewers who waxed enthusiastic about it rejoiced in all its technological strengths. Silly me! I think it is the ends which justify the means – at least in art.
One of the criteria for being included here seems to be that the images (almost always of people) look unfinished and/or amateurish and/or capture the subject in his or her most angry or unflattering light (though this criterion does not always apply when the subject is pathetic or bizarre enough to start with).
The result – from the funhouse mirrors to which visitors are subjected at the entry to the videos projected on movie-sized screens on the ground floor to the predominantly black-and-white still photography in the basement level of the exhibition—is an almost unrelenting emphasis on the grotesque or unattractive.
And it is very much a show of the recent & the present. Although I saw occasional photographs from the 1930s through to the 1950s, 90 to 95 percent of the show is work made since the 1960s and most of it is even more recent.
If the tiny idealistic figures in “Art in a Time of Chaos” offer us a utopian vision of a better world than the ugly one surrounding us, then “Public, Private, Secret” offers us a dystopian environment that encapsulates and promulgates all those ugly things instead.
And yet, of course, the irony is that life in China in the chaotic era of the Six Dynasties must have been “nasty, brutish and short” (as Thomas Hobbes summed it up) whereas today most people, at least in the developed countries of this world, may hope to live several decades longer than those ancient Chinese and with more adequate nutrition & medicine.
Why is it that so many people are so dissatisfied with the status quo today? Is it a function of the rising standard of living? I don’t have anything against social protest in a show, but even social protest can be a lot more beautiful than what we have here.
So there we have our study in contrasts: while both the two galleries under consideration can boast trans-gender rest rooms, we have one gallery that’s hard to get into but dazzling when you do get in and one that is easy to get into but maybe not as much fun when you do get in. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
NOTE: I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the hospital, recovering from a nasty case of pancreatitis, followed by gall bladder surgery. So I am afraid that for the next month or so, while I am recuperating, my postings may be erratic. I do have some stories in the bank, which I will be putting online at generous intervals, but don't expect me to be posting entries on too many new shows. Sorry about that, but it can't be helped.