Floating Artists Meet Silk Worms in Hayward’s China Show

The worst thing about the Hayward Gallery’s latest show is its title.

“Art of Change: New Directions from China” is considerably more fun than it sounds. “Zen and the Art of Lying in Mid Air, Motionless” would get the idea over better.

This London exhibition is about the meeting of Western avant-garde tendencies with the venerable traditions of Chinese culture.

What results is a surprisingly smooth blend -- perhaps because oriental ingredients have been part of the modern-art mix since the days of Van Gogh and Gauguin, if not before. The work of Liang Shaoji (born 1945) is a good case in point. When he talks about it he sounds, well, extremely Chinese.

He is quoted in the catalog as saying what he is doing like this: “Scholars and writers of antiquity had a predilection towards a state ‘dilapidated mountain, drying water’, which I now attempt to capture through contemporary means.”

When you see a work of his such as “Whirl” (2012) it isn’t hard to grasp that here is an artist of exactly the same generation as the British sculptor/walker Richard Long (born 1945), doing something similar.

The difference is that where Long uses stones, river clay and words to make his art, Liang Shaoji tends to use silk worms and their cocoons.

Actually, “Whirl,” which uses stones and silk to make a circle on the floor, looks a lot like a Long. Other works are more worm based, in fact created by the little creatures, hardworking multitudes of which spin webs of silk over chains and other structures.

Wackier Still

If this is an oriental take on the nature-based art of the 1970s, Xu Zhen (born 1977) is several degrees wackier. One sign of this is that he ceased to be Xu Zhen in 2009 -- rather in the manner of the artist formerly known as Prince -- and sank his identity in a collective known as “Madeln Company.”

His ideas include constructing a miniature cleaner that uses saliva as a dirt-removing fluid and lowering the peak of Everest by a small amount.

The exhibition includes “In Just the Blink of an Eye” (2005/2012) in which a performer reclines as if on a sofa on nothing at all. It’s a compelling trick, as is staying there motionless while gallery-goers try to work out how it’s done.

Yingmei Duan (born 1969) is more of a performer in the self-martyring manner of Marina Abramovic. Earlier works included one in which the audience splashed her with freezing water and another involving her lying in the street dressed as a beggar and covered with old cardboard boxes, leaves and lumps of stone.

Wishing Trees

In recent years her work has taken on a cheerier note. In “Happy Yingmei” (2011/2012) she waits in a room filled with the branches of trees, handing out to each visitor a folded piece of paper containing wishes for you to carry out. I can reveal that mine was not too onerous -- to send her an e-mail.

Without describing each of the nine artists and 40 works included, I hope I’ve said enough to suggest that this is an entertainingly quirky show.

The lesson is that right now we are in the middle of an unprecedented globalization of art. It is a process, like other sorts of globalization, which is impossible to resist and of which the consequences are hard to predict.

“Art of Change: New Directions From China” is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX until Dec. 9. Information: http://china.southbankcentre.co.uk or +44-20-7960-4200.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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