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What To Drive Out? artist response by Liu Xiaodong.
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Museum of Fine Arts, Gund Gallery

November 20, 2010 – February 13, 2011

Settled in a gallery that’s not quite part of the new Art of the Americas wing and not quite part of the old MFA, Fresh Ink is surprisingly quite at home. In this newest project, ten contemporary Chinese artists responded to pieces in the Museum’s collection with works of their own, adeptly treading the boundaries of the traditional and the modern, bringing the past and present closer together.

Chinese art with a modern twist — fascinating, but only if the viewer is familiar with traditional Chinese art in the first place, right? So says the skeptical, not-quite-fourth-generation Chinese American with a proud year and a half of Chinese school under her belt and the comfortable knowledge that the dragon will bring good luck at the New Year. Perhaps such a vague connection to tradition is not enough to spark any kind of strong feeling or connection with this kind of art. As I entered the exhibition, however, I realized that even if the untrained eye can only touch the surface of the deeper cultural ideologies in the works, there is something instinctual about this exhibition.

Much of the impact relies on the sheer scale of the works. Nearest to the entry is Yu Hong’s Spring Romance (2007-9), a set of eight hanging silk banners with figures of women from all parts of the modern city painted in broad brushstrokes, but delicate all the same, on the surface. Liu Dan’s Ten Differentiated Views of the Honorable Old Man (2007-10) consists of a temple-like display of nine hanging scrolls hung in a near-semicircular fashion around the said Honorable Old Man Rock (collected during the Ming Dynasty) and lit so that each ink drawing, meticulously executed and almost the same as the next, has a personality of its own. Building on this play between paper and sculpture is Qin Feng’s Civilization Landscape (2007-10), a theatrical display involving a journey through ten massive, accordion-format books, and the eventual arrival at a stage consisting of seven hanging scrolls and the work that inspired it all, a ceremonial bronze wine vessel from the early 10th century BC.

The smaller details have their place, as well. Xu Bing’s Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll (2008-10) cleverly subverts Chinese tradition by substituting the hand-painted landscape motifs from the early Qing dynasty (for non Chinese history buffs, that’s late 17th century) Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting with mechanical woodblock print onto a long paper hand scroll. To add to this cross-cultural confusion, he created a style of English writing made to look like Chinese characters — “square word calligraphy.”

Liu Xiaodong created one of the loudest pieces in the exhibition with his work What to Drive Out? (2008). Although its focus is the violence rooted in power structure, as depicted in the Ming Dynasty Erlang and His Soldiers Driving Out Animal Spirits, this piece is not overtly Chinese. Rather, it seems as if it could be transferred to some inner-city wall in celebration of the individuality of today’s youth: Across the paper scroll stand nine Boston-area high school students, some clustered together, others a step away from their peers. Decidedly in their own worlds, they look out to this indeterminate future with apprehension, curiosity, and nonchalance. At the left end of the scroll, raw charcoal letters formed by the student models themselves reveal different outlooks on violence — “when it happens to you, what can — no, what will you do?” and “Violence is the birth of the USA, the father that drinks, the slums of the city…waking up every morning!” I wonder — would it be possible to match the different handwritings with the painted personalities of the different students?

As these Chinese artists add their own modern culture to the past, they establish a unique dialogue across temporal and cultural gaps. Qin Feng reasons that “it’s only after leaving your native land that you can see the place again from a distance, somewhere between reality and dreams,” and Fresh Ink establishes this setting. Somehow the almost-dreamland cannot be interrupted by an alarm clock.