‘Beautiful Dream 7’ (2008), by Duan Jianyu
‘Beautiful Dream 7’ (2008), by Duan Jianyu © Sigg Collection Photo

At the far end of the Metropolitan Museum’s Asian Art galleries, a narrow staircase leads to a tiny third floor, so well hidden that even regulars don’t know about it. There, an array of courtiers’ robes, woven in silk and gold and blazoned with the dragons of the Qing dynasty, glows quietly behind glass. But one gown doesn’t match the others. It boasts all the imperial symbols: the five-clawed dragons, the clouds and flaming jewels, the waves and mountains, but its ghostly skin is made of greenish plastic and embroidered with vinyl thread. It hangs, unceremoniously, from a meat hook. Wang Jin’s “Dream of China” (2008) tweaks a venerable Chinese genre and offers a wry meditation on his nation’s amnesiac transformations.

In a stroke of curatorial brilliance, Maxwell Hearn has threaded the exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China through the permanent collection, elucidating the complicated relationship between invention and ancestry. Much recent Chinese art talks back to great traditions, dips into hallowed themes and resuscitates ancient techniques.

With this show the museum is at the top of its game, thrillingly doing what it does best. Erudite scholarship? Check. Perfect lighting? Check. Extreme beauty? Double check.

But perhaps the best thing about Ink Art is the way it provides context for works too often suspended in the bubble of global art fairs or entombed within the white walls of galleries.

The exhibition shows Chinese artists grappling with a past that their society is assiduously trashing. Many draw on a 1,000-year-old landscape tradition to articulate their yearning for a time before huge apartment complexes darkened the sidewalks of sudden new cities, before sprawl ate the countryside and fumes fouled the air. In his composite photograph “View of Tide”, Yang Yongliang mimics the shape and idyllic content of a panoramic scroll: pine-capped crags loom above misty vales. The composition faithfully recreates Zhao Fu’s (active c1131-62) iconic Song handscroll “Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River”, yet Yang’s new version is a delicate and diabolical riposte to China’s self-devouring expansion. Look closely, and the natural paradise dissolves into post-industrial nightmare. Yang built his magisterial “mountains” out of Photoshopped high-rises, and grafted together power lines and construction cranes into lifeless “trees”.

Duan Jianyu’s series “Beautiful Dreams” also tiptoes on to apocalyptic ground. Duan starts with trite touristy motifs – the “Welcoming Guest Pine” on Mount Huang, the Great Wall – and paints them laconically on to crumpled cardboard. The corrugations make the brick seem suddenly vulnerable, the Wall dangerously wavy. The river shimmers in sync with the cardboard’s ridges, its torn surface a metaphor for ruin and transcendence.

Shi Guorui uses his camera to freeze a churning cityscape. His 2004 photo of Shanghai, taken with a camera obscura over eight hours, empties the metropolis of people. The long exposure time dissolves movement into wisps; all that’s left is an eerie sci-fi fantasy of silent towers soaring into the blackness. Shi mourns the old Shanghai by editing out the clatter of construction and the swirl of traffic, leaving a congregation of high-rise tombstones. He has turned the city into a memorial to itself.

Shi’s image resonates with all of us who have seen personal landmarks and public histories extinguished by the wrecking ball. So does Ai Wei Wei’s series of “Provisional Landscapes”, the show’s most critical take on modernisation. Ai squeezes his photos of transitioning neighbourhoods into wall-sized grids. His choice of format is a micro version of the identical terraced towers that crush individuality. Each bleak set of images records the gears of change grinding forward: the old human-scaled structure replaced by the empty lot, then the rise of the generic new apartment complex – over and over again. Ai’s wintry topographies evoke classic Chinese landscapes where leafless trees, grey skies and human absence convey melancholy and loss.

This rich and fertile show peaks with Sun Xun’s “Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution”, a dark masterpiece of animation. Over 13 minutes, the film follows an anonymous protagonist through silent routines peppered with surreal visions. But this is no slick CGI production: Sun spent a year carving more than 5,000 separate woodcuts, a spasm of storyboarding so intense and extended that it yields a hand-carved movie. In the 1920s, the New Woodcut movement married cheap materials with easy reproduction and graphic clarity for the sake of efficient propaganda. Sun has expunged the efficiency and the uplift, crafting a nihilistic quasi-narrative of a Chinese Everyman whose destiny speeds furiously into the unknown.

Until April 6 metmuseum.org

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