Auditions for the role of China’s Picasso

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In 1981, a 24-year-old artist called Ai Weiwei left Beijing for New York, telling his mother he would become “the new Picasso”. In the 1980s he made edgy works such as “Safe Sex” – a rubber raincoat with a condom for a pocket – before returning home in the 1990s as agent provocateur for the young sensationalist Chinese art emerging from the post-Mao reform era. His talent for generating controversy reached an apogee in 2000 when he curated a hugely influential, chaotic off-biennale Shanghai show that included the artist Zhu Yu eating aborted foetuses in public, after which performance art in China was banned. A disappointed Mrs Ai looked on. “She told me: ‘If you’re really the new Picasso, then he can’t have been half the artist he’s cracked up to be,’” Ai later recalled.

Like Mrs Ai, the fatigued west has been dreaming of a Chinese Picasso for two decades. Chinese art has ambition, monumentality, inventiveness, an ability to shock and an acute, troubled responsiveness to the most rapidly changing society in human history. But how good and enduring is it? It is certainly being gobbled up at auction by western and Chinese buyers alike, and paraded round the world like a performing monkey. Mahjong, the un­rivalled private collection of the former Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, toured to Hamburg this year and is now en route to the Salzburg Festival and Rio de Janeiro. Charles Saatchi replies with a Chinese exhibition in the summer, while the collector Frank Cohen’s show of Chinese paintings opened last week. Meanwhile in Liverpool, The Real Thing, Tate’s first show of 21st-century Chinese work, claims an authenticity and scope unmatched so far in a British survey.

Shimmering against the Mersey, Ai’s floating spiral glass chandelier “Working Progress (Fountain of Light)” lures you across the dockside. A luminous reworking of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International”, it is playful, beautiful, pulsing with energy and ambivalence: at once a monument to China’s advance as an industrial powerhouse, an ironic take on communist utopias, and a postmodern Tower of Babel. “The spiral is a dynamic upward motion that ultimately goes nowhere,” says Ai. “Whenever man experiences a bout of revolutionary thinking, he always ends up boxing – caging, in this case – himself in.”

If “Working Progress” symbolises the human mind trapped in the framework of history, 50-year-old Ai has managed to stay dazzlingly ahead of the game. Chinese art moves fast. At the turn of the century, political fury, expressed in a movement dubbed “cynical realism”, was the keynote, with the British exhibition Sensation the most quoted influence. That has now evolved into work displaying an interiority of being, and an overwhelming focus on the individual’s search for identity in China’s headlong rush towards modernity.

Played to the stilted soundtrack of a Shanghai love song and emblematic of the new lyricism and delicacy crossed with a continuing emphasis on the body, Zhou Xiaohu’s live action animation “The Gooey Gentleman” shows a sexy, sinuous female figure being drawn, clothed, set in a boudoir complete with bouquet – all depicted on the skin of a naked man. Wang Gongxin’s video “Our Sky Is Falling”, projected on a house-shaped screen, begins with a peaceful scene of a father reading a newspaper and his son engrossed in schoolbooks; a gust of wind sucks papers into the air, a trickle of dust falling from the ceiling turns into a torrent, until tumbling debris obscures the entire interior in a Hitchcockian nightmare. The final image shows the family stranded in a vast open landscape: individuals marooned in a frightening moment of history.

In “Whose Utopia? What Are You Doing Here?”, Cao Fei, a much-talked-about twentysomething filmmaker, zooms in on an Osram factory in south China to dramatise, in a series of crazy juxtapositions – wide-eyed country girls with fairy wings pirouetting across the warehouse, youths shadowboxing or strumming guitars in the packing plant – the hopes and fantasies of particular workers, accompanied by poignant pop songs and the rhythmic whirr of light industry. Democratic, documentary, full of urban pathos, this is Gillian Wearing transposed to the Pearl river delta. “Factory Floor”, a polystyrene full-scale model of a silent steel plant in the aftermath of an accident – half-eaten lunches, a protective glove lying on the ground, the gaping emptiness projected by the huge machines – is 40-year-old Zhuang Hui’s sober answer.

Painted with acrylic pigments to replicate the impression of solidity and weight, “Factory Floor” is so breathtakingly naturalistic that an official at the tractor factory, enraged at what he saw as the theft of his machines, kicked one piece so hard that he put his foot through it. The real thing? In “8848 Minus 1.86”, Xu Zhen similarly enraged the environmental lobby by climbing Everest and slicing off a man-sized 1.86 metres – his own height – which, he claims, now glitters in a glass fridge at Tate, surrounded by photographs, tents and sleeping bags recalling the expedition.

That such monumental pieces document a vital moment in Chinese history is undeniable; so is the mixture of joy and youthful energy, underlined by serious issues of authenticity, political reverberations and the future of both China and the individual. Yet these are far from the only real things in contemporary Chinese art.

From a culture where the heritage of figuration is still strong, there is, absurdly, just one painter represented here: Yang Shaobin with his “Miners! 800 Metres” series, an eerie, feverish, masterly inversion of Socialist realism that focuses on giant portraits of individual workers in the context of their deadly, dangerous jobs – and thus fits Tate’s political, non-aesthetic agenda. From Yang Fudong, China’s greatest filmmaker and most painterly artist, whose ravishing monochrome film of regret and romance, “No Snow on the Broken Bridge” at Parasol Unit was one of the highlights of contemporary art in London last year, Tate has commissioned a multi-screen installation, “East of Que Village”, which features a pack of untamed, untethered dogs fighting to survive in a desolate rural village in winter, where, like their human masters, they fall ill, die, are abandoned or are sold. It is the artist’s bleakest work, which shows at best just one angle – the narrative, political one – of his richly diverse, ambiguous oeuvre.

No one interested in contemporary China should miss this show; balance a visit here, however, with one to Frank Cohen’s Time Differences at Initial Access in Wolverhampton, where paint and the human condition are vividly, vibrantly the subject of new Chinese works on canvas. Neither show reveals Beijing’s Picasso but the contrast highlights just how skilfully Albert Dock, and with it Yang and his Chinese contemporaries, have been transformed into outposts of Serota’s empire of
conceptualism.

‘The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China’, Tate Liverpool, to June 10, tel )151 702 7400; ‘Time Differences’, Initial Access, Wolverhampton, to July 26, tel 1902 790419

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