Gu Dexin’s ‘16-06-1997-31-10-2011’
Gu Dexin’s ‘16-06-1997-31-10-2011’ (1997-2011), uses photographs of his fingers kneading meat

Veering between brutality and sweetness, ineffable peace and shattering disturbance, a world beyond material desire and an “I-want-it-now” desperation, The Art of Change at London’s Hayward Gallery captures the contradictions that make up modern China.

Such paradoxes help to explain why contemporary Chinese art provokes confused reactions in the west. On one hand, there is Ai Weiwei, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn for our time, his work imbued with symbolic portent inextricable from his struggle. On the other, there are brash, cheeky riffs on Mao Zedong and the runaway capitalism that has supplanted him – works not so rebellious that their efficiency as get-rich-quick schemes is impaired.

An exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection of Chinese contemporary art in 2008, which was criticised for too many derivative, lightweight works, boosted anxiety that the sector has become irrevocably contaminated by the market. Fortunately, the Hayward is giving Chinese contemporary art the serious consideration it deserves. Curator Stephanie Rosenthal has selected just eight artists (including one pair and one collective), the majority of whom focus on xingwei-zhuanzhi (performance-installation), an art form that began to flourish in the 1980s when China briefly opened up towards more avant-garde forms of culture before the oppression of Tiananmen Square.

One has only to walk further down the South Bank to Tate Modern’s new space, The Tanks, to know that performance art is having a moment. Sensibly, Rosenthal has created an interactive digital archive that historicises Chinese performance art within its own culture.

After Tiananmen Square, the state banned performance art, while installation art was ignored by official exhibitions. Yet performances flourished underground. The work often tended towards the extreme and shocking. Little is more chilling than a photograph, in the excellent catalogue, of the artist Yang Zhichao having grass planted into his back by a mask-wearing surgeon during Fuck Off, a satellite exhibition co-curated by Ai Weiwei after being excluded from the state-sponsored Shanghai Biennale of 2000, although that occasion did usher in a more tolerant epoch.

This grim territory is charted here in films by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – who once filmed each other apparently eating dead foetuses – which show, for example, fighting dogs condemned to pound exercise machines while eyeballing each other across a gap they cannot leap.

Both these works are probably of more interest to animal-protection groups than gallery visitors. More genuinely provocative is “The Starving of Sudan” (2008) by Xu Zhen, which recreates on film Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a child apparently dying as a vulture crouches in wait. Xu Zhen used an African baby girl to act out the scene with a mechanical but lifelike bird. As the toddler potters about, camera-toting spectators blithely encourage her to mimic the position of the original skeletal infant.

Carter, who later committed suicide, was pilloried for not assisting the child, although later accounts – which the Hayward might mention – suggested that aid workers were nearby. Zhen’s film also saw him accused of exploitation. Whatever the ethics of his action, what’s certain is that the horror of the African famine was eclipsed by controversy over duty, truth and representation.

Yet the show also reminds us of a body of work, sometimes by the same artists, whose ambitions are the antithesis of shock and awe. “Revolution Castings” (2012) by MadeIn Company, a collective founded by Xu Zhen, sets performers casting copies of stones thrown in demonstrations in a wooden frame surrounded by rows of slab-like casts. Pockmarked with stone-shaped cavities, these concrete squares have an ugly, wounded gravity, like minimalist terracotta warriors, that bears witness to a history free of the cult of the original.

The refusal to fetishise the individual dovetails with the Taoist awareness of change and impermanence as the only reality. That sensibility whispers throughout this exhibition like a fragile but insistent melody. It is present in the gruff, witty rawness of Gu Dexin’s “16-06-1997-31-10-2011” (1997-2011), which uses photographs of his fingers kneading chunks of meat to document the four-year process by which he reduced the flesh to dessicated shards. Each image is framed in grandiose gilt; the dried meat occupies modest plastic containers nearby.

Liang Shaoji’s ‘Bed, Nature Series No 10’
Liang Shaoji’s ‘Bed, Nature Series No 10’, features silkworms

Such practice – a slow, repetitive, surrendering to ritual – turns the making of art into a meditation. No artist performs it more poetically than Liang Shaoji. Now 65, banishment to the countryside during the Great Leap Forward meant that Liang didn’t start working as an artist until he was 40, an experience that possibly accounts for his sure-footed vision.

The centrepiece of his installation here is a darkened room housing baskets of silkworms covered by mulberry leaves, whose activity as they rustle, nibble and spin their way to metamorphosis is audible through headphones. In the gallery beyond, veils of raw gossamer entwine their cocoons around objects from copper-wire beds to chains and lattice casements. Every sound, shape and texture expresses a universality that transcends time and place. For a moment, we, too, are in the world of the silkworm where past, present and future are one.

Yet this is a show that forbids us to treat China as a romantic or fearful other. As you enter, a performer in a striped uniform soundlessly appears at your shoulder. Throughout the show, this silent presence shadows your every move. She even followed me into the tiny, dim-lit space where German-based artist Yingmei Duan crouches on a log at the end of a pathway bordered by leafless saplings, her song blending with the sound of lapping water. A girlish figure in a cotton dress, she approaches then stands inches away, peering into my eyes, as she hands me a scrap of paper with the request to tell her a story “by mail” about a friend who had helped me when I was in difficulty.

This tender encounter is a reminder that our similarities are as profound as our differences, and that China’s contradictions echo our own. Yet art complicates experience as well as clarifies it. My shadow wouldn’t answer when I asked her what she thought of a certain performance, and after I had left, I realised that I had failed to ask for her address. Barriers between east and west are melting by the hour; those between art and life may take longer.

‘The Art of Change: New Directions from China’, Hayward Gallery, London, to December 9

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