“Pull Left” exhibits contemporary art from complex Chinese culture

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From the August 7, 2014 edition

The OSU Urban Arts Space’s current exhibition, “Pull Left,” offers a fascinating opportunity to examine contemporary Chinese art. The exhibition, curated by Beijing’s Taikang Space gallery and organized with Ohio State Professor of Art Sergio Soave, features a diverse array of mediums (with complex and intriguing themes at play) and builds a dialogue with an emerging generation of artists.

“China is probably the most active art market in the world right now and … filled with a lot of tremendous talent and activity,” Soave said during a phone interview. “Bringing a little piece of that activity to Columbus is a great opportunity. It lines up with the Urban Art Space’s mission [to] connect with the world and provide opportunities for students and the Columbus arts community to look at contemporary art practices in a bigger picture.”

Attendees should be prepared — and pleased — to be challenged while perusing the work occupying the downtown gallery. There will be recognizable elements of contemporary art, but the motivations and conversations presented are fresh and progressing, thanks to the country’s rapidly changing culture.

“The [Talking Space] curators are looking for something that deals with Chinese culture and contemporary issues,” Soave said. “This is the first large, group show they’ve put together. The idea [is] to look at what happens when you put a broader picture of what’s going on in Beijing and China.”

Many of the works explore China’s cultural shifts in recent decades and reflect that impact through art. Ruminations on China’s quickly developing modernization and influx of capitalism are present, as well as inspections of the rich culture and extensive history.

“Capitalism and their definition of economics is one of the things I see in the work. That theme runs through several pieces,” Soave said. “There are also a couple artists dealing with the issues of history and ancient culture versus contemporary culture.”

Zhao Zhao uses stones, one commonplace and another with immense historical value, to comment on how modern Chinese society associates with its history. For “Cobblestone,” Zhao glued a stone in Tiananmen Square as a small, but defiant gesture toward the Beijing center rife with a complicated history. For “Repetition,” Zhao deconstructed an ancient Buddha sculpture dating back to the Tang Dynasty by refashioning it into small cubic forms.

Liu Chang offers two of the most interesting pieces on contemporary life in China. His installation “Buying Everything on You,” as the title implies, asks how much would it cost for someone to forgo all possessions they currently have on them.

By approaching people at a job market — those who may have financial difficulty and looking for work — Chang presents a random stranger the chance to make a substantial profit if they’re willing to give up everything — personal identification cards, cell phone, personal items and even all the clothing off their backs (including underwear).

The goal is two-fold. At what point does needing money outweigh our sense of personal space and/or property? And to highlight how the average person — someone who may often go overlooked — lives day-to-day through their belongings.

Chang’s other work, a video showing two cabs the artist hired to drive slowly during rush hour traffic, is a satire of the rat-race mentality present in China (and the States). The disruptive cabs quickly draw the ire of drivers in a hurry, to which Chang posits is futile urgency.

Liu Xinyi’s “Automatic Arms” is a shot at money-driven culture, and the piece Soave pointed to as the most economically influenced. Xinyi removed only the golden arms of Lucky Cat (the plastic, mechanical cat often seen in the windows of Asian businesses) and stages an assemblage of them waving incongruently.

Its visual aesthetic is stunning — like the rippled reflection of pool water on a wall at night, only golden — while the message doubts the effect, and more importantly desire, of placing confidence in an idol for empty financial reward.

“Pull Left” isn’t entirely rooted in Chinese socio-political concepts — although, they are present — as the goal of the exhibit is examining contemporary art through a new gaze. Hence, the title “Pull Left,” which may immediately imbue notions of left/right, liberal/conservative politics in our culture. In China, “left” is more associated with new ways of thinking.

“The thing to avoid is thinking of this work as uniquely Chinese,” Soave said. “Many of the artists have worked and studied in Europe and the United States [and the] work is connected to the rest of the contemporary art world. I think they’re trying to carve a space that deals with their culture in a unique way. So there are some things that are uniquely their voice as younger artists being in Beijing.”

Urban Arts Space hosts a “Pull Left” gallery walk-through with curators Li Chao, Tang Xin and Xu Chongbao (3:30-5 p.m.) followed by a reception with artists Liu Xinyi, Su Wenxiang and Wang Yuyang (5-8 p.m.) on Thursday, Aug. 28.

Photos courtesy of OSU Urban Arts Space