EXPERIENCE at Today Art Museum. Beijing, China

By Cori Beardsley, MFA 2011

We have experienced a mammoth amount of work here in China.  It has been a struggle in trying to make sense of the art world here, to put it in concise terms, and define the trajectory of its fast growth and movements.  Our conversation in the studio has circled around the core idea of art as Experience, and i have gathered that there is a real attention here on Experiencing Art.  Through the design of the installation, space, timing of the narrative, and drama of the object, the gigantic warehouse spaces in Beijing are perfect for designing an experience for the audience. 
Yesterday we visited the Today Art Museum.  There were two solo shows by female sculptors Xian Jing and Li Wei.  Xian Jing's show "Will things ever get better?" began with a huge 100 foot tall space presenting contorted knots of acrobats.  They were composed on 30 foot tall welded pedestals, stacked on top of each other, or quietly poised and meditating before taking action.  An ambitious feat of sculpture, these resin sculptures painted meticulously with acrylic were performing for us, smiling, waiting tensely for our applause.  

This gallery was divided by a deep red velvet curtain which behind it held more fantastical works. Dramatically lit, life size painted animals like the "immortal one", a dopey elephant, big eyed horse, sheep, and a group of seals.  Installed in a smaller space, you were at level with these animals, intimate and up close to the pathetic and hopelessness of their pose. There was a distance in their hollow gaze, unaffected by your presence. It simulated the detachment and exhaustion of animals at the zoo.
In another warehouse space at Today Art Museum was Li Wei's Solo show "Hero".  Unaware about any of this artist's ovure, I  walked into a long hall that led into a large open space.  All I could see ahead of me were two kissing fire extinguishers and I thought to myself, "Please don't let that be the work of art."  As I turned the corner there were 20 sculptures of Chinese girls and boys in dancing costumes, big glass eyes staring eagerly, nervously at me.  A huge theater spotlight beamed on their stage frightened bodies.  I felt bad for these little ones, knock-kneed, pleading internally not to be judged and awkward in their costumes that can't hide the anxiety of their budding adolescence.  A gaggle of young persons walked in, giggled and pointed at the sculptures. Perfect.

Walking out, I was led into the spaces upstairs.  First there was a flock of flared peacocks flirting with each other on astro-turf.  But to my right was room with a beeping noise that persuaded my attention.  I entered the glass door to find four beds with near death figures in a tangle of medical tubes and sensors on their bodies.  It smells sick, stale, and sterile like a hospital.  Blaring, insensitive florescent light floods the 15'x10' small space, leaving me to confront the bodies before me.  Fluids are bubbling through tubes and regulators while I try to distinguish the life left in these forms.  Flesh in complete repose, their naked bodies sprawled open in a tangle of bed linen don't reveal their sex until you follow the lines of their tubes and find penetrating catheters.  I am repulsed and drawn in simultaneously.  As I aim to photograph I stall; feeling at my core wrong about documenting these barely alive figures.  Standing bedside between two of the figures my head darts back and forth between their glazed eye contact.  Tubes billow out of their mouth and dismembered bodies; I am stunned between their utterly silent stare.  A man comes in and begins pulling cords out of the machines, and the beeping of their life force goes quiet, their bubbling fluids cease.  I look at him in shock, "What are you doing! Why are you pulling the plug!?" He smiles back at me; responding, "Hel-lo!" I notice another gallery attendant ready to lead me out because it is closing time. 

Adrenaline pumping, I exit the gallery, beaming from the empathy I felt for the figures and the complete submersion I experienced. The powerful simulation in both rooms; an endearing anxiety with the costumed adolescences, and the transfixion on the bodies with their wavering mortality preserved by pumps and tubes. 

Two theatrical sculptural experiences.  Xian Jing's sculptures performing perfectly for her audience; and the hollow emotion in her beautiful animals bearing the same contradiction that one experiences at the zoo of looking at trapped majestic creatures.  The simulation in the installations of Li Wei's life-cast figures conjured emotions from those scenes in our own lives and flooded the viewer with empathy.  

See more pictures from the show below: