Photos: Mahjong at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Forget G.I. Joe: Yue Minjun’s battalion of smiling men at the Berkeley Art Museum are action figure-ready. (All photos by Gay Swan.)

I had visions of China as I strolled through Mahjong, the exhibit of contemporary Chinese art currently on display at the Berkeley Art Museum. Maybe even visions of Chinatown, of commodities bought and sold. Personally I was relieved. I did my time with Chinese art chaperoned by my parents. The natural shanshui landscapes and watercolors were a yawner. The historical and spiritual implications were so vast, I just couldn’t get into it. But here at Mahjong was a consumer vocabulary I could understand. There were fun clothes and bright constructivist posters and plastic tchotchkes, all sensationally over-obvious in their message. I wanted to buy, buy, buy!

Then I began to get bored. And a little panicky.  That spiky-haired, black-shirted Chinese museum security guard who busted me taking pictures didn’t help matters. I suspected Triad ties. So I escaped to the Urban Outfitters next door for some retail therapy. As I chilled out on the Anywhere Sofa ($325), under a speaker blaring rap as if it were nationalist slogans, I realized that the wares that surrounded me were all made in China. I had left the Mahjong exhibit, only to find myself in its American mirror image. Heck, the museum and Urban Outfitters even sport the same warehouse chic. And all I could think was, ’Wow, these faux vintage tees and graphic bedspreads would look great with Chanel No. 5 by Wang Guanyi or Mao/Marilyn by Yu Yuhan printed on them.’

The show is up until Jan. 4th, 2009.

Click on images to supersize. More after the jump.

T-Shirt ready: Mao/Marilyn by Yu Yuhan (top left). 

Need a great graphic for a bedspread? Try Taxi! Taxi! by Feng Mengbo.

A rack of Wang Qiang’s standard issue Mao Coat with a naked woman painted inside would be a hot sell at any Hayes Valley boutique.

Imagine Christmas ornament-sized versions of Wang Jin’s polyvinyl imperial robe

Amid the potential merch, there were a few pieces that tapped into a mature core of Buddhist emptiness. In Liu Wei’s trompe l’oeil photo It Looks Like a Landscape, distant mountains turn out to be nude butts, flaws, hairs and zits intact. Also fascinating was Feng Mengbo’s Wrong Coding Shanshui (not shown), a computer generated traditional landscape that looks like something out of Bladerunner. 

Chen Zaiyan’s Three Famous Xingshu Documents felt the most modern and the most deeply Chinese. The calligraphy is burned away, with only the ghost of the characters left on the page. Without brushstrokes, the document is empty of memory, meaning and spiritual context, leaving only text.

A view of the installations inside the museum…

Compare and contrast to Urban Outfitters: The irony, the aggressive kitsch, the pop, the brightest of duotones. It was all unexpectedly familiar. The made-in-China-ness gave way to a more subtle “Chineseness” that couldn’t be bought, sold or copied. Wait, is that a word? Not yet, it isn’t. Send in your definitions and let’s make one up.

Additional Reading: Kenneth Baker of the S.F. Chronicle interviews Uli Sigg and Ai Weiwei about the show.


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