In 1920, mah-jongg was a fad; Jazz Age aficionados decorated and dressed à la chinoise; Eddie Cantor sang “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong.” With contemporary Chinese art achieving a similar popularity today (not faddish, we hope), the game title for this show is appropriate — even if the aesthetic liberation struggle by artists over three decades was serious stuff to artists and authoritarians (as recounted in Julia F. Andrews’ catalog article). In 1989 artist Wang Luyan and the Swiss ambassador and entrepreneur Uli Sigg realized that such artworks had historical as well as artistic value and should be preserved en masse. Sigg began visiting studios and buying work, eventually amassing some 2,000 pieces by 250 artists. A sizable sampling is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum.
The exhibition is organized thematically, beginning with the Socialist Realism that had been imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, a heroic, populist, illustrational style of universal applicability — just change the happy, shiny communist/capitalist/fascist workers to fit regional tastes. As the Cold War US was embracing formalist abstraction and renouncing its 1930s Social Realism, China, with its long-standing scholar/artist tradition, chose instead to suppress “bourgeois-liberal” mandarin experimentalism and to train artists, ironically, in Western realism — to serve the masses. Guang Tingbo‘s “My Name Is P.L.A. (Lei Feng),” depicting a young, smiling martyr of the People’s Liberation Army, and Wu Yunhua‘s “From the Tiger’s Mouth” apotheosizing valiant copper miners, are typically well-made but vapid.
The ensuing heterodoxy by later artists falls into two large categories. Pre-Communist Chinese tradition is reexamined: in Chen Zaiyan’s “Three Famous Xingshu Documents,” the ink leaches from the brushstrokes, leaving calligraphic cavities; in Liu Wei’s “It Looks Like a Landscape,” photomontaged posteriors aimed heavenward simulate misty mountains; Wang Jin’s “The Dream of China” renders an ornate embroidered imperial robe in transparent, suffocating vinyl; and Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky” is a printed and bound woodcut book of laboriously carved nonsensical characters. Today’s communist/capitalist worker/consumers’ paradise is also fair game: Yu Youhan’s “Untitled (Mao/Marilyn)” does Warholian celebrity cultism in transgender yellow face; Shi Jinsong’s Kafkaesque satire of modern work, “Office Equipment — Prototype No.1” boasts chromed torture devices designed to pierce specific body parts; Wang Guangyi’s woodcut-style Red Guards salute “Chanel No. 5” logos; and in Wang Jin’s video, “Ice Wall,” consumer goods frozen into blocks of ice are eagerly liberated by deprived and comfort-hungry masses. Remember when we, too, in our youthful ideological frenzy, liked tearing down walls, denouncing traitors, and dreaming of “flat” tariff-free worlds for the unfettered play of revolutionary capital? Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection runs through January 4 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). BAMPFA.berkeley.edu.