Chinese artists help Americans interpret their own past at festival in Cleveland about what it means to live in a city

Event in Ohio, with as its theme ‘the idea of an American city’, features Chinese artists who interpret urban living in ways that are both approachable and resonant for Cleveland, a place rich in industrial history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 6:38pm

Chinese contemporary artists have traded ideology for accessibility to produce works that speak to Americans in new ways, says the artistic director of a new art festival.

Take Shanghai artist Cui Jie, one of eight Chinese artists and art groups represented in the inaugural Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, who draws inspiration from bland government buildings in China to make futuristic paintings that reflect the country’s obsession with becoming a technological paradise.

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Cleveland audiences easily get the point, says the triennial’s artistic director, Michelle Grabner. “Today, things can be made in China, and yet can be relevant in Cleveland. Cui is a painter, and audiences here can relate to that – they can relate to the way the artist handles the paint. The audience understand the … value system inherent in that process,” she says.

Then there are the Asian Dope Boys who, the festival catalogue says, “fuse hip-hop, queer futurity, and sexual hedonism in colourful and grotesque performances that unite Western and Eastern cultural references, merging vogueing, drug paraphernalia, and Hindu ritualism to form a cacophonous final product”.

They are very exciting,” says Grabner. “Their relationship with the things that move us all is really transnational – how they think about bodies, how they think about movement, how they think about music. They reinforce the idea of a common culture coming from different nations – although there are still very different stories being told to communicate that culture.”

She stresses that, though it may appear introspective, the theme of the festival, “An American City”, is anything but that. “It’s not a specific American city,” Grabner says of the show, which runs until September 30 around Cleveland and across northern Ohio. “We’re talking about the idea of an American city in general. We’re reflecting the way that a city has a local aspect, but also has a relationship with a region and beyond. These things are intertwined.”

For example, denizens of the American city can see their own experiences reflected in Cui’s paintings, she says. “The works are relevant to us even though they represent the architecture of China. We can see our own 20th century, as well as glimpse our future, in those paintings – we can see what has come before, and we can see how it may progress,” she says.

“It makes us think about how we in Cleveland saw the 20th century. The relationship between architecture and progress is universal.”

Li Jinghu, an artist from Dongguan, a factory town in southern Guangdong province, is a decade older than the other Chinese artists taking part – he was born in 1972 – and expresses the industrialisation of China he saw first-hand in his work. White Clouds (2009) uses harsh fluorescent light bulbs to form the impression of a cloud.

We can see our own 20th century, as well as glimpse our future, in [the] paintings [of Cui Jie]
Michelle Grabner

“It’s the idea of the natural giving way to the synthetic,” says Grabner. “Li analyses the effects that manufacturing has had on the past, and will have in the future. In Cleveland, we are moving away from manufacturing to a different kind of industry. But we still remember how nature and the natural world gives way to capital. That is a universally understood evolution.”

America’s industrialisation took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and China’s move to manufacturing provides a way for the US to assess its own past.

“Now we are moving into service industries here,” says Grabner. “So are we looking at a repeat of what happened in America last century? That is a cultural narrative that we should consider, and it’s a narrative that we understand in the West.

“But Chinese artists are finding personal ways to understand it and express it – ways which are new to everyone. The way they interpret what they see around them is very special and unique. But even so, understanding Chinese art has become easier – it is not now necessarily coming from a different ideological position,” Grabner says.

As well as the Asian Dope Boys (Tianzhuo Chen, Yu Han and Li Yi), Li and Cui, the other Chinese artists taking part in the triennial are Cheng Rang, Hao Jingban, Lin Ke, Zhou Tao, and Liu Shiyuan.

Their presence not only reflects the international nature of the Triennial, it denotes a normalisation of the status of Chinese artists on the world stage, Grabner says.

“The Chinese artists, like the American artists, are part of an international network, a global system of education and of institutions. There are now many entry points into their work. Having Chinese artists in the triennial now feels no different from including artists from Lisbon or Argentina, for instance. That would have been very different back down the line,” she says.