Josh Yiu, Foster Foundation assistant curator of Chinese Art, recently conducted a press conference at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) for the opening of the new exhibition "SHU: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art." After opening remarks by museum director Mimi Gardner Gates, the young curator was gently thrown into the snarling pit known as the Seattle art press.
Without so much as batting an eyelid, Yiu let the work speak for itself. This exhibition not only speaks, it sings in joyous choruses about that most human tradition: the well-made book.
We started with the installation of Xu Bing's "A Book from the Sky." The collective and audible gasp from the press served as an indication of what was in store. Massive scrolls, gently suspended from the ceiling, served as a tent which covers many volumes of books. The facing walls are papered with more texts. The overall effect is to make a viewer almost dizzy with the idea that you are caught in between the leaves of a super authoritative tome.
The series of books and scrolls are produced by traditional woodblock printing techniques. When Josh Yiu pointed out that the text was completely fictional, that the artist made up every character, that even those literate enough to read Chinese will not be able to read this book, my jaw hit the floor. It is called a book from the sky for that very purpose, an ethereal language lost to mere earth dwellers.
Xu Bing, a 1999 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, has several other pieces in the exhibition. "Red Books," cigarettes with quotations from Chairman Mao, "Matchsticks" and "Double Calendar Book" made from cigarette packaging and the medical records of Xu Bing's father, are all equally striking works. Perhaps the most innovative use of video and book is his "Silkworm Book II 1994/2006." The original work had live silkworms and eggs on it, which were captured onto video and then projected onto the artifact of the book. The video of the silkworms twittering across the page makes this work dance in the gallery.
Qui Zhijie's piece "Bookshelf 1" is so subtle you may not notice it immediately. When you enter the back gallery all you see is what looks like a private library on one wall. It is only when you approach the work more closely that you realize the bookshelf is made out of wallpaper. The artist catches the natural human curiosity of walking into any room with books and reading the titles. The piece was manufactured in China and installed, not by museum technicians, but by professional paper-hangers.
A fine example of the artists' playful quality is suffused throughout this exhibition.
Gu Xiong's "Cultural Revolution Sketchbooks" are 10 original ink-on-paper artist sketchbooks from 1972-76, with 10 replicas. Done at the age of 16, the artist was sent to the countryside to be re-educated according to the aims and goals of Mao's Cultural Revolution. They speak to the need of the artist to make art in spite or because of oppression by the powers that be. They are powerful, intimate pieces that will shatter your world view.
Cai Guo-Qiang is probably most well known for his installation of the exploding cars which grace the new downtown Seattle Art Museum. Winner of this year's Hiroshima prize, his "Wako: Japanese Pirates in the Middle Ages" was originally a proposal to pay homage to the sites from where the pirates were based. It is fun to see a different take on that tradition, one so un-Disney-like that it completely defies clichés.
Josh Yiu wants people to come to SAAM and feel the excitement of this seminal exhibition. After the departure of the press corps, we went back through the exhibit together. At every turn, at every book, the excitement seemed to flow out of him like electric thunderbolts of thoughts and ideas. As SAAM's coordinating curator, he studied with exhibition curator Wu Hung at the University of Chicago before earning his Ph.D. at Oxford. With Yiu around it will not be long before SAAM awakens from peaceful slumber into a tiger of contemporary Asian Art for the Seattle metropolitan area.
The exhibition will be on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park through Dec. 2.
Steven Vroom writes about the Visual Arts monthly for the Capitol Hill Times. He is the host of the Visual Art podcast "Art Radio Seattle" at www.VroomJournal.com. He can be reached at editor@capitol hilltimes.com.