This exhibition of contemporary Chinese art analyzing the changing streets of China, featured responses to traditional monuments and the unparalleled growth of skyscrapers within the context of a cultural transformation.
The work in “Stairway to Heaven” offered commentary and critique on the physical and cultural transformations that are occurring in China as a result of economic reform, a new influx of personal wealth and rapid industrialization. Including sculpture and video as well as still photographs, the exhibition was organized thematically and uses street life, the proliferation of skyscrapers and the shifting meanings of historic monuments as avenues for exploring China’s stunning transformation during the past three decades.
Curated by Mark Bessire and Raechell Smith, the exhibition was featured at Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine in 2008.
Stairway to Heaven is an exhibition of contemporary urban photography, video and installation analyzing the changing streets of China, responses to traditional monuments and the unparalleled growth in skyscrapers within the context of cultural transformation.
Today American culture is more global than America and as the 21st century develops, Chinese culture will become the next and largest global culture. Chinese art, media, film, design and literature will target a global audience as its own culture begins to maximize efficiencies through an ever-widening international scope. Yet in 2008 the world is still curious what role China wants to play in the 21st century. What will be the Chinese equivalent of the “American dream” myth? The best way to gauge the future of another culture is through its art. This exhibition is constructed to present Chinese artists serving as augurs of the future of Chinese culture. As China will be the focus of the international scene during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Stairway to Heaven offers a unique context and opportunity to present the great resurgence of art and culture China.
Stairway to Heaven refers to a search for that which will define the Chinese equivalent of the “American dream.” In the Olympic context it recognizes that as the athletes strive for gold, they are searching for heaven and that each citizen of China is also trying to find her piece of heaven in the new China. These artists explore where heaven may be found: from traditional to neon street life to the top floors of skyscrapers to a simple home with a family or a visit to a cultural or spiritual monument. They also look at the mechanization of change through machinery, technology and how their landscape is changing and what it means for Chinese culture to become more urban and conceptual than rural and representational. It is a fascinating time for China and as the world focuses on China for the Beijing Olympics, it is important to illuminate the great culture behind the economic and social growth.
The artists will provide insight into how the historically unprecedented growth of Chinese culture is influencing the Chinese relationship to the underlying exhibition themes of streets, monuments and skyscrapers. We will learn more about the culture of China, which will dominate the global landscape in the 21st century, through their art rather than their economics and politics.
Against the grain of the current crop of contemporary Chinese art exhibitions concentrating on only internationally recognized artists, this project brings together the infamous such as Ai Weiwei (currently in every art magazine and the essential artist in Documenta XIII) with the local favorite Liang Weiping who rarely photographs or is seen outside of his Beijing neighborhood. It is also important to recognize the generational and gender diversity, which is a critical concern in Stairway to Heaven but has been lacking in recent Chinese exhibitions. Some of the artists are professors (Gu Zheng, Luo Yongjin and Ning Ye), photo editors (Zhu Feng), recent graduates (Yang Yongliamg) and a few are better known in Europe and America than in China. This diversity offers the viewer multiple lenses of access to Chinese culture through art.
The exhibition is organized by the Bates College Museum of Art in conjunction with the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, Los Angeles. It will open at Bates in June 2008 and travel to Kansas City and Los Angeles in 2009. The curators are Mark H.C. Bessire (Bates), Gan Xu (Maine College of Art), Raechell Smith (KCAI) and Julie Joyce (CSULA).
Zhang Dali, Liu Bolin, Weng Fen, Zhu Feng, Hong Lei, Ma Liuming, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Weiping, Ai Weiwei, Danwen Xing, Yening, Luo Yongjin, Yang Yongliang, Lu Yuanmin and Gu Zheng.
Stairway to Heaven; From Chinese Streets to Monuments and Skyscrapers by Mark H. C. Bessire
University Press of New England in association with Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine
Mark H.C. Bessire – Foreword
Zhan Dali, Liu Bolin, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Weiping, Lu Yuanmin, Gu Zheng – Streets (plates)
Essay by Gu Zheng – Streets and Skyscrapers
Hong Lei, Ma Liuming, Ai Weiwei, Shao Yinong and Mu Chen, Luo Yongjin – Monuments (plates)
Essay by Gan Xu – Monuments and Skyscrapers
Weng Fen, Zhu Feng, Wang Jing, Danwen Xing, Yening, Yang Yongliang – Skyscrapers (plates)
Raechell Smith and Mark H.C. Bessire – Artist Interviews
Mark H. C. Bessire (curator, author, editor)
Mark H. C. Bessire is the Director of the Bates College Museum of Art. He is currently developing exhibitions funded by the museum’s Synergy Fund which is designated for projects combining interdisciplinary research and programming across the liberal arts. He has edited three books with MIT Press: William Pope.L: eRacism, Wenda Gu: Art From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium and Beyond Decorum: The Photography of Iké Udé. He also edited Cryptozoology with JRP Ringier and a Collection series with the Bates College Museum of Art. He holds degrees from NYU (B.A.), Hunter College (M.A.) and Columbia University (M.B.A.) and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow of the Whitney Independent Study Program and a Fulbright Fellow in Tanzania.
Gan Xu, Ph.D. (author)
Gan Xu is Professor of Art History at Maine College of Art. In recent years he has spent six months of the year in China for his research project on contemporary Chinese art. He has published two books with the People’s Publishing House of Art: China: Installation Art and Conceptual Art. He also has published more than 40 articles on art in exhibition catalogues, magazines and newspapers. He holds degrees from Vanderbilt University (M.A.) and Ohio University (PH.D).
Gu Zheng, Ph.D. (author, artist)
Gu Zheng is a Professor at the School of Journalism at Fudan University and Vice-Director of the Research Center for Visual Culture at Fudan University. He has published many books of contemporary photography and photographic history. He has curated many exhibitions such as Documenting China (Bates College Museum of Art, China Institute and Weisman Art Museum at University of Minnesota), Between Reality and Memory (Parsons School of Design and The New School University), 2005 Guangzhou International Photography Biennale: Re(-)vewing The City (Guangdong Museum of Art),
Yang Yongliang is from Shanghai and studied traditional Chinese art painting and calligraphy at an early age.
It is a remarkable opportunity to watch art history in real time during this extraordinary moment in Chinese history as the country’s transformation is now realigned with a resurgence in Chinese art.