Details of two separate artwork images, one depicting a video installation featuring a partly loaded image of Mao Zedong’s head, the other, an oil-on-paper painting of a red stop sign on a road surrounded by muted brown trees. The images are separated diagonally by a white line that runs across the picture.

How Did You Two Meet? Expansive Spaces Created in the Cracks

How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: Pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, usually by juxtaposing some of the oldest and newest objects, and narrate a story that connects them.

This time, two visual art curators have accepted the challenge, exploring two works— one old, one new—by Chinese artists. Pi Li introduced a 1974 piece by the Beijing-based artist Zhang Wei, while Isabella Tam chose one created by the Shanghai-and-New York-based artist Miao Ying in 2016. Below, we share the result of this ‘meeting’.

Participating curators:

  • Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs, M+
  • Isabella Tam, Associate Curator, Visual Arts, M+

Red Stop Sign (1974) by Zhang Wei

Oil painting on paper depicting pale grey roads lined with muted brown trees. A round red-and-yellow stop sign stands at a corner atop a red-and-white striped pole.

Zhang Wei, Red Stop Sign, 1974. Oil on paper. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. © Zhang Wei

Pi Li: Zhang Wei (born 1952) created Red Stop Sign in the mid-1970s. The piece depicts an autumn scene on the outskirts of Beijing. The upper third of the painting consists of yellow trees, with a winding road in the middle extending out to the viewer. The entire painting is greyish, and there is no one on the road; the only thing that indicates there may be people around is a yellow-and-red traffic sign with a red-and-white pole supporting it. An uninhabited landscape on the outskirts of Beijing in 1974 may seem unremarkable today, like an ordinary landscape painting, but when we take a closer look at the situation of artists at the time, we may have a different perspective.

Oil painting on canvas depicting men and women on snow-covered ground, smiling and flushed as they lean forward to move a section of an aqueduct. A figure on the viewer’s right holds up a green flag. The partially completed aqueduct forms the backdrop in the upper half.

Sun Guoqi, Zhang Hongzan, Divert Water from the Milky Way Down, 1974. Oil on canvas. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Zhang Hongzan, Chen Yulan

Also created in 1974, Divert Water from the Milky Way Down, by Sun Guoqi (born 1942) and Zhang Hongzan (born 1944), was on display at the National Art Exhibition. The workers and peasants in this piece are all smiling and moving quickly, presenting an image of collective labour. The figures in the painting are full of emotion, the polar opposite of Zhang Wei’s unpopulated piece.

At that time, many families were being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and were sent to work in the poorest rural parts of China. Young people like Zhang Wei would later return to Beijing having no work and no family there. Their only communication with others came through getting together to paint. However, painting outdoors was a taboo in China and would arouse suspicion. So artists used extremely small boxes of oil paints, about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. They would do a small painting inside it, and when someone came to check on them, they could quickly close the box and leave.

Small wooden paint box with a leather handle and metal latch. The insides are covered with smears and streaks of muddy green oil paint.

Zheng Ziyan’s small oil paint box. Zheng Ziyan, Small Oil Paint Box, circa 1970. Collection of the artist. Installation view from M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art

In my opinion, Red Stop Sign is a particularly interesting way for modern art to start. It looks ordinary, quiet, and sad, but it gave birth to possibilities for the future—the biggest such possibility being a nascent emphasis on the individual, a chance to express personal emotions. When everyone is so impassioned and happy, as in Sun Guoqi and Zhang Hongzan’s piece, can I express my sadness? Once artists begin to think about such questions, they begin to open up the possibilities for contemporary art.

Oil painting on paper, rendered in quick brushstrokes, depicting a landscape scene apparently painted from a spot inside a room of an apartment building. The facade of the adjacent western wing of Fusuijing Building can be seen beyond the silhouetted door frame and balcony, with the hipped roof of the old house and tree below the window.

Zhang Wei, Fusuijing Building, 1975. Oil on paper. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. © Zhang Wei

At the same time—in part because painting en plein air could be politically risky—Zhang Wei also painted a lot of scenes looking outside from inside. Doing so allowed him to capture the changing landscape in relative safety, from behind closed doors. After the Cultural Revolution, artists began to get exposure to overseas exhibitions, which influenced their efforts to use more radical, more abstract techniques to create pieces of vastly different styles. When we look at these later works, we shouldn’t forget the humble beginnings of contemporary Chinese artists. This is what makes Red Stop Sign particularly meaningful.

Problematic GIFs, Miao Ying (2016)

A video installation consisting of seven television screens positioned together in both portrait and landscape orientations. A large screen sits in the middle of the installation. It depicts a partly loaded visual of the top of Mao Zedong’s head. The Apple ‘spinning pinwheel’ sits in the middle of this screen, indicating that the image is still loading. Images of cats and celebrities such as Heath Ledger (in-character as ‘Joker’), Kim Jong-un and Kanye West are depicted on the screens surrounding the middle one.

Miao Ying, Problematic GIFs, 2016. Seven-channel video installation. M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2019. © Miao Ying

Isabella Tam: I want to introduce you to Problematic GIFs, created in 2016 by Miao Ying (born 1985). This work consists of seven screens: six small screens surrounding one big central screen. On each of the small screens appears animated images of celebrities, K-pop idols, and animals clapping, all of which are commonly used by people on social networking platforms like WeChat. The big screen in the centre shows a GIF of Mao Zedong, but the picture appears frozen, the portrait never fully downloading.

Problematic GIFs highlights the Chinese internet phenomenon of using the Great Firewall to hide harmful or politically sensitive information. The portrait of Mao Zedong cannot be successfully loaded, reflecting the censorship mechanism of the Chinese internet. Miao Ying has turned the visual culture that people encounter daily on the internet into an artistic creation and a new artistic language.

Video still showing a female news presenter in a black shirt and orange blazer. Seated before a microphone, she reads from an open dictionary.]

Zhang Peili, Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary, 1991. Single-channel Betacam-SP transferred to digital video (colour, sound). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Zhang Peili

There are also other media-focused works in the M+ Collection. In 1991, artist Zhang Peili (born 1957) created a video work titled Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary, inviting a prominent newsreader, Xing Zhibin, to read aloud words that start with the Chinese character for ‘water’ from the Cihai dictionary, along with their definitions, in a steady tone from a broadcast room. Through this piece, Zhang Peili attempted to explore questions of repetition and manipulation.

A video depicting a computer-simulated fly-through around an island that has been created in the online game ‘Second Life’.

Cao Fei, RMB City, 2007–2011. Videos, video games, digital image files, website, print publications, plastic helmet and shovel, stainless steel logo, and fabric flag. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Cao Fei

Then, in the late 2000s, the artist Cao Fei (born 1978) created one of the first internet artworks in Chinese art, RMB City. This work condensed the characteristics of a city under economic reforms, constructing an entirely virtual modern metropolis and letting art collectors buy necessities and houses in it.

A white-walled exhibition space with an inkjet print leaning against a wall on the left-side of the room. A monitor is attached to a pole on the right-side of the room. The inkjet print depicts a screenshot of an Apple desktop. Various files and folders are scattered across the desktop space. The desktop wallpaper depicts three black couches in a white-walled room, along with a rug and a television screen.

Lin Ke's Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.46.20 PM (left) installation view. Lin Ke, Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.46.20 PM, 2016. Inkjet print mounted on aluminium panel. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wang Bing, 2019. © Lin Ke

Another media-centric piece is by artist Lin Ke (born 1984). He created Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.46.20 PM with a screenshot of his computer desktop. For his desktop background, he used a photo of his living room, with three sofas and a TV; on the desktop itself is a variety of files and folders. This work is like a window, offering us a peek into human life in the real world and online. For artists of Lin Ke and Miao Ying’s generation, the online world may better reflect their real lives, behaviours, and activities.

How are these objects connected?

Isabella Tam: Although Miao Ying’s piece seems very lively and Zhang Wei’s empty, both have a kind of hollow feeling.

Pi Li: Yeah! Zhang’s piece shows us how he was facing a mass movement alone, and the expressionless and applauding characters in Miao’s piece have a sense of being forced to be happy, thus making us wonder about the reason why they’re acting happy, and what it is they might really be feeling.

Isabella Tam: Although there is endless space on the internet and social networks make communication easier, Miao’s work reflects censorship and constraints on free expression, which may explain why it feels hollow. Although the two pieces are from different times, both artists faced tall walls that they wanted to scale, and both had limited space in which to do whatever they could.

Pi Li: In Zhang Wei’s time, artists were taking a risk by painting outside because the style and subject matter of their paintings were not officially condoned. As such, going out to paint was a brave, even rebellious, act. It may have been forbidden, but artists just wanted to paint as they liked, and to paint something different. The relationship between censorship and the censored that underpins Red Stop Sign is very similar to that in Miao’s piece. Both artists were pursuing larger spaces free of restrictions, walls, and censorship; their desires are exactly the same.

A video in which two curators, each speaking via video chat, hold a presentation accompanied by a slideshow.

Video of the full How did you two meet? online programme.

Read other blog posts in this series. Learn more about China-related works from the M+ Collections.

The above interview has been edited for clarity.

Image at the top: Left to right: Miao Ying, Problematic GIFs (detail), 2016. Seven-channel video installation. M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2019. © Miao Ying. Zhang Wei, Red Stop Sign (detail), 1974. Oil on paper. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. © Zhang Wei

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