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"China Under Construction"

Deborah Colton Gallery presents China sans pop

There is a whole lotta Asian art out there right now, filling practically every gallery in the city. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's "RED HOT — Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection" has created an Asian art storm. Chinese art — Chinese pop in particular — is dominating the galleries; many are showing the same artists and works similar to those included in the Chaney exhibition. Even if you love the work, so much of the same stuff makes a couple of the galleries feel like off-site gift shops. The exhibition at Deborah Colton takes a different tack. Curated by Beijing-based curator Maya Kóvskaya, "China Under Construction" is intended to explore literal and figurative ideas of "construction."

At first glance, Wu Gaozhong's large photographs seem to be of little cakes or pastries — they're fluffy, and some of them are tiered. Then you realize the fluffy stuff is mold coating small ceramic objects. A pagoda, a bridge and an archway are all covered with layers of decay. Multicolored mold blooms over the objects' surfaces, partially obscuring the brightly colored ceramics and creating a lurid display. The pagoda sports a delicate veil of spider webs. The photographs themselves still look kind of lovely — until you imagine the smell. Wu coated the objects with decomposing matter to create that patina of rot. In these images, the symbols of China's past quietly molder away.

While there is a lot of talk about the massive change, construction and development that China is currently undergoing, it's hard to get a real sense of it. At the entrance to the gallery is Han Bing's Age of Big Construction (2006); its documentary footage of construction and destruction focuses on bleak and decaying landscapes rather than shiny new Beijing skyscrapers. In the video, it looks like every old building is being torn down, and not by a wrecking ball but by a group of guys with sledgehammers. It seems like everything is being rebuilt by frail figures hauling buckets of bricks with a yoke. Meanwhile, little kids sit in the rubble. With over a billion people, labor is apparently far cheaper than heavy equipment. How many basket-carrying people does it take to equal a dump truck? Han gives you a glimpse of how brutal, widespread and backbreaking change is in China.

Wanli Mari's fiberglass reliefs mimic a newspaper layout.
Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery
Wanli Mari's fiberglass reliefs mimic a newspaper layout.

Han is also a performance artist, recording his work with video and photographs. He gave a performance at the opening of "China Under Construction," centering on a pile of bricks, some yellow hard hats and red rope lighting (overly artfully) arranged in the gallery with a flagpole stuck in the center. The flag mixed red and blue stripes with the yellow stars and red of the Chinese flag. During the performance, Age of Big Construction was projected on the wall behind the brick pile. Han emerged in a pair of flesh-toned tights and proceeded to lie upon the brick pile as if he were trying to make himself comfortable. Over the next 20 to 30 minutes, he readjusted himself and then embraced the flagpole in a rather intimate manner.

It was one of those performances that went on longer than necessary, though the idea of the rubble and physical discomfort worked okay. But the messages seemed a little mixed; Han was a very pretty, impossibly slender young man with long dark hair, sporting plucked eyebrows and what appeared to be eye shadow. The problem is, the artist's appearance made me look for some gender-issue angle to the whole thing, yet I couldn't see what that had to do with everything else.

Red Flags Flying on the Skyline Cranes: Urban Amber (2006), a still photo from one of Han's past performances, is more successful. The photo shows Han supine over the arm of a heavy equipment bucket. Han is surrounded by a pile of insulation that looks fluffy and fairy-tale like, and the scene is surrounded by a canopy. The image is sort of like that of an urban sleeping beauty, except with a guy. It's a pretty campy photo and works better than the overly dramatic video from the same performance, in which a sweaty Han embraces the arm of the bucket-truck. In her essay, Kóvskaya talks about Han "erotically engaging the earthmover claw" and using "feminine generativity to overcome masculine destructivity." I suppose an artist could make that work, but I think Han needs more irony if he's going to pull it off.

China's booming development comes at a price, and migrant workers pay a high one. Wanli Mari deals directly with their plight by creating work based on newspaper reports of abuse. Called the Migrant Workers'Daily, after the People's Daily, the main government paper, Wanli's fiberglass reliefs mimic a newspaper layout, with an image and a Chinese caption below. The images have a quirky folk-art-meets-socialist-realism look to them. (She also has a Web site featuring the images and English text at www.migrant-d.com.)

One of Wanli's reliefs shows the tiny leg of a man stepping over a building's window sill. Others show a cluster of heads at the top of a skyscraper about to jump, burned and beaten migrants and a man lying prone in a bed. A photocopied handout tells the stories behind each scene: workers threatening suicide because of unpaid wages, workers being physically abused because they want to be paid, workers being imprisoned. The translation of the text for the guy in the bed reads, "It was said that all the workers got their food from a street vendor at lunchtime. We suspected that the snakes were infected." The stories are from the official media — the Chinese government is allegedly trying to improve the rights of workers. One can only imagine what other horrors lie behind the spare language of the reports, and the horrors not reported.

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