Shows: Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters
‘Tiaping Tianguo’, which translates as ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Eternal Peace’, was a renegade state established in mid-19th-century China. The curators of the group exhibition ‘Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters’ at Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong – the curatorial collective A Future Museum for China – were inspired by the artist Martin Wong’s apolitical use of the title for a painting. They write, ‘The present exhibition borrows [‘Tiaping Tianguo’] again as a metaphor for the New York of the 1980s and early 1990s, the time-space which was crucial for the lives and works of the four artists in this exhibition’. Aside from Wong, the artists are Ai Weiwei, Frog King Kwok and Tehching Hsieh, whose paths crossed while they lived in New York City during the ’80s and ’90s, and the exhibition mixes art works with ephemera from that time.
‘Taiping Tianguo’ un-writes history as such: the precariousness of the artists’ relationships – to each other and the city – is highlighted rather than explored to a stable end. This, of course, is no criticism. On the contrary, the curators’ concern with ‘the propositional and provisional’ (if not happenstance) is a curious device that takes the lives and works of these artists out of otherwise reverential contexts and away from some of the mythologies that have grown up around them.
One loose strand they take up is the way these artists experienced their adopted city. A film and four photographs of one of Hsieh’s famous ‘One-Year’ performances, in which he lived outdoors for a year, highlight the physical toil such endurance would entail. Weiwei shot political unrest from the time, and there are photographs of him with Chen Kaige and Allen Ginsberg; as well as a close-up of Bill Clinton waving from a car. Wong’s painting Essex Street (1998) is a desolate view of rooftops against an epic sky. Suggesting a more lyrical, internalized view of NYC, another work, Portrait of Little Brian (1982) is a beautiful drawing of a naked man in a copy of William S. Burroughs’s novel Cities of the Red Night (1981).
A historical connection is made. Kwok is a legend of conceptual art in China because his 1979 performances at Tian’anmen Square and the Great Wall are considered the first examples of performance art in China. Photo documentation of this work is included here along with reproductions of Weiwei’s watercolours from the time when he was a member of the groundbreaking Xingxing (Stars) Group in the late 1970s. Both signal burgeoning concerns with notions of contemporary art in the region. Further, given their ambition, it is unsurprising both artists followed a well-worn trajectory to the Big Apple.
But this historical connection is made to then come apart. In New York, Kwok worked as an art director on the film An Autumn’s Tale (1987), a movie about Chinese immigrants in NYC. The screening at Para/Site focuses Kwok’s insertion of his street-graffiti in the mise-en-scenes, but this might be less interesting than the fictive parallel of what it means to pursue your destiny in a foreign and famed city. It is reported that Weiwei was unsure if the photos he took were art; Hsieh became the artistic legend he is now and continues to live in NYC; Kwok ran an eponymous gallery in Soho; and Wong returned to live in San Francisco, the city of his childhood, where he died of AIDS-related causes in 1999. His works carry the poignant aura of the era that experienced the first wave of that disease.
‘Taiping Tianguo’ is a compelling curatorial experiment. By eschewing pronounced theoretical precepts and conventional historiography, the time-space encounters the exhibition highlights could parallel primary encounters between curators and objects and audiences and exhibitions. Insofar as the temporal nature of these encounters is heightened, the objects are irreducible to fixed contexts. And we are allowed to trace our own narratives and interest. This possibility is all the more potent for an exhibition that criss-crosses geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries.Brian Curtin