Great Walls

Chinese contemporary photo exhibits are the shows of the year

The government of the People's Republic of China is bad.Very, very bad. Not our kind of communism at all. But oppression makes for good art. Even the most seemingly banal works can take on the aura of sly bravery when you consider the reeducation camps or Tiananmen Square.

"Hsin: A Visible Spirit" is a gorgeous two-pronged exhibit of contemporary Chinese photography. The exhibit completely overtakes Laguna Beach's smallish BC Space Gallery (which has the better portion of the show) and Cypress College's photo gallery (which is constrained by public "taste" and community standards of decency from showing naked pregnant ladies). It was curated and collected by homeboys Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain and Clayton Spada, and it seems like a much bigger exhibit than one just put together for a suburban community college and a gallery that's almost impossible to find, thanks in part to its nondescript door. It may well be the exhibit of the year.

It's funny what the Chinese government will get all het up about; several works that ought to have been included weren't allowed out of the country. Wang Qiang's button-up shirts with trompe l'oeil bodies painted on the inside of them—slim torsos in filmy underthings, a fat body with a cuddly, almost hairless vagina—didn't make it past customs; lifesize photos of the shirts take their virtual place. But the government apparently had no problem with letting through Yuan Dongping's horrifying "Mental Patients in China" series. In the most graphic photo, a skeleton stands atop his metal cot. He bends his bony shoulders, apparently examining his genitalia. From their places in their beds, two others watch. It's Bedlam, in the 19th-century-dungeon sense of the word. In another, a tiny figure lies on a tile floor that is mostly gaps: grungy concrete takes its place. A cat crouches under a bed. These are hell pits even by our unenlightened mental-health standards. All that's missing is Renfro supping on a kitten. The Chinese government's office for seniors' mental health—in a nation of 1 billion people—has a staff of five.

And then there is Han Lei, who won a Mother Jones magazine photography award in 1998. Lei photographs simple village scenes: a man or a mannish woman standing betwixt two toddlers bundled up within an inch of their lives, perched on grown-up bicycles. Two lovely girls in white frocks, their chopped bangs covering their downcast eyes, walk on a rutted road. Angelic children under an umbrella wear Mao caps with official-looking badges. A thuggy fat guy in a leather jacket is spread-legged in an alleyway. These are crisp documents of people doing people things—nothing shocking, not even any terrible poverty to speak of. Inexplicably, the government banned the photographs' exhibition in China. The lesson is apparently that it's not safe to show normal people doing mundane things, but it's politically expedient to display photos of your Dickensian treatment of crazy people.

And then there is the modern China. Hong Hao captures gleaming high-rises towering against a hyper-blue sky. And like all modern nations, there are performance artists doing gross performance-art things. Lu Zhirong, who goes by the name Rong Rong, photographs the artists of Beijing's East Village. A beautiful bald man, for instance, has covered himself in gleaming honey. He is bathed in flies. And Zhang Dali (his tagger name is AK 47, which is not so nice) spray paints gigantic silhouettes on property that's to be knocked down. The workers then come in with sledgehammers and break through the silhouettes to the gleaming vistas beyond. In one, a vision of a neighboring pagoda can be seen through the decrepit wall.

And it's funny what Americans will get all het up about. The curators had to scramble to find a new printer for their catalog because the printer at Cypress was offended by three photos of naked pregnant women—not standing on their heads, not wiggling their coochies around, not doing that gynecological Hustler spread-labia pose. They are just sitting on chairs or standing, their lovely round bellies jutting out before them. In one, a pigtailed woman is shown from nose to pubes. Chinese characters (Greek to me) are printed, à la The Pillow Book, on her stomach. The most offensive one, apparently, has two butterflies (presumably dead ones, which are more flightless than the live kind) resting between her breasts, which themselves rest on her giant tummy. It's a very pretty picture: very '60s dirty-hippy, like the nude, pert-breasted love children romping in fields of daisies.

Because of the printer's and others' attitudes, BC Space gets the lion's share of the really good stuff. But each venue has a videotaped walk-through of the exhibit's other half. From political looks at consumerism and the peasantry to purely Surreal (and shockingly modern) morphs and tweaks, this exhibit is a breathtaking look at a hidden country. It's smashing.

"Hsin: A Visible Spirit" at Cypress College Photo Gallery, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 484-7000, ext. 47244. Open Mon.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Free; parking, $1; and at BC Space Gallery, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880. Open Tues.-Fri., 1-5:30 p.m. Free. Both shows run through Sept. 24.
 
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