Frantic and Falling Figures: Seeds for a New Era

Shelley Hawks’ Response to Lydia Chen’s Art in Smog (2018)
Boston University, Pardee Center, Feb. 11, 2019

Director Lydia Chen achieves an admirable feat: the interviews she conducted in 1991 and 2016—with a 25-year gap in between—offer a rare glimpse into the changing outlook of four artists and one curator during China’s rise to become a superpower.  In 1991, China was recovering from the tragedy of Tiananmen Square and the crackdown that followed.  Over twenty-five years later, America seems in a political tailspin.  China is set to rival or displace the US in many categories.  China’s rise is a miracle in terms of the pace of growth and the science and technology gained. Nevertheless, many people feel adrift. Even the winners—the artists whose fame and wealth have blossomed—speak of despair.  This must be tied, at least in part, to political repression and the degradation of China’s natural environment—land, water, air, animal species—all severely compromised from the all-out push to build cities and rapidly industrialize.

The film’s title—Art in Smog—is well-chosen.  The film itself only suggests the environmental concerns of Xia Xiaowan and Su Xinping. Their opinions are made known in pauses, facial expressions, and bits and pieces of what they say onscreen.  Still, these artists are very bold for saying on camera, as Xia does in 2016, that the general situation is “unbearable.” We don’t know exactly what he is talking about. However, the dislocation and anxiety so vividly conveyed in his artwork attest to the gravity of his emotions while leaving us space to wonder what it all means.  Figures frantically running or tumbling through the air—Xia’s discussion of his friend’s suicide—through such imagery and conversations we peer into a dark world and recognize fellow travelers.

The film begins with Xia indoors in his luxury apartment watering plants while saying that he hopes his plants will grow.  From that windowed space, he later watches three dogs running around with each other on the rooftop below. The dogs seem to represent something wild and whimsical he has lost.  The smog in the film’s title and seen from Xia’s window reminded me of the description of London fog at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ 1873 novel Bleak House. Of the coal-fired dust of the industrial age, Dickens wrote: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,” and in peoples’ “eyes and throats.”  Dickens also used dirty air as a symbol for something amiss in human relations. 

Lydia Chen’s film does not just probe the dark side. She shows us the joy and dynamism of an exhibition opening, students and teachers at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and street markets bursting with activity.  The fast-talking curator Cui Cancan compares Beijing to New York City.  A generation younger and seemingly fearless, Cui thinks of Beijing as an arena of freedom—a cosmopolitan metropolis where one can find both “dragons and fishes.” 

The film even has two love stories—one in Beijing and one in Sichuan province.  First, we have the romance between teacher Xia and student Chen Hui and Xia’s description of the vow he made to her disgruntled parents that he would prove his love for ten years before they marry.  I admire the way the director chose to interview Xia and Chen separately in their own individual spaces to give Chen’s feminist awakening and the development of her own art the space to unfold in the film.  The second romance features another feminist theme:  the self-taught painter Mu Shi, now an antique dealer in Sichuan, says he stays home most of the time except for when he drives his wife to work. 

Now back to the frantically rushing or glibly toasting men in Su’s art or the falling man in Xia’s.  Xia and Su are daring and original artists, deserving of the careful study this film offers.  But we should also see them as part of a cohort of contemporary Chinese artists who have created memorable images of a world askew. Many have sounded the alarm. I’ll mention two: Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodlines: Big Family series (in which a family photo bears parents and children with virtually the same face staring out vacantly, except the child’s face is oddly red), or Zhang Huan’s 2001 installation in which he turned a bronze cast of his own nude body into the clapper of a bell ringing for Peace.  As for world art, I think of Auguste Rodin’s 1882 Falling Man, the plunging figure barely hanging on the ledge of The Gates of Hell just below The Thinker.  Rodin created his tumbling figures to evoke sympathy for the human condition. One might also think of Post-war Expressionism, especially Alberto Giacometti’s 1947 life-size, extremely thin, featureless sculpture called Man Pointing.  I like to ask my students:  “What is the man pointing at?”  Many will say the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.  A few might remember our study of Michelangelo’s panel from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel representing Creation, with Adam reaching out his finger to receive life from God.   In Giacometti’s version, the man points but only space is there.  Lydia Chen’s film shows us that China’s falling man, could possibly be a new Adam, a seed for a better time when humanity awakens to a more sustainable way of living.  Or maybe we’ll have to wait for Eve to challenge the rules.  We should remember China’s Creation story. According to ancient Daoist texts, goddess Nu Wa “smelts five-colored stones to patch the sky and breaks the legs of a turtle to support the four corners of the earth.”