Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Yan Pei-Ming: Landscape of Childhood at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

June 19-October 11, 2009
798 Art District, No.4 Jiuxianqiao Lu,
Chaoyang District, Beijing,
Tel: +86 (0) 10 8459 9269

installation shot of the exhibition under review
installation shot of the exhibition under review

The gallery is as big as an airplane hanger. Thirty-four upside down poles reach almost down to the floor. On each pole is a black flag with a painted portrait, larger than life size, of a sick child or orphan. These flag poles are mounted in two parallel lines, set far enough apart so that you can walk down the center or go between the flags on either side. A wind machine mounted on the ceiling blows air through vents at the bottom of the poles, keeping the flags in vigorous motion.  Dematerialized by being represented on these flapping flags, which you can touch, these children are portrayed as distinct individuals. It’s almost impossible to talk over the deafening noise. And so you feel alone even when friends are nearby. On the far end wall is a silver international landscape, painted roughly with large brushstrokes. It covers the entire enormously high wall.  You can see this painting in the background when you move between the flags. The other walls are white, but the floor is dark. Seeing so much black and silver in this somber, even macabre setting, I felt as if I were in a vast morgue.

Just a year ago at the grand ceremonies of Beijing Olympics, where children also played a role, many full color flags flew right side up. This installation, by contrast, is in a public gallery space, which feels, still, very private. According to the handout, Yan Pei-Ming’s goal is to give these lost children “back a place in the world,” in “a peaceful nature where they can regain their visibility.” That statement must be ironical, for the installation is hardly peaceful. In movies, black and white is used for flashbacks. Yan Pei-Ming gives the children a place within an imaginary world, a totally artificial nature in which even the wind must be produced mechanically. By his critical reference to the illusions of the rhetoric of the Olympics, vastly expensive events which diverted funding from the fundamental needs of the population, he makes a powerful political statement, all the more potent because it is extremely elliptical.  In China, one often feels that public life is upside down. This is a virtuoso performance.