New York

Tales of Our Time at the Guggenheim Museum

Let’s talk about the apocalypse. It looms over Tales of Our Time, an exhibition of newly commissioned works by contemporary Chinese artists at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, from a video installation literally called In The End Is The Word to the 10-foot robotic arm that violently moves blood-red ink in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself. Curators Xiaoyu Weng and Hou Hanru invited participating artists to imagine fresh narratives for the 21st century. The exhibition’s most successful works tackle our collective fears about the numerous ways—political, ecological, technological—that we humans could destroy the world.

Sun Xun. Mythological Time, 2016; Installation view, two-channel color HD animated video projection with sound and powdered pigments in gum arabic and casein paint on mulberry bark paper. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Xun, Photo: David Heald.

Sun Xun. Mythological Time, 2016 (installation view); Two-channel color HD animated video projection with sound and powdered pigments in gum arabic and casein paint on mulberry bark paper. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Xun, Photo: David Heald.

The exhibition opens with Sun Xun’s Mythological Time, a site-specific installation that weaves visual motifs—a dragon, an opera dancer, a one-winged chunk of coal—into a modern day cave painting. The magnificently drawn mural paintings and animated film use visual techniques taken from the caves of Lascaux and traditional Chinese landscape scrolls to tell a story of the life and death of a coal town.

The symbolism could not be clearer—in one scene, a towering statue of Mao Zedong rises above the coal town. In the next scene, the Mao statue shrinks in the shadow of an exponentially larger monument to Uncle Sam. Here, global capital proves more powerful and unstoppable than even the Communist state. But though Sun’s story is ominous, the storytelling itself suggests a sly playfulness. Sun’s swift lines morph from a phrase of calligraphy into a sinuous dragon and then into a lithe opera dancer in the span of a few seconds, too quick for the slow-moving institutions to apprehend.

Sun Xun. Mythological Time (detail), 2016; two-channel color HD animated video projection with sound and powdered pigments in gum arabic and casein paint on mulberry bark paper. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Xun, Photo: David Heald.

Sun Xun. Mythological Time, 2016 (detail); Two-channel color HD animated video projection with sound and powdered pigments in gum arabic and casein paint on mulberry bark paper. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Xun, Photo: David Heald.

If Mythological Time tells of an industrial dystopia, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself warns of a mechanical one. A large robotic arm flings red paint within a transparent cube. As the exhibition progresses, the paint splatters and dries on the walls, turning brown like dried blood. The robot, programmed to contain the paint within a certain circumference against its natural inclination to flow outward, speaks to fears that skilled labor is increasingly being replaced by machines, and offers a critique of the popularization of factory-scale art production. Can’t Help Myself presents a world in which humans are superfluous, and blood and sinews are replaced by circuits and steel.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Can’t Help Myself, 2016; Kuka industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with Cognex visual-recognition sensors, and polycarbonate wall with aluminum frame. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Photo: David Heald.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Can’t Help Myself, 2016; Kuka industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with Cognex visual-recognition sensors, and polycarbonate wall with aluminum frame. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection © Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. Photo: David Heald.

Perhaps the most explicitly apocalyptic work of the exhibition is Tsang Kin-Wah’s video installation, In The End Is The Word. A quiet harbor gradually fills with ships, jockeying for position like pieces in the Hasbro game Battleship. Tensions heighten as the harbor grows more crowded, noisy, and polluted, until finally a cathartic rush of words—phrases from Derrida, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others—come streaming down, clearing the screen. The moment is a gleeful apocalypse, like the orchestral Guy Fawkes Day explosion in the Wachowski Brothers’s V is for Vendetta or the Biblical flood. There is hope that by clearing away the old system, the ground is cleared for something better. The work ends with a single whale swimming in the bay, spouting mist into the sky.

Tsang Kin-Wah. In The End Is The Word, 2016 (detail); Six-channel video installation, with sound. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection. © Tsang Kin-Wah.

Tsang Kin-Wah. In The End Is The Word, 2016 (detail); Six-channel video installation, with sound. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection. © Tsang Kin-Wah.

Not all the works in Tales of Our Time are doom and gloom. Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken, an installation by the Yangjiang Group, responds to contemporary anxieties not by heightening them, but by offering a haven in the form of an invitation to tea. The artists group installed a miniature tea garden around the gallery, set a table, and invite visitors to take their blood pressure before and after entering the installation.

The remaining works vary in quality. Zhou Tao’s Land of the Throat, a two-channel video that intersperses footage of factories with images of wildlife, struggles to find a unique perspective. Kan Xuan’s Kū Lüè Er, an installation consisting primarily of landscape photos taken on a mobile camera, seems like an afterthought for the actual work—a project proposal for a five-month research trip to Central Asia.

Chia-En Jao. Taxi, 2016 (detail); Color UHD video with sound. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection. © Chia-En Jao.

Chia-En Jao. Taxi, 2016 (detail); Color UHD video with sound. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection. © Chia-En Jao.

Chia-En Jao’s Arms no. 31, a tapestry that represents Taiwan’s  multi-faceted identity through a coat of arms woven from textiles from factories across the island, presents a narrative of a national identity ready-made for the United Nations. However, Jao’s technically unremarkable documentary Taxi, in which he simply gets into taxis and talks with his drivers, presents a quiet challenge to the curatorial project. The artists in Tales of Our Times provoke common anxieties of the international elite—climate change, AI takeovers, appeals to “mindfulness”—in their narrative and conceptual works because they belong to it. The “Our” in the exhibition title, as global as it is, is exclusive. Only Jao, who brings Guggenheim visitors into Taipei taxis, invites others—his drivers—to tell their tales of the time.

Tales of Our Time is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through March 10, 2017.

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