Shotgun Reviews

Tales of Our Time at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Lux Yuting Bai assesses Tales of Our Time at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu Can't Help Myself (2016) in Tales of Our Time at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu Can’t Help Myself (2016) in Tales of Our Time at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York.

Launched by the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim, Tales of Our Time aims to challenge traditional notions of place and history through diverse forms of storytelling. In preparation for the show, curators Xiaoyu Weng and Hou Hanru traveled across China in search of avant-garde artists outside of the mainstream who actively engage with social issues. Eight selected artists from a wide range of backgrounds examine and interrogate social-political realities in contemporary Greater China. Despite the vast differences in media, style, and perspective of the works, the exhibition engages its audience in an effortless flow of narratives like a collection of exhilarating short stories, offering gripping plots, surprising twists, and satisfying climaxes.

Known for creating spectacles, Hou deploys his trademark style. When entering the exhibition, the viewer immediately encounters Can’t Help Myself (2016) by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a gigantic, frenetic robot violently splashing thick crimson liquid all over the space. The headlights are white and luminous, reminiscent of operating tables. The glass walls that contain the monster look like ceiling windows in a downpour of blood. The passage, uncomfortably narrow to walk through, forces a confrontation between the beholder and the spectacle.  Tsang Kin-Wah’s video installation, In the End Is the Word (2016), features edited online footage of sea battles over Diaoyu Islands, the subject of a perpetual territorial dispute between China and Japan. The lights in the room strangely point downward. A conspicuous space lies between the screen and the back of the chamber. The design, however, delivers a pleasant surprise when white words begin flowing over the ground like waves washing up on shore.

More sprawling texts lead one downstairs, where further theatrics unfold. Dimly lit by a wide screen and with walls covered in ink drawings, the cinematic space evokes Plato’s cave. The allegorical animation of Sun Xun’s Mythological Time (2016), screened at the center, merges seamlessly with the stunning mythical visuals of the mural-like background. In the adjacent room that showcases Zhuo Tao’s Land of the Throat (2016), two face-to-face screens operate simultaneously, while the viewer sits awkwardly on the tilted, skateboard-shaped ground, experiencing a disoriented reality with the characters. After a breathtaking flag made of seventy-five types of fabric, a couple of secretive taxi conversations, and a series of identically twisted nails, the audience is invited join a relaxing traditional Chinese tea party that is part of an activist work titled Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken (2016) by Yangjiang Group. The activity intends to soothe the anxieties evoked by the other artworks while constructing a harmonious, utopian social environment. One may even test its result with a blood pressure meter, finishing the otherwise intense series of narratives on a humorous note.

The complex composition of some pieces makes it difficult to identify the artists without additional notation, and the labels could be difficult to find. Nonetheless, the connections among the works, the space, and the viewer create a coherent, immersive, and emotionally engaging art experience.

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

Lux Yuting Bai is an independent curator and writer. She is also a Curatorial Fellow at the School of Visual Arts in New York.