Asia Society

Meeting Kristin in NYC, I had expected to sit back and enjoy tour. But shortly into our conversation, the words “I have a plan” came out of my mouth and she said to me, “You always have a plan.” It was a brief moment of self-realization. But she’s right I always have a plan and several back up ones or inter-changeable ones at that.

So we stop by White Box which is a bit of an unnecessary stop and I cleared up my internship hours. I’ll be beginning on Monday.

We looked around the city. We’re both tired from walking – I took us way far out of the way trying to get to White Box.

So we sat in Union Park for a while while we waited for Anne so I could return things to her.

Then we went over to the Asia Society. My very first assignments for the Intro to Museums and Galleries of NYC was to go to the Asia Society and write a review of a show there. It was an opening night and it was free, so we went.  Today I finished writing my review. It may get changed a bit for professionalism’s sake but here it is:

Art and China’s Revolution at the ASIA Society

Walking into the ASIA Society on the opening night of their long awaited exhibit, “Art and China’s Revolution,” was an experience with crowd density, one possibly comparable to being in China itself. Having to squeeze through the social sporting event, I made my way to the main gallery. The cramped space reminded me of that morning’s New York Times review of the show: “if their installation is uncomfortably tight, it evokes the claustrophia-inducing social atmosphere that produced them.”[1] Not surprisingly though, the main gallery was rather sparse in patrons, but not in artwork. One was immediately greeted by the large scale paintings of a smiling Mao Zedong leading a crowd of laboring workers – and this was to be the major theme of the exhibit.

Navigating the exhibit was difficult, not due to its labyrinth like layout, but in the tightly enclosed space between the walls of work. This made it difficult to step back and fully take in the massive paintings of Mao leading workers, Mao on a boat or Mao upholding the ideals of red China. Luckily, if you could see one – you’d have seen them all. For, similarly to the recent show of Cuban artwork at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this exhibit was not necessarily about the talent of specific painters or the showcasing of a new artistic style. This was an exhibit dedicated to exploring the cultural history of the Chinese Revolution – the effects that the political war had on artists and the future of Chinese artwork. This was an educational show.

As I wandered through the gallery, careful not to get stuck behind slow moving docent tours unless they proved inspiring, it became apparent that the show was organized thematically. A section on the social-realist works with Mao as their subject, one on the ink paintings of senior artists who were persecuted under the socialist regime, one on a series of small landscapes which would have been hidden due to the subject matter’s lack of socialist support and another on the works inspired by those artists who were forced to live in the peasant conditions under the socialist government. Though the feature topics were clearly outlined, the organization of these sections within the gallery seemed random.

The large Mao pieces were located in the front – most likely for the immediate impression they make upon the viewer. However, the other sections seemed out of place. Examples of ink paintings by senior artists were in the back of the gallery. Instead it may have been beneficial to place them nearer to the entryway and organize the themes chronologically. In this way, patrons would see how the artwork changed as socialism was introduced and became China’s formal government.

In continuing to tour the gallery, I began to suspect from the layout of the work and the number of pieces included, that the Curator had been faced with a major decision: does one include the most work possible for the educational content of the exhibit and therefore sacrifice the work’s breathing space, or does one eliminate pieces from the show in order to present the artwork more clearly? With the headache that the ASIA Society must have encountered from working with the Chinese government to secure artwork for the show, it would have been counter-productive to remove pieces from the exhibit. Therefore, while the gallery appeared a little over-crowded, each piece remained integral in the gallery’s educational program.

With so much artwork, such cramped space, and the need to get across a wealth of information, the ASIA Society did an excellent job in making accessible the history of the Chinese Revolution and its relationship to the artistic culture. Docents were leading tours during the opening reception and there was a variety of educational media tools from basic wall texts to a cell phone audio tour. The success of the educational aspect of the exhibit was not just consequential but essential. As there has never been an exhibit of China’s revolutionary art in such scale, the show would be a failure if patrons only looked at the images and were not able to grasp their meaning within the social context of the Chinese Revolution.[2] However, the show’s success is promising. It deeply engages its patrons in artwork brought to life by the history that created it and inspires questions of the relationship art and revolution.

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