The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China distinguishes itself from other exhibitions, not only in the depth and range of work made since 2000, but in the unusual degree of collaboration between the co-curators and artists. The majority of works are either being shown for the first time outside of China, or have been specially commissioned for the exhibition.
This exhibition could only take place now: the current generation of artists, unlike those before them, are moving towards a maturity that stems from an understanding of the contemporary world, China's place within it, as well as the contemplation of their own positions within a society at a time of profound cultural change. Any idea of a unitary or coherent identity, for the country as much as for the art, has collapsed into an open space of possibility and opportunity. Now is a good time to be an artist from China: with extraordinary international interest in China's contemporary art scene, and with ready access to labour and materials, perhaps at no other time, have artists had the opportunity to make works of such ambition.
The Real Thing features 26 works by 18 artists. 12 of these works have been specially commissioned for the exhibition. Undertaking these commissions will be some of China's leading artists including Ai Weiwei, Yang Fudong, Gu Dexin, Qiu Xiaofei, Qiu Zhijie, Yangjiang Group and Zhou Tiehai. Through generous private support to the value of £250,000, the co-curators have given these artists the freedom to create new works for this exhibition. Three of these new commissions take the form of public and performance-based works that mark the opening of this exhibition.
Tate Liverpool will unveil a special commission by Ai Weiweiand Fake Studio that will float in the Albert Dock. Costing over £100,000, standing at over eight metres high and made using more than two tonnes of steel, Working Progress (Fountain of Light) 2007 takes the form of a spectacular chandelier, inspired by Tatlin's Monument to the Third International 1919. Designed specifically for its Liverpool location, Working Progress directly references the era of twentieth century industrialisation across Europe that shaped the modern world, in the artist's words, "responsible for creating the junk that we're still living with today." In referencing Tatlin's iconic work, Ai Weiwei reminds us of the Constructivists' Utopian ambitions for a brave new world, embodied in physical structures and amazing feats of architecture that would match the new age. As a symbol of the radical change currently taking place in China, where Working Progress(Fountain of Light) was built using local steel, it is claimed that there is not enough steel in the world to permit every home across the nation to own a refrigerator. Ai Weiwei, one of China's leading artists and cultural spokesman, is working with the architects Herzog and de Meuron on the Beijing Olympic stadium.
On Thursday 29 March at 20.40 Liverpool will play host to an epic firework battle – a new commission by the Yangjiang Group entitled If I knew the danger ahead, I'd have stayed well clear 2007. The Yangjiang Group (Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin) have designed a firework display that will take place on the River Mersey and across the Tate building with over 20,000 rockets fired in just six minutes. The £50,000 commission, one of the most spectacular firework displays ever to be seen in the UK, will also combine sound and laser elements. Maverick artist Zheng Guogo spent two weeks in a Chinese fireworks factory seeking inspiration for this display. In referencing the ‘gunpowder' works of the Chinese master Cai Guo Qiang, the Yangjiang Group is making a bold statement about the younger generation's power to unsettle and usurp the older generation. Zheng Guogo's design has been translated by UK company Fantastic Fireworks to ensure the display adheres to UK regulations. The six-minute display covers six distinct phases: Battle Stations, Intelligence Gathering, War at Sea, Sea-to-Air Missile Interceptors, Air Raid and Sea-to-Ground-to-Air: The Final Battle. With the victory finally won the words "If I knew the danger ahead, I'd have stayed well clear" will ignite across the battlefield.
Self-proclaimed spin-doctor of the Chinese art world, Zhou Tiehai's reputation is built on his success at peddling a ‘cure' for the supposed ills afflicting the contemporary artists of the 1990s. His ‘cure' has frequently taken the form of ‘fake' art. His air-brushed reproductions of masterpieces from western art history incorporate incongruous elements such as the ‘Joe Camel' cigarette-brand figure. For Tate Liverpool, Zhou Tiehai has explored his on-going concerns about cultural identity in a dramatic new gastronomic form. For The Real Thing Zhou Tiehai has commissioned a top chef to prepare three French desserts that will be served at the dinner to celebrate the opening of the exhibition in a work entitled Le Juge, Le Ministre, Le Diplomate 2007. Zhou Tiehai chose France because the nation is synonymous with cuisine, producing the desserts according to the innovative combinations of flavours and textures for which French food is famed. The sheer accumulation of facts, anecdotes, presumptions, histories, theories and rumour are presented as historic justification for each of the three desserts. The ever-widening sphere of references threatens to take in the whole of French history and undermines the authenticity of the desserts as they seek the firmer to embed themselves in the authority of a definitive history. For those unable to sample the desserts at the dinner, Zhou Tiehai is producing a limited-edition wax version of each dessert that can be purchased at the Tate Shop in Liverpool.
These works provide just a snapshot of the total work on display in The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China. The exhibition also features a spectacular work by Xu Zhen, a maverick of the Chinese art world. With no patience for conventional, outmoded ways, his desire to confront every value of a society he perceives as banal, hypocritical or conventional extends to his own practice as an artist. 8848 Minus 1.86 2005 combines these elements in an ambitious work focusing on Mount Everest. The British claimed in 1856 that the summit was 8,848 metres in height, a measurement that despite conflicting data, still officially stands. In May 2005, Xu Zhen led an ascent on Everest, and to test the veracity of the measurements, succeeded in removing the summit and reducing its height by 1.86cm, Xu Zhen's own height. Various official and independent surveys since have consistently shown that Everest is not as high as had been thought, pointing, perhaps, to evidence of global warming, or a shift in the tectonic plates, though its cause still remains unproven. China's best-known artist Yang Fudong also presents a newly-commissioned video work, East of Que Village 2007, a highly-personal film that focuses on the dissolution of traditional rural communities.
The full list of artists contributing to the exhibition comprises: Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio, Cao Fei, Gu Dexin, Geng Jianyi, He An, Li Yongbin, Qiu Xiaofei, Qiu Zhijie, Wang Gongxin, Wang Wei, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, Yang Shaobin, Yangjiang Group, Zhou Tiehai, Zhou Xiaohu and Zhuang Hui.
The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China is supported by the Liverpool Culture Company, with additional support from The Henry Moore Foundation and The Red Mansion Foundation.