At the Surrey Art Gallery until March 23
Chinese takeout is a wonderfully familiar trope in popular culture. North American movies and TV shows are filled with scenes of people in anonymous interiors, eating out of white cardboard containers and talking with their mouths full of Shanghai noodles and Chongqing beef. Whether these characters are cops sequestered in hotel rooms while on undercover assignments, robbers holed up while planning elaborate heists, or regular folks going through personal crises—an unwanted separation, maybe—there is usually an air of contingency about these scenes. Takeout signals a temporarily displaced or provisional condition, a sense of making-do.
It also signifies exchange—delivery and reception. In (Da bao)(Takeout), recently opened at the Surrey Art Gallery, take-away food is a metaphor for the import and export of culture, people, and ideas between East and West generally, and between China and Canada more specifically. You could argue, too, that there’s an element of the provisional here. The title may designate what the exhibition catalogue describes as an “in-between condition”, whether that in-between-ness is a function of travel or migration.
Curated by Shannon Anderson and Doug Lewis and circulated by the Varley Art Gallery of Markham Ontario, (Da bao)(Takeout) features 17 artists who have experienced geographical or cultural exchange. They’re identified here as second- and third-generation Chinese Canadians, Chinese who have travelled in the West to study art, and Canadians of non-Chinese descent who have travelled in China for residencies or exhibitions. Whether executed in photography, video, installation, painting, mixed-media sculpture, or performance, their art registers both the connections and discontinuities between cultures and peoples.
In a number of works here, including Zhang Zhaohui’s ink paintings on rice paper and Laurens Tan’s sculptures, written language may function as either form or content—or both. Language may be seen as a bridge to communication, a barrier to understanding, or a mutable symbol of cultural values. Instead of dashing off heavy, black characters through the traditional practice of Chinese calligraphy, Zhang employs intensively worked ink washes in different shades of grey to create a play on the ways the universal language of money drives globalization. His simple yet striking triptych spells out the word YES using the currency signs for the yuan, the euro, and the dollar. Tan, an Australian artist of Chinese descent who divides his time between Beijing, Sydney, and Las Vegas, writes in the catalogue that he uses language “to uncover Chinese customs, changes in attitudes and values otherwise obscured from view”. Two of his fibreglass-and-steel sculptures conflate miniaturized versions of three-wheeled Chinese trucks with onomatopoeic text in high relief. Tan is often quoted as saying that art is a vehicle for thinking, and in his series of Beng Beng works, that takes literal form. With their high-gloss red or white finishes, toylike shapes, and pop-art sensibilities, these are immensely appealing works.
Three-wheeled bicycles appear in Minjeong Oh’s sensitive paintings and animated videos: impoverished-looking men haul heavy loads with them or snooze atop them. Most of Oh’s images are of isolated elements of everyday life in Beijing, which she observed during an artist’s residency. Her small paintings of floral-patterned baby clothes hanging from a line, an old-fashioned rotary telephone, a construction crane with a red flag, and a pile of undifferentiated rubble are like journal entries. They speak of a way of life that, although ordinary, is also unfamiliar.
Two video performances here are striking. Ming Hon’s Cleaver Relic records the artist executing a jerky and disturbing dance with a huge meat cleaver and a large wok (and it’s no accident that the video is projected into a wok instead of onto a flat screen). Her movements and her props combine to suggest that the female body is little more than meat, an object of sexual and economic consumption. In her statement, Hon speaks of her struggle to shed the stereotype of the “exotic other” that western audiences inevitably force upon her. At the same time, her art intentionally confronts viewers with that very stereotype, as if to say, “Deal with it.”
In Nan Hao’s Chi #3, a single-channel video playing across three monitors, an ancient martial-arts tradition confronts contemporary Chinese urbanization and industrialization. The work captures a public performance during which the artist very, very slowly executes tai-chi moves while standing in the middle of a Beijing street during rush hour. It’s fascinating (and a bit heart-stopping) to watch him carve a personal and contemplative space for himself in the midst of multiple lines of moving traffic and backed by uncompromising concrete buildings. Like many of the works in the show, Chi #3 counters takeout-style contingency with deeper understanding. Could I have an order of Shanghai noodles, please? To go.