Mar 11
By Katie Stilp

Press-Gazette correspondent

An exhibit of global and cultural significance is on display at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay through March 23.

“Ruins: An Exhibition of New Video and Photography from China” looks at the new economic culture emerging from one of the oldest cultures on Earth through six video works and 23 large-scale color photographs by 16 Chinese artists.

“The new China is being built on these ruins, and all the artists in the show (are) dealing with how the old China is being razed and new skyscrapers, Starbucks and McDonald’s are being put in their place. What is in the past is now in ruins (and) being destroyed, and this new culture is emerging from that,” said William Andersen, a UW-Milwaukee lecturer who is bringing the exhibit to Wisconsin.

After originating at UW-Milwaukee, the show also was displayed at Beloit College.The exhibit’s title was taken from an art essay titled, “Ruins, Fragmentation, and the Chinese Modern/Postmodern” by Wu Hung.

Zhang Zhaohui, the exhibit’s Chinese curator, says “Ruins” carries three meanings: “First, it refers to the demolition sites of old buildings in urban or rural areas. Second, it encompasses social phenomena or spectacles that mix different cultural icons without integration and judgment. And third, it signifies the fragmentation and collapse of a social order.”

Photographs include “Moldy Landscape Series” by Liu Jin, which shows mold growing on hundreds of children’s toy cars. This piece represents the one-child policy that China has implemented.

Stephen Perkins, curator of art for the Lawton Gallery, said his favorite piece, “Hand Series by Sheng Qi,” shows three photographs of a hand with only four fingers holding a smaller photograph.

Perkins likes the story behind it. The artist cut off a finger to protest China’s communism, then fled the country.“It’s a very, very powerful image. Once you find out a little bit about the themes (and) the reason the guy’s only got four fingers, then it becomes a little bit more interesting,” he said.

Jessie Allen, a freshman art education major at UWGB, likes Ma Yongfeng’s “Immaterialism Garden,” which shows a tree with bare branches in a zoo-type setting.

“I liked how it looked so empty. It looked like something was missing,” Allen said.

Andersen said he brought the exhibit to the United States hoping to make people more aware of the world, especially China: “I just feel that the U.S., especially here in the Midwest, we’re too closed off from the rest of the world. People don’t seem to be aware (of) these global connections that are affecting their lives.”

He added: “It’s not just about getting cheaper tennis shoes manufactured in China. It’s transforming China, and that transformation is going to affect us. We’re intimately connected with the rest of the world, and people need to be aware of that and the cultural and social implications of that. Their lives are being transformed, and our lives are being transformed.”

One of most well-known and misunderstood videos, “The Swirl,” shows expensive Chinese koi fish being put in a washing machine.

Andersen said the artist intended the koi fish to represent abundance, wealth and the whole scholarly intellectual tradition of China. The washing machine represents the West and the new life the people of China are striving for.

“Traditional culture is just being thrown into this washing machine. And, yes, it’s going to make your fish clean, but what kind of havoc is it going to have on tradition and life?” Andersen said.
Feb 5



Beijing Zoological Garden 27min 3-channel video installation 2004

The Origin of Species Transparency in Lightbox 125x325x20cm 2006

Storm Model 5min single channel video installation 2005
Dec 14

Posted in Art Show Reviews on November 20th, 2006

Originally uploaded by cmchin.

It is such a joy to walk into a gallery and find myself entranced. Add coincidence to the general good fortune of the day: Ma Yongfeng himself was at the gallery on the Sunday afternoon that I visited, which helped to further illuminate the works.

I was immediately drawn to the video “The Storm” which, on closer inspection, subtly reveals itself to be a constructed flood of water over a miniature topology, complete with miniature dwellings. The set is filmed from a single vantage point, and the lighting is sparse, at times flickering like lightening. The position of the camera places the viewer in the direct path of the flowing water. There is a sense of witnessing disaster, yet the conscious mind is distinctly aware of the artificiality. Nature, so often personified as having a fickle disposition, is recreated on the set as water animated by physical forces. And yet, as the viewer imagines the set as a life-size flood, a tinge of fear is added to the equation and nature is once again a personality unto itself.

The title of the show, “Becoming Landscape,” hints at how the artist wants us to see ourselves in these sets. The photographs of the series “Origin of Species” are life-sized sets, constructed to evoke zoo displays. Usually, at the zoo, these sets would be inhabited by what might be termed by Darwinists as creatures of lesser evolutionary achievements. But left empty and photographed for a human audience, they seem to invite the viewer to become a specimen. As our actions re-create the landscapes we inhabit, Ma Yongfeng’s images invite the question: what kinds of cages are we building for ourselves?
Dec 12

Until Dec 9, Platform China

Lee Ambrozy

The video section of Ma Yongfeng’s solo exhibition Origin of the Species captures animals in Beijing Zoo as they fidget behind bars – framing pandas, flamingos and monkeys in a circular frame evocative of Song dynasty art. They are restless yet cuddly, anxious but resigned to their containment. Taking in Ma’s pacing animals from the hard bench in the dark, cavernous exhibition space, the word “cagey” takes on a new meaning.

The second section is a subtle amalgam of media – hand-painted walls and trees, and digitally manipulated elements – resulting in enormous prints of what look like zoo “habitats.”

Conceptual photography has been foundering recently in Beijing, and Ma’s exhibition succeeds as more than tedious social commentary that equates the human condition with animal captivity. Masterfully done, Ma’s work is indistinguishable from reality. Though at first their value seems dubious, the virtue lies in how they deconstruct the art viewing experience. They come alive the moment you stand before them and wonder if the absent animal is really you.
Oct 21
David Thorp

Ma Yongfeng’s recent video work Beijing Zoological Garden marks a departure from his earlier video pieces and moves into a realm that is more reflective. In this video Ma Yongfeng wanders with his camera through the Beijing Zoo filming the animals in their various enclosures. The film is shown as a circular image, as if through the lens of a camera obscura, and this emphasises the viewer’s detachment from the scenes portrayed. As he drifts around the Zoo, Ma Yongfeng observes and records the movements of the animals and their spectators, creating a mysterious atmosphere that explores the artificial habitat of the animals in their man made shelters. Boundaries shift between animal and human. Man watches the animals, the animals watch man in an artificial environment in which species are saved from the excesses of the outside world.

It is not unusual for contemporary artist to use animals in their work. Artists have adopted the persona of explorer, anthropologist, hunter and shaman in their analysis of the relationship between man and animal in art. Some have employed the mannerisms of animals in an attempt to explore their inner animal nature, while others use the animal as metaphor for the ‘other’, experimenting with bizarre forms of communication. In contemporary art, the animal can become a symbol of the alienation between man and the natural world, as man seeks a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. In the world of the individual, the animal offers a social alternative.

Ma Yongfeng has not always been so accommodating towards animals. In his earlier video work Swirl (2003) six goldfish are subjected to a fifteen minute wash cycle in the drum of a washing machine. Another circular image, but apparently unrelated to that from Beijng Zoological Garden, Swirl records dispassionately the plight of the fish. It has been read as a metaphor for torture or possibly, more existentially, as a commentary upon the artist’s existence. Ma Yongfeng’s interest in animals as a symbolic representation of the human condition reinforces the feeling of alienation and ineffectiveness that is the plight of modern humans.

Now Ma Yongfeng is making use of the other side of the symbolic human/animal equation. The absence of animals has become the subject of his new series of photographs The Origin of the Species. The Beijing Zoo is once again the setting for these works that show images of the animal enclosures without the animals in them. The absence of the animals intensifies the viewers’ sense of animal presence but also creates a highly theatrical tableaux. These animal areas are based on the imaginary environment of the creature’s habitat and like a stage set have a painted back drop that is intended to depict the natural environment of the animal as well as referring to traditional Chinese bird-and-flower scroll paintings. The overall effect is intensely theatrical and, whether deliberate or not, the lone tree for the animals to climb that stands in the centre of each closure and each photograph is reminiscent of the imagery of Samuel Beckett and the set for Waiting for Godot in which a lone tree stands bleakly in the barren landscape while around it the characters in the play grapple with the essential meaninglessness of life.

Ecologists argue that China’s development into an intensely urban orientated society is wreaking destruction upon the country’s fauna, Ma Yongfeng’s empty tableaux suggest that even the animals in the zoo have disappeared. What is left behind is man made, it relates to nature but it is stripped of natural growth and has become a pastiche of the natural environment. In Ma Yongfeng’s hands the emptiness of the animal pen and the absence of the animal itself evokes a sense of loss for the spectator. Not in a sentimental way in which a child might miss a small furry creature that has run away but in the manner in which modern drama is able to induce a feeling of emptiness that accompanies an awareness of self.

David Thorp was active in the development of the contemporary art scene in the East End of London. In 1992 he became Director of the South London Gallery. From 2001-2004, he was Curator of Contemporary Projects at the Henry Moore Foundation and is now an independent curator.
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