“Asking really pertinent questions about modern life”: Gordon Cheung And Tsang Kin-Wah @ CFCCA — Reviewed
Linda Pittwood identifies uncomfortable threads — between political powers, digital interventions and rewritten histories — at CFCCA’s anniversary exhibition…
On my way to the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art (CFCCA), I was reading an article about man who had joined and then defected from ISIS. It traced his emotional and geographic journey, from aimless emptiness back to the arms of his wife. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting there to be any connection between that story and the show I was about to see… I was wrong.
CFCCA, tucked away and yet prominently positioned in the thriving and diverse Northern Quarter of Manchester City Centre, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a hugely ambitious programme of exhibitions and events. The programme is the gallery’s way of reacquainting its audience with artists they have worked with throughout the centre’s history. This has already included showing Cao Fei’s new film, an installation by Xu Bing, a new multi-site collaborative graffiti project by The Temporary, hanging 30 new Instagram-and-China themed prints by Stanley Chow in its stairwell, and Li Xinjian’s specially designed Manchester and Salford map-DNA wallpaper in the toilets.
Earlier this month, CFCCA launched two new exhibitions: from its former artist-in-residence, London-based Gordon Cheung, who presents a new triptych entitled Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan (2016) in the shop-front-style Gallery 2 (until 19 June 2016); and in a pop-up space within Gallery 1, returning eight years after his first UK solo exhibition at CFCCA, Hong Kong-based Tsang Kin-Wah shows his 2015 video, First Trumpet in the New Millennium (on show until 24 April).
I must admit, I had not done any research about what was on display prior to my visit. As a consequence, Kin-Wah’s work surprised me by being a departure from his text-based work, which I had previously seen at his aforementioned CFCCA solo show in 2008, creeping across walls and windows, in What are you looking at?. It also surprised me that he’d taken 9/11 as a subject matter for this new work. Although this is the ‘remember where you were when’ event of my generation, I hadn’t really considered that a terrorist act in the USA will be forever linked to the dawn of the new millennium. Or considered how the ripples of this event were felt in seemingly unaffected and un-implicated territories, such as Hong Kong. The artist’s choice to approach the subject, through digitally manipulated YouTube footage, suggests both the global implications of the attack, but also the distorting effect of viewing the world mediated through user-generated content. He adds a strident (his word) classical soundtrack.
Sitting in the gallery watching Kin-Wah’s black clouds drift like amoebas across a screen — engulfing, growing, receding — bought to my mind the two great powers that will likely come to characterise this period of history: China and ISIS. The artist, however, uses his film The Second Seal (2009-present) as a touchstone, which is based around the Bible’s apocolyptic Book of Revelation; finding a connection with the words “…there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth… a third of the earth was burned up.”
Ideas around power and digital interventions are the threads that connect the two artists’ work. Cheung also presents a single piece, Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan; a giclee on three canvases. It is his own contribution to a couple of established trends in Chinese art of the post-Mao era; the appropriation of footage or images of recent historical figures (especially Mao), and the interrogation of the propaganda machine and its associated visual culture.
Mao’s face has been swept away by an algorithm. Cheung’s work is making a reference to Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan: a famous and very recognisable poster of the same name by propaganda artist Chunhua Liu from 1968. The original work was produced during the Cultural Revolution, and it fictitiously placed Mao at the Anyuan Miners Strike; a revision of history to better fit the Communist Party mythology. Cheung’s work demonstrates the ability of the Internet and globalisation to revisit these myths, but also, perhaps, to create new ones.
CFCCA has nothing to prove in terms of demonstrating that it has worked with many artists who have gone on to have real impact in the international art world. Besides reasserting this point, the 30th anniversary programme shows that it has maintained its networks and relationships throughout the years; the final three artists to make up the programme, Lee Mingwei, susan pui san lok and Yu-Chen Wang, are no exception. CFCCA has – and continues to – ask really pertinent questions about modern life and how we see the world, from which vantage point. Because of this, it resonates with everyone, and you will probably find that at least one of the exhibitions connects with whatever you are thinking about right now.
See 30 Years of CFCCA, at CFCCA, Manchester, until July 2016 — full programme of artists and exhibitions here (free)
Tsang Kin-Wah shows his 2015 video, First Trumpet in the New Millennium, in Gallery 1 until 24 April; Gordon Cheung presents a new triptych entitled Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan (2016) in Gallery 2 until 19 June