Dance Locally, Dream Globally

"Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World" at SFMOMA proves that museums are becoming the new locus of world cinema.

For some of the world’s greatest cinematic works, the cinema isn’t the place to go. Nor Netflix. Nor anyplace on the internet, really. Rather, it’s art galleries and museums. Instead of a crowded theater or the familiarity of your living room, you see a film on a sizable screen surrounded by art and art-goers. Nice! And you can stay as long or little as you want. Even filmmakers acknowledge that fact, best exemplified by Christian Marclay’s epic 24-hour film The Clock, which rewards the viewer for any length of time.

SFMOMA screened The Clock in 2013 and it’s now drawing fans to London’s Tate Modern — but you don’t have to travel to Europe to take in an art film that’s stirring and exquisite to watch. As part of its new exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” SFMOMA is exhibiting Cao Fei’s 20-minute video called Whose Utopia. Made in 2006, Whose Utopia documents life at a German-owned assembly plant in China’s Pearl River Delta, where scores of Chinese citizens make lightbulbs and other lighting products. The assembly work is tedious and fast-paced, but Cao turns it into visual poetry by having workers act out their dreams in the assembly plant’s aisles.

One woman yearns to be a ballerina. One man aspires to be a Tai Chi master. Another a guitarist. They don’t say a word. Instead, these anonymous workers — anonymous within the plant, and to Americans and other consumers who benefit from their cheap labor — dance and perform as if they’re on a Broadway stage. They perform when nobody’s there, and they perform when co-workers are just inches away. Cao overlays their actions in this video segment (called “Factory Fairytale”) with soulful guitar and piano music that by itself is profoundly moving. And she does this after an earlier segment of scenes (called “Imagination of Product”) that show the assembly plant at full throttle. This opening montage — where we see and hear the machinery at work — is as artfully done as any segment by Ken Burns or Errol Morris.

But Whose Utopia goes even farther with a third segment (called “My Future Is Not a Dream”) that has workers posing in normal work clothes within the assembly plant. They look at Cao’s camera as an English-speaking singer in the background sings these philosophical lines: “Part of your life had waxed and waned. / But to whom do you beautifully belong?” The song features whistling, piano, and harmonica, giving it a kind of lyrical element that’s reminiscent of Bob Dylan at his best. 

Whose Utopia asks a lot of questions that are still worth asking on the eve of 2019 — questions about the merits of globalization, about the price workers pay to seek a better life, and about the dreams all people have even if they seem trapped in a spiral of thankless tasks. Whose Utopia is one of the best museum-screened videos of the past 20 years, a tour de force in its own quiet way, and a calling card that announced Cao Fei as a major force in filmmaking. She has since made a number of acclaimed pieces, and her presence in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is one of the most compelling reasons to visit this broad survey of art from China.

Another compelling reason is Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing painting from 2001, a stunning portrait of murder and politics that’s a condemnation of China’s post-Mao policies. Wang based the painting on a 1989 Associated Press photo of two bloodied students whom the Chinese military shot in the Tiananmen Square massacre. As in the photo, a bicyclist is hurrying the victims to a hospital in Wang’s rendition, with the same stunned Chinese also helping and observing. But the students are now Emperor penguins in New Beijing. Wang has substituted two beloved animals in a work he made after the International Olympic Committee awarded China the 2008 Summer Olympics, for which Beijing created the slogan, “New Beijing, Great Olympics.” Wang’s New Beijing is in the tradition of war paintings like Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which capture moments of madness that cry out for reflection — and museums are as good a place as any to do that.

Daniel Crooks, Vanishing Point (still)

Ai Weiwei, who has critiqued China’s policies for many years — and whose practice in the country has suffered because of it — is well represented in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” with photos, sculpture, and video. But the exhibit is a chance to engage with artists who are less well-known in the West as Ai, and that includes photographer Liu Zheng, whose “The Chinese” series features miners, a drug dealer, and other people on China’s margins who are never really seen in American popular media.

China is a nation of 1.3 billion people, and its elites, like president Xi Jinping, are practically household names in the United States because of the ongoing trade war. China’s modern art — at least the art that’s now at SFMOMA — acts as a kind of re-introduction to the rest of China. The exhibit reintroduces us to their dreams and also to their nightmares.

Another stirring film on view in San Francisco is Daniel Crooks’ seven-minute Vanishing Point, screening at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, which uses a train track that — slowly, surreally — take viewers into realms of the environment and the urban landscape. Scene after scene unfolds, with a forest that dissolves into a small town, which dissolves into a desert vista, which dissolves into something else — and keeps dissolving. The only rough constant is the train track, the dronish music, and the point of view: It’s as if we’re on the very front of the train, traveling in a dream series where we’re the only living being for miles around. Vanishing Point is an artistic manifestation of the philosophy “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

Crooks’ video is part of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts’ screening-room exhibit, “Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints,” which complements a much bigger exhibit about the environment called “No Time.” Among the highlights is Goshka Macuga’s irreverent 3D tapestry, Make Tofu Not War, wherein three people in animal costumes hang out in a depleting forest using signage (“It’s Hot in Here”) to plead for more political participation. Funny and damning at the same time, Make Tofu Not War works even without 3D glasses. But the glasses, which the foundation provides, make the tapestry even more jarring. 

The environment — and mankind’s imprint and imposition on it — has been a focus of Edward Burtynsky’s work for decades. His latest photo exhibit at Robert Koch Gallery, “Edward Burtynsky: Anthropocene,” has him once again circling the skies and other aerial byways to document manmade contours of land and water. The patterns are downright beautiful. So beautiful you can’t believe they’re from mines, quarries, oil corridors, and other areas that portend trouble with a capital T. With unique images that document telling slices of the environment, Burtynsky is as much an art cartographer as he is a photographer.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” through February 24 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.

“Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints” and “No Time,” through January 19 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St. Free; 415-580-7605 or mcevoyarts.org.

“Edward Burtynsky: Anthropocene,” through Dec. 29 at Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St. Free; 415-421-0122 or kochgallery.com.

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