Guggenheim's China exhibition: everything but the kitchen sink

This mega-show spanning five millennia focuses on “diversity rather than unity”, insists its organiser Sherman Lee, but does it risk homogenising Chinese art into a timeline?


No one has ever accused Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of not thinking big. The Guggenheim’s latest mega-endeavour, “China: 5000 Years” is presented as the first major museum exhibition to unite both traditional and modern Chinese art, with 500 works from the Neolithic period to the present. The works come from seventeen provinces in China. Many of the objects have never before been seen outside their country of origin.

Sherman Lee, retired director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is the curator of the historical section of the exhibition. “I was intrigued by the idea of an exhibition—not of selective masterpieces, not of bronze or any other single medium, but a kind of open-ended approach. Mr. Krens was very persuasive, and I went for it,” he said.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Mr Lee writes that “vast generalities of time and space are unavoidable when discussing Chinese art, for only with their aid do the main achievements of that long-lived culture become clearly apparent. This easier access comes at a cost, however, since significant regional diversity is obscured and homogenised into an undifferentiated whole, and varying periods of innovation are averaged into a neat and continuous timeline.”

“China: 5000 Years” offers an alternative to business as usual, Mr Lee suggests, by focusing on “diversity rather than unity”. Various sections of the exhibition examine conceptual innovations that led artists to shift their focus away from the supernatural to the human and the natural world, and then on to self-expression. Technical innovation is also examined medium by medium, in seven categories—jade, bronze, tomb ceramics, stoneware and porcelain, sculpture painting and calligraphy.

The influence of Buddhism and its enthusiatic acceptance in China is another central theme of the Guggenheim survey, which promises to be the first show of its kind from China to feature stone Buddhist sculptures in significant numbers. Lacquer and textiles will also be on view.

All the objects in the traditional section of the exhibition have come from China, a range of work uncovered by fifty years of active archaeology, Mr Lee says, with an approach based more on a Marxist emphasis on material culture than on notions of historical connoisseurship. The earliest works in the show are Neolithic jades (around 3600-1700 BC) and ritual bronzes used in the religious practice of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Experts in the field say this is just a hint of the archaeology that still remains unexcavated. “The twenty-first century in Chinese culture is underground,” said one insider.

The second section of the exhibition brings together works that explore the notion of modernity in Chinese art from 1850 (the first time of extensive Western contact) to the present. Chinese art under the patronage of Shanghai’s wealthy elite will be shown, as will “cosmopolitanism”, the work of Chinese painters who studied abroad in the middle of the twentieth century (and were persecuted fiercely during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Socialist realist paintings made under Communism will be on view, as will a range of works made since the country’s relative stylistic liberalisation of recent years.

The range of works in the latest chronological section of the exhibition will test the Guggenheim’s commitment to “diversity” and the extent to which the Chinese want to give official recognition to the breadth (in style and content) of art being made now. The modern half of “China: 5000 Years” is curated by Julia Andrews, author of Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China: 1949-1979, and a professor at Ohio State University.

Under the direction of Thomas Krens, scale and size have become hallmarks of the Guggenheim’s mission—from the massive new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the recent encyclopaedic retrospective of the work of Robert Rauschenberg at both New York Guggenheim sites. “China: 5000 Years” seems to follow those precedents.

The current show may anticipate a public taste for sheer size, in which connoisseurship takes a back seat to history. Across the street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a huge show devoted the cultural history of Mexico and more recently, to the treasures of the National Palace Museum in Taipei have set attendance records.

Sources say that officials in Beijing visited the recent exhibition brought to the Met from Taiwan and, not to be left out, expressed interest in a comparable event with objects from the People’s Republic. Sources familiar with Krens say he might also be looking for some real estate in China, or at least a venue suitable for loans from Guggenheim collection.

“China: 5000 Years” is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue from 6 February to 3 June and at the Guggenheim Soho from 6 February to 23 May.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'China: everything but the kitchen sink'