Cultural exchange between China and the West is complex, reflecting geography, language, economics, global politics, ideology, and, depending how you define "cultural exchange" and "the West," some 2,000 years of history and two billion living people. Too often, this complexity elicits incomplete, unbalanced, or simply inaccurate characterizations of that exchange, but (Da bao)(Takeout), which opened at Plug In ICA last weekend, avoids these pitfalls by adopting a broad focus and a light touch.
The show's 17 artists include second- and third-generation Chinese-Canadians, Chinese artists who've worked abroad and Canadian artists who've worked in China, and curators Shannon Anderson and Doug Lewis are careful not to yoke the diverse works to overly restrictive themes or narratives.
The resulting exhibition, if perhaps a bit scattered, commendably avoids generalization and preserves the artists' unique perspectives. What patterns do emerge do so organically and, not surprisingly, distance, disconnect and the misunderstandings that result are recurring motifs (Lewis suggests that the exhibition's Chinese title itself might be better read as "leftovers").
In 2006, Beijing-born Han Xu and native Torontonian Sara Angelucci found themselves in one another's respective country of origin on opposite sides of the globe. Capitalizing on their swapped perspectives and the 12-hour time difference, the artists began taking simultaneous photographs twice daily at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (and vice versa), which they collect in the series Your Morning Is My Night.
The charming illustrations in South Korean artist Minjeong Oh's series of paintings and video animation, On the Resonance Port, document sights and scenarios she found unfamiliar and distinctly "Chinese" while visiting Beijing -- a potentially useful reminder of Asian cultural diversity for some. Elsewhere, Gang Chen's sensitive paintings of airport X-ray scans and Laurens Tan's sculptures of Beijing's unlicensed three-wheeled taxis each refer to the constant movement that characterizes rapidly globalizing societies.
Several artists tackle divisive issues particular to China. Shen Yi Elsie's portraits of the country's often-exploited migrant labourers are both dignified and fanciful, but others take a more confrontational approach. In Nan Hao's photograph Song Type Study One, the artist and his brother stand in front of a Starbucks in Beijing's historic Forbidden City holding a banner reading "F your mother" in local slang. A juvenile stunt to North American eyes, maybe, but the characters and style of script create added ambiguities for Chinese readers, and it's important to remember that, in China, unsanctioned protest of any kind chances serious reprisal. (In some ways, the piece was as dangerous to execute as Chi #3, a nerve-wracking video of the artist performing tai chi in the middle of a busy street).
Other works are less easily categorized (take the mushroom farm heated by an upside-down laptop -- you're on your own with that one). Vancouver artist Laiwan's 10-second video loop, Movement for Two Grannies, which shows the women standing on the surface of a shimmering body of water as they hold one another for support, is unexpectedly disarming. The decision to project video of Winnipeg dancer and artist Ming Hon's aggressively sensual (also, scary) Cleaver into a highly polished wok was ingenious -- intense flashes of reflected light sharply punctuate the already-gripping performance.
Taken collectively, the works in (Da bao)(Takeout) provide a engaging and nuanced look at the results, too often overlooked, of continuous, reciprocal and highly varied exchanges between cultures. The exhibition runs through June 2.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.