LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Contemporary Chinese art has become a source of growing fascination. Paintings by Chinese artists are selling for millions of dollars, and China is now the world's third largest art auction center. An exhibition that opened this past week at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco takes a look at what the work of these artists tells us about today's China. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the show Half-Life of a Dream.
LAURA SYDELL: Silk swim shorts embroidered with images of Mao Tze-Tung hang like sails on the mass of 100 small, red stars. They billow in a breeze created by several small fans. On each swimming trunk, Mao is meeting with a different head of state, from Richard Nixon to Nikita Kruschev. But he has no facial features.
Unidentified Woman: His outline, his silhouette is more than enough to recognize him.
SYDELL: In Mao's China, the artist Lui Hung and everyone else knew exactly what Mao looked like. His face was in classrooms, (unintelligible), train stations. He was the helmsman steering the ship of China. Hung is the oldest artist in the show. Her piece was made in the late 1980s, long after Mao was dead. But in one way or another, even his absence haunts the dreams of Chinese artists.
Mr. JEFF KELLY (Curator, Half-Life of a Dream): To me, it is kind of psychic self-portraiture, in which the artist's face has replaced the leader's face.
SYDELL: Jeff Kelly is the show's curator.
Mr. KELLY: Each artist has a kind of signature iconic face. And that is essentially that artist's face, if not literally, at least psychologically. And they paint it over and over and over again.
SYDELL: Kelly first came to understand this creative shift as he and his wife - he is married to the artist Lu Hung - traveled back and forth to China over the last two decades. Some paintings in the exhibition often have a dream-like and sometimes nightmarish quality. The artist Fang Lee Jiun (ph) paints his own bald head, mouth open, drinking in the ocean as he is about to drown in a bright blue sea.
Artist Jiun Dah Lee (ph) made casts from the heads of actual migrant workers. A pile of them sits in the middle of the second gallery. Their eyes are closed, as if sleeping or dead. They are castaways in the new China, in which trading stocks is more valued than hard labor.
Mr. KELLY: That's a big psychic shift. And the people in the cast heads in Jiun Dah Lee's sculpture, you know, are the ghosts in that new machine.
SYDELL: Today's China might be Chairman Mao's nightmare. This is part of the message in an installation by artist Sui Jianguo. To set it up, they had to nail down small plastic dinosaurs to a platform. 15,000 of them combine to make up a color-coordinated swirling map of Asia, a symbol that the continent is the world's toy factory. On top of the map is Chairman Mao sound asleep. We can't hear him snoring, but artist Sui says he's having nightmares.
Mr. SUI JIANGUO (Chinese Artist): The economy and the money and the capital make China strong, and it makes Asia strong. It's not to the way as Chairman Mao thought.
SYDELL: In another room, artist Yu Hong (ph) has a painted portrait of a mother and daughter watching television in their modern-style home. Beside the painting, Yu has also photographs chosen by these women to represent an ideal of themselves. The daughter is stunningly dressed in a long, red gown. The mother stands beside an ancient Chinese statue of what looks like a warrior. Yu says her work comments on the failure of Mao's dream to bring lasting equality for women.
Ms. YU HONG (Chinese Artist): Before 1978, the women's dress is almost the same as men - very loose, very shapeless. And the girls, they don't make-up. They have very bad haircuts. But right now, they are very fashion. But actually, the position of woman is not very good. You look good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SYDELL: Yu says, as the society has gotten more competitive, parents are paying for sons and not daughters to get an education. The men are making the big money. That's true of Chinese artists as well. The price has been rising, and it's being bought by collectors all over the world. But there are only three women in the exhibition out of 25 artists.
In fact, perhaps one of the strongest images of women in the exhibition is by the one artist who is educated in Mao's time. When Lui Hung was a child in Manchuria, the Communist government showed everyone a film that was a recreation of the death of a cadre of women defending China from the Japanese in 1938.
Ms. LUI HUNG (Chinese Artist): Their stories played a very big part in my life.
SYDELL: The women drowned themselves in a river rather than surrender. The film is on display in the galleries next to Hung's paintings of them. Their faces are strong and weathered.
Ms. HUNG: To sacrifice yourself to the ultimate sacrifice of your life for the good cause, which is the dream of Communism.
SYDELL: Hung says this piece is both a recollection and a mourning of the lost innocence from early days of Communist idealism. Although much of the work in this exhibition seems to have an underlying sense of irony and criticism of today's China, it's managed to pass muster with government sensors. Artist Yu Hong says that's partially because they aren't directing their criticisms, but it's also because a limited audience sees the work.
Ms. HUNG: Chinese government control film and TV show more powerful because there are a lot of audience. But contemporary art is not so power because normal people don't really know about contemporary art.
SYDELL: The Chinese government has actually renovated an area of Beijing filled with artists' studios and will be directing tourist there during the Olympics. Some of what they see may have a message like a video installation in this exhibition by Wong Gong Sing (ph). In it, a blind old man with a cane and a blind young man grope around, trying to find the cage where a bird is singing. They may be metaphors for the new China, which is still groping around in the dark, looking for dreams to replace the one it left behind. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.