M+ Sigg Collection at The Whitworth, Manchester, UK: A review, sort of

I recently had a rather ill-fated mini-trip to Manchester. Ill-fated because after three days of drizzle and public transport-related tribulations (and with apologies to Mancunians) I decided I really do not like Manchester.

However, one of the (few – sorry!) highlights was the motivation for my visit in the first place, The Whitworth Gallery and, in particular the exhibition, the M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese Art from the 1970s to now. It offered a survey of key trends in contemporary Chinese art across three galleries, and featured works by artists (fairly) well known outside China, including Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping, Wang Guangyi, Li Shan, Liu Wei, Song Dong and Fang Lijun. I was particularly excited to see examples of 1990s political pop – which I first wrote about in my undergraduate dissertation – and the photography and film footage of the Star Group’s exhibition and activities in 1979, by Chi Xiaoning.

I don’t intend to write a full review here – others have done better than I could – but I did want to address one issue. I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago that the interpretation accompanying the exhibition was lacking, which was, perhaps, a little unfair of me. However, this is a particular bug bear of mine (and I covered it in my book):  it is often said that in order to understand China today, one needs to have some knowledge of the Maoist period, and in particular, the Cultural Revolution – the social, cultural and ideological legacy of which cannot be underestimated, even though it largely remains a taboo subject in contemporary China. Equally, in order to comprehend  Chinese art in the years immediately following Mao’s death, and into the 1990s and early 2000s (the period covered by this exhibition), one needs to have some knowledge of the restrictions placed on the cultural sphere in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Several of the works in the show directly referenced/reflected on this period and its icons/iconography. Elements of and aspects of the works would resonate with Chinese audiences in ways that would be lost on British visitors (and many Chinese of younger generations). To be fair, additional information beyond text panels and object labels was provided on handouts, but this focused largely on the preoccupations of art curators – style, technique, esoteric ‘meanings’, some limited context that still required prior knowledge of twentieth century/early twenty-first century China.* I can’t help feeling that a bit more contextual information, available to those who wanted it, might have helped to foster a deeper engagement with the works (and the exhibition narrative). This is all supposition of course. Without undertaking research, who knows whether audiences ‘got it’ or not?

That said, it was a real thrill to see Wang Keping’s wood sculptures and Wang Fen’s photography in person. And I would urge everyone to watch Cao Fei’s wonderful Whose Utopia (2006).

*There is also a catalogue of the collection, Right is Wrong (note: not the exhibition as such), which does include essays and timelines. I shelled out £25 for a copy (unheard of!), but haven’t yet read it so can’t comment on its usefulness.

Featured image: Still Life (1995-2000), Ai Weiwei

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