Earth, Fire and Life
University of New Mexico
Neolithic to contemporary artists are blended into one cohesive exhibit at Maxwell Museum’s Earth, Fire and Life exhibit, featuring everything from ancient burial vessels to delicate, never used, contemporary family tea sets in a side-by-side display. This rare exhibition represents of dozens of cultural, political and aesthetic works of art. Eason Eige, an Albuquerque artist and retired curator, collected 250 Chinese art pieces, which he donated to the Maxwell Museum. This exhibit of about 100 ceramic pottery pieces, gives us a glimpse into, not only the Neolithic period, but the Bronze Age, the Tang, Yuan and Han Dynasties, amongst others, while merged with modern Chinese ceramic artists.
You will find 5000 year old red clay with black designed pottery from the Bronze Age, which looks very much like our own local Native American pottery as well as sand colored burial effigy vessels. You’ll also see the infamous hand painted cobalt blue and white porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties. There is a special display attributed to New Mexico’s Chinese immigrants. Many of whom became American citizens, in spite of the discrimination they suffered and endured. We are afforded a peek into the past through plenty of documents and photographs. Many of which invoked a lot of emotion in me personally, specifically a photo of a little girl who was forced to attend school in a classroom alone because she was Chinese.
As interesting as the historical works are, the most prevalent statements come from the contemporary artists. One of the most conspicuous pieces on display, at the very forefront of the exhibit, is a one foot tall pyramid shaped display of three inch naked babies, visibly of Chinese descent, each intertwined by arms and legs. Each baby appears to have been cast in porcelain, then glazed in exactly the same manner, then stacked into a pile high mound. Even though the mound looks random, there is an organized chaos to the display as the babies appear to have a rhythm to their placement because each baby is balanced on the previous one in a circular design.
My initial presumption was that perhaps this piece is a reference to China’s overpopulation or maybe it was about the 300 children once dragged crying from their families to be trained by Chairman Mao’s Communist Party for military service. The piece, by Xu Hingbo, is named The Clones Series, 2012. From the title of the piece, I deduced that this work is making a statement in opposition to the new cloning factory, Boyalife Group that announced in May 2016 that they now have the technology to clone humans. This gives the impression that Hingbo has infused a distinct political aspect to this exhibition and is questioning the morality of the science of human cloning. I think that the way the babies are tangled in a heap gives a hard-hitting statement that there is a mound of anxiety that humans may not be valued as individuals if cloning takes place. Also, who is to say how many clones of the same person will be acceptable.
This artwork I successful because the artist has magnificently used its multiple human components to make a dramatic testimonial that provokes a thoughtful and serious consideration to the issue of cloning in the manner he mass produced the exact same baby. I also found the babies quite endearing as a contemporary piece of art. Once I saw this piece, it was difficult to forget. I found myself thinking about it over the next several days because now cloning is possible. Even though it is not a piece of art I would go out and buy for my coffee table, I found myself mesmerized by the artist’s original idea.
Many of the contemporary Chinese artists deliver a interlacing of traditional pottery with modern style by using well-known brands or logos as decorations. One familiar shape is the McDonalds “M.” The porcelain is perfectly formed into a cursive M and the painting is finely detailed. Li Lihong’s piece, entitled, McDonald’s Gorilla Coming from the Mountain, 2007, was produced in the mountain city of Jingdezhen. This is an area where fine porcelain has been fashioned for more than 1000 years. White porcelain with hand painted cobalt blue art has been highly collectable for many generations especially in England and in the West. The large sized letter M, known in the West as McDonald’s “golden arches” has been hand painted in cobalt blue with traditional Chinese power symbols of tantalizing soldiers, waterfalls, blossom trees and foo dogs in a defiant east verses west, traditional verses modern, art verses commerce statement. Lihong appears to be superimposing symbols of Chinese power over the top of the McDonald’s logo. In my limited judgment, Lihong is giving us an adequate reflection of reality, as the McDonald’s gorilla is overpowering even the secluded mountain areas giving us a look at China’s predominating social issue: global capitalism. With companies such as McDonald’s invading China’s leading artistically secluded areas, I wonder if capitalism will not suppress and cheapen the value of the once highly sought after and collectable art.
Lihong’s piece is successful because the artist does a superb job of showing the commercialization of China by global gorilla, McDonalds and by showing China fighting back by imposing its cultural symbols and upon the logo. He also achieved this by using a traditional Ming style-with white porcelain and hand painted cobalt blue figures.
Intermingled throughout the vast pottery collection, you’ll find colorful, wall hangings of black and red silk fabric by an unknown artist. Each adorned with colorful, satin, embroidered butterflies and dragonflies that appear as though they will flutter away when approached. In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and good luck, while the butterfly signifies love, especially young love.
This entire show seems to express a history of prosperity, harmony and just plain good luck throughout the past 6000 years of Chinese culture and aesthetics, in spite of its changing dynasties and political turmoil. Yet, there is now the new-fangled cultural of contemporary artist involvement interconnecting the old and traditional, while carrying a diverse message forward, their new, young love.
In my estimation, both modern Chinese artists listed above have brought about a universal consciousness that extends far beyond the chronological, geographical or socioeconomic boundaries of their ancestors by instilling art-historical awareness. They are reconciling the fragments of modern existence with the timeless work of their ancestors to give us a sense of connectedness to the past while using modern forms to evoke feelings alluding to the danger of the encompassing capitalist allusions and technical sophistication.
The gallery has done a wonderful job of laying out a multitude of pieces so as not to overwhelm the patrons with so much on display. I wait with baited breath to see the other 150 pieces still hidden from public view. The Earth, Fire and Life exhibit is one of the best kept secrets in Albuquerque. The exhibit runs until Sept 2018 and it is not to be missed.