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The Asian Art Museum Teaches Chinese Art 101

The biggest names in the Chinese art world are all coming to town. 

Hu Xiangqian’s Sun is an eight-minute film documenting six months during which the artist worked on his tan— but not, Harding explains, for the sake of a healthy glow. “He sat out until he thought that his skin tone matched that of his African friends, transforming himself from a Chinese man to a black man.”

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Chen Wei stages his photographs in a studio. “It’s almost like you’re looking at a film still, like a horror story,” says Harding. “You’re given a glimpse of the narrative, and you have to piece the rest of it together.”

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Liu Wei’s Liberation works are big—“which makes his pieces very immersive,” says Harding. Many people see architecture, others see circuit boards. “They have lots of impact, and then you step forward and get lost in the details.”

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Perhaps the most famous artist in the exhibition, Ai Weiwei, plays with the idea of tradition and status in his Table with Two Legs. “This piece was a Qing dynasty table; in its day, it would have been seen as a status symbol,” says Harding. Weiwei is not only making it functionless— he’s also taking away its aesthetic intent, “which is so deeply tied to Chinese culture in that period.”

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Artist He Xiangyu created this facedown fiberglass sculpture of Weiwei after the artist’s tax evasion case. Its title, The Death of Marat, is a reference to Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting of the same name, which depicts the French revolutionary just after his assassination.

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No need to schlep all the way out to Beijing to see today’s hottest Chinese art: The Asian Art Museum is bringing it to us. This month the museum hosts 28 Chinese, a collection of works by 28 contemporary Chinese artists who constitute the biggest names in the world’s buzziest market. In the slideshow above, we sit down with curator Allison Harding to discuss some of our favorite pieces in the show. June 5–Aug. 16


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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