Is contemporary Chinese art as good as the huge prices it fetches at auction suggest? Despite the best efforts of Tate Liverpool's new show, Richard Dorment remains unconvinced
This is not a good time for contemporary art, at least not in the way the 1990s or the 1960s were.
Now, generalisations like that are always dangerous, I know.
Only last year at the Whitney Biennale in New York, I saw electrifying work by half a dozen young artists including Paul Chan and Matthew Day Jackson. But exhibitions like that seem to happen much less often than they used to. I sense that we are living in a period of exciting new architecture, whereas signs of contemporary art's exhaustion are visible everywhere.
You see it when giant art fairs flog indifferent work for vast amounts; when the Turner Prize goes to a nice-enough-but-essentially-minor artist such as Grayson Perry; or in the depressing news that Oxford MoMA is planning to give a retrospective to the crass outpourings of Stella Vine. My heart sinks at the thought of the upcoming Venice Biennale and a British Pavilion filled with the work of Tracey Emin.
But at least Tracey is alive and, therefore, still able to surprise us. For the first time ever, an artist who has been dead for more than a decade - Felix Gonzalez-Torres - will represent the United States, presumably because he was the best the commissioners could come up with. If that isn't a failure of nerve, what is?
One of the most deadening trends in recent years has been the Great Chinese Art Swindle. For years now we've been hearing about the vibrancy of the art coming out of Beijing and Shanghai - and it's all baloney.
Time after time, I've gone to shows of this stuff only to find that it wasn't worth taking the trouble to review, only to read a few months later about the record prices the very same works were fetching at auction.
This must be happening because there isn't enough good art around to feed a voracious market led by speculators willing to buy virtually anything on offer. It feels like the late 1980s, just before the great crash that made junk art as worthless as the junk bonds that paid for it.
What I've just said about contemporary Chinese art is refreshingly acknowledged in the title of Tate Liverpool's exhibition The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China.
The appropriation of the Coca-Cola slogan refers to the status of art in modern China as another product in the rapidly expanding economy, subject to the same laws of supply and demand and marketed with the same energy as a fizzy drink.
The title also sneers (there is no other word) at the Chinese art that Westerners see and buy so indiscriminately. It says that this show is different, that in Liverpool you will see real art, not the mass-produced and cynically marketed tat you have been exposed to so far.
And, up to a point, the show delivers. There are artists of real substance on view, carefully chosen by curators who know what they are doing. The catalogue is thoughtful, the installation as good as can be expected in the difficult galleries at Tate Liverpool.
And yet I'm still not convinced that this art is fundamentally any different from what we see on a daily basis here in the West. The only way I can explain this is to look at a few of the artists in it in detail and tell you what I like about their work, but also what is lacking.
In her video installation, Whose Utopia? What are you doing here?, Cao Fei has made a documentary about the Osram lighting factory in southern China, where she spent time as artist in residence. (I know, but keep reading.).
The piece unfolds in three parts. First, we see workers on the factory floor actually making and then packing light bulbs. Far from being some Dickensian sweatshop, the factory is modern, clean and efficient. Even so, it is soul-destroying and mind-numbing work.
In part two, we are introduced to the hidden, fantasy worlds of the workers, several of whom act out their secret desires while their indifferent colleagues continue to work around them. One girl dances en pointe in a tutu, another flutters to the floor, a dying swan.
In part three, the camera is static as the artist lingers on the faces of individual workers, forcing us to see each as a real person whose hopes and dreams we can never know. And, if those dreams are conventional to the point of banality, that in its own way is part of what is so touching about the work.
The artist's theme - that a workforce is anonymous, but individual workers are unique - is commonplace in the West, but a sign of profound change in the Chinese mentality. My reservation is simply that we have seen this kind of thing before, as, for example, in the work of Gillian Wearing. What makes Cao Fei's work special is the cultural context in which it was made. Were a Western artist to have made the same film, I don't think they would attract the attention Cao Fei is now receiving.
Qiu Zhijie's elaborate installation documents his re-enactment of a 19th-century journey by foot across Tibet, using maps, photographs and texts to record the historical precedent for his action. I can't complain about the way the artist realised his ambitious project, but we saw this kind of thing so often in the 1970s that I never expected to see it again.
Much more interesting (and by far the best work in the show) is Xu Zhen 's 8848 Minus 1.86, an incredibly elaborate installation purporting to document the artist's ascent of Mount Everest, where he and his colleagues claim to have removed 1.86 metres from the height of the mountain, the tip of which is supposedly shown in the gallery along with a film of their exploit and paraphernalia from the expedition.
The work apparently caused outrage when it was shown in Shanghai, but, in fact, it is a parody of both earth art and of the kind of artwork (like Qiu Zhijie's) that documents arduous actions and journeys. More seriously, it could be read as an accusation against China for its arrogance in Tibet and its brutal indifference to the environment. It is, therefore, more dangerous and more provocative than anything else on show.
Not that this show ignores politics, economics and social issues. In Wang Gongxin's video installation, Our Sky is Falling!, a Chinese family are shown spending a peaceful evening at home, when, within the space of a minute or so, the roof opens, a scattering of white dust and then an avalanche of white paper inundates the room, and the family finds they don't have a roof over their heads - a neat parable about the precariousness of economic life in a newly capitalist economy. I just wish it were a little less indebted to the work of Bill Viola.
Two other artists explore territory familiar from the art of Fischli and Weiss - one creating a perfect replica in polyurethane sculptures of a factory floor remembered from his time spent as a worker there, another recreating the art school he attended as a boy.
Nothing here, then, to frighten the horses, or to raise the pulse of a Western visitor. And that's the problem.