July/August 1991 - Goya to Beijing

Samuel Ketcham Gallery, Vancouver Art Gallery, May 4 -July 21, 1991.

Reviewed by Ellen L.Ramsay Goya to Beijing is an international art exhibition collected by the Canada-China Foundation and the Vancouver Society in Suppport of the Democratic Movement, presently at the Samuel Ketcham Gallery of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This touring exhibition raises the question of the relationship of art to society in the aftermath of the dramatic civilian uprising which occurred in the spring of 1989 and the tragic retaliation of the Chinese military on June 4th in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

The title of the exhibition makes allusion to Goya's celebrated painting of May 3rd, 1808 where occupying troops shoot Spanish civilians during the period of civil war. The history of art from Goya, Manet ("the Execution of Emperor Maximilian", 1867), Picasso ("Massacre in Korea", 1959) to the more recent Artists Protest Against the Vietnam War is called on for the artistic lineage of the politics of protest and political protest art in both the organizers collection and the artists' presentation of their own subjects in this emergent artform.

Younger and older artists alike bring together a diverse range of images addressing Tianamen Square as both an artistic discourse on politics and a more lyrical language of artistic symbolism. German artist Peter Sorge provides one of the more politically specific pieces with his coloured pencil work "Freiheit Statue hungerstrike 1990" illustrating the Chinese goddess of Freedom and the media images of hunger strikers as seen in the spring months of the uprising.

Nam June Paik's (Korea/U.S.A.) video exhibit "Wrap Around the World-China Sequence 1988-90" brings a montage of media images into the political scenario with a parody of the tourist industry juxtaposed with the lyrics for peace in Ciu Jian's popular song ("...But you always laugh because I have nothing..."). Well-known American artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero contribute to the 60's legacy of American protest art with cross-cultural relief works of figures bound, gagged and fallen under the weight of state oppression, while Canadian artists Betty Goodwin, Bruce Parsons and Gu Xiong introduce the political symbolism of doors and walls into the vocabulary of protest.
All of these works, donated by the artists, range from older non-site specific pieces such as jenny Holzer's "Shriek-Inflammatory Essay 1979-1982" to the very specific and illusory “Tiananmen to Oka" slide and videotape installation by Henry Tsang, a new addition to the touring show.

The common thread in all of these contributions is, of course, the Tianamen massacre, but there is also a strong presence of the self-referential history of political art work from Goya to the present. Diversity in this respect creates a small but impressive exhibit to one of the great tragedies of the 80s; a tragedy which is bound to live on in our memories and to be echoed in political events through the decade of the nineties as the subtitle (1990-1999)?? apocolyptically suggests. While it tends to be more informative about the history of protest art than the events of spring 1989, this exhibit is accessible and interesting. Furthermore, the humanism underlying the work is a marked contribution to the era of post-modernism.


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