The exhibition Goya to Beijing, now on view at Centre International d'Art Contemporain de Montréal, has an ambitious itinerary; after stopping in major cities around the world, organizers hope the show will, in 1999, find a permanent home in Beijing.
By then, China may have made some progress toward democracy. If not, this intensely political testimony to brutal times and the will to freedom may have to keep wandering.
The show includes 21 major contemporary artists from here and around the world, and has Goya - the greatest painter ever of human cruelty - as its patron saint.
The idea is to memorialize the terrible events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, when government troops massacred protesters demanding democratic reform.
Goya, the early 19th-century Spanish painter, is the man who created those immortal flickering Images of the massacre of May 3, 1808, when Napoleon's troops went on a bloody rampage in Spain.
Taking Goya's unforgettable image of cruelty as inspiration, the acticipante in the current show have assumed the task of
reminding up that, as psychiatrist Carl Jung said, looking evil straight in the eye is half the battle.
Perhaps it's a tribute to the power of art that a few of the Chinese artist in this show could not use their real names.
Montreal artist Jana Sterbak, herself a refugee from Eastern Europe in the '60s, accepted this challenge by producing an eerily poetic sculpture titled Tongue. Delicately placed on a glass tray, as If it were a biology specimen, is, a bronze tongue. This icon comments on the not-so-ancient practice of cutting off the tongues of dissident intellectuals.
The muting of the people is also the theme of Dominique Blain's piece, real microphones mounted on a real podium plastered with photos of mouth less faces. The work suggests the preference by autocratic regimes for communication that is one way straight down from the top.
Other artists were more specific. The Chinese-American H. N. Han, who was in China at the time of the slaughter, did a huge acrylic, painting of army tanks crashing through Tiananmen Square and heading our way. The ironic thing about this picture is it's impressionist style. Closely associated with atmosphere and countryside, impressionism as used here to portray military hardware results in an interesting low-keyed form of morbid humor.
Nam June Paik's stunning installation consists of 14 wall-mounted TVs arranged to form the Chinese symbol for “compassion.”
The TVs are nearly all tuned into a sappy PR-type program about the wonders of China, land of contrasts, etc., etc. But this video, as spliced by Paik, is no ordinary travel story. The video's clichés are contradicted by the songs played by a young Chinese rock musician, whose ballads have more to do with loss and spiritual impoverishment than with teenage hormones. Interspersed in this blinking spectacle are images only micro seconds long of the horror of Tiananmen Square.
Paik, the pioneer video artist of our time uses the two most powerful element in the modern arsenal of communication and propaganda - light-waves and sound. On the other hand, weight and mass, the true stuff of sculpture as a fine art, are the basic elements employed by Montreal artist Peter Krausz.
Krausz's piece, a huge vertical slab of wax impaled on an iron pike, may seem far out. But in fact this work, for all its oily strangeness, is very much in a tradition of fine art going back to artists such as Henry Moore.
As art, this piece is among the best in the show. But as political statement, it is far less eloquent, since art and interpretation get in the way of the message, which in Krausz's piece is possibly the tragic pliability of human skin - the wax - versus the intractable hardness of weapons - the pike.
That art is ultimately the first priority of this concoction is certainly no crime. Indeed, had art always been forced to speak out on the major issues of the day, it would have long ago withered on the vine. It should be said, here, that art has no obligation to hit the campaign trail, and can become pedantic and confusing when it does.
So the best art doesn't necessarily make the best political statement, which in this show is made with amazing lucidity by Polish/Canadian/American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko.
His piece involves just two slides, projected on the cold cement walls of a darkened room. One, projected at an angle so that the victims become much enlarged, is a reproduction of Goya's famous painting of the massacre of Spanish peasants.