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Taunton Daily Gazette

Mahjong and beyond: PEM exhibit unlocks the secrets of modern-day China
 
 — By SARAH PHELAN
 

 

Salem – The great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, is said to have created the original game of Mahjong. Similar to Rummy, newly drawn tiles, rather than cards, are arranged and rearranged into pairs, melds and runs with an existing hand to create a winning combination.

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), in conjunction with the art collection of the peerless Uli Sigg, has amassed a winning combination in melding their resources for a new exhibit called “Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection.” 

By merging the PEM’s existing Chinese collection  — which includes traditional porcelain pieces, scrolls, embroidery, furniture and painting  — with the startling and provocative photography, mixed-media painting, film, computer graphics, calligraphy and sculpture of the Sigg collection, the exhibit creates a comprehensive portrait of the scope and depth of modern Chinese art. 

The merger is unique. In fact, Peabody Essex Museum is the only venue for the Mahjong exhibit on the East Coast. The exhibit opened last week and will run through until May 17. 

Arranged with the deliberate skill of PEM’s contemporary art curator, Trevor Smith, the exhibit of more than 100 featured pieces connects ancient art forms to their modern counterparts. For example, a man’s court robe, detailed in silks and golden threads hangs, next to Wang Jin’s depiction, “The Dream of China,” an intricate copy of a similar court robe done in clear plastics. Jin’s piece is exquisitely and painstakingly embroidered with filament threads, equaling its traditional neighbor in detail and beauty. 

The collection moves the observer through the history of China, straddles the Cultural Revolution and lands upon a fresh explosion of this new artistic expression from a large artist roster including the controversial Ai WeiWei, designer of the National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Liu Wei, the winner of the 2008 Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) and Zhang O, a female artist whose focus is feminist expression. This new, incredibly vibrant art landscape from the depths of China is beautifully and accessibly displayed in the very heart of Salem. 

The Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, helped replace much of the traditional Chinese culture with Communist ideology. Under the Communist doctrines of Chairman Mao, art was mandated to portray the worker-as-hero — shown in propaganda pieces in the Mahjong collection such as Wu Yunhua’s 1971, “From the Tiger’s Mouth” — as well as to show party leaders in positive light.

The Sigg Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum “…is enormously important because it is the first attempt to coalesce the extraordinary artistic developments that have taken place in China over the last 40 years,” explains Smith, “While the collection includes significant and early examples of many artists’ works, it also promotes the understanding of the complexity of Chinese culture and the country’s emergence as a global powerhouse.”
 
Many of the contemporary pieces play upon the Socialist Realism artwork of Zedong’s reign, such as Yu Youhan’s 2005 “Mao/Marilyn” — a startlingly funny party portrait of their leader infused with the sensual smile, well-placed birthmark and bedroom eyes of the familiar Andy Warhol depiction of Marilyn Monroe. Youhan’s other pieces are equally loaded, including a former Time magazine cover that was never allowed circulation in China.
 
The Mahjong exhibit at the PEM also pays homage to the ancient forms of Chinese art by recreating its themes through brilliant fusions of traditional painting, computer graphics, calligraphy and photography. Shan Shui, literally “mountains/water,” refers to the use of landscape to express emotional themes or social observation, a genre in use in China for more than 1,500 years. The collection juxtaposes different modern uses of this Shan Shui concept: a Liu Wei photograph of several bending human bodies as a mountain-scape, a Yue Minjun detail that turns digital technology into an ancient display of rolling mists at sunrise. 

What is remarkable about the Sigg Collection at the PEM is not just expressed through this captivating collection of contemporary Chinese art, but through the understanding of the collector himself. Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman who headed the first joint venture between the Western World and China in 1979, and later acted as Swiss ambassador to China, has almost singlehandedly exposed the West to modern Chinese art. 

A collector, collaborator and patron, Sigg has amassed more than 2,500 works by over 200 artists — including many who, before his involvement, did not have any official venue in which to display their works. Quietly knowledgeable, Sigg is pleased that the Peabody Essex Museum has chosen to mix the Mahjong tiles of their own traditional collection with his new works. 

Sigg admits that China has not “recognized the value of contemporary art,” but he still has hopes that he may return the works to a more permanent home in the land where they were created. In the meantime, Salem is a fortunate host to a unique, educational and entertaining art collection.

If you go: The Peabody Essex Museum, located at 161 Essex St. in East India Square, is open Tuesday through Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 978-745-9500 or visit www.pem.org.

Admission costs are $15 adults; $13 seniors; $11 students. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang (Chinese house): $5. Admission to the museum and Yin Yu Tang is free to all Salem residents, members and youths 16 and under.