San Francisco

'Chinese Culture' Takes Many Forms, As New Pop-Up Exhibit Illustrates

Some people mistakenly believe the Chinese Culture Center houses only traditional Chinese art, or that it's just for Chinese artists or aficionados of Chinese art. Others believe only Chinese art is relevant to the Chinese community.

But the center challenges those assumptions, working under a belief that "Chinese culture" can take many forms, including programming created by, and accessible to, a wider demographic. One example is the intriguing Pop-Up: Es, cogito ergo ("you are, therefore I think") by San Francisco artist Jonathan Wallraven, which opened Wednesday evening and will be on display for the next 10 days.

The show was executed in black ink directly onto the gallery's white walls; when it's over, they'll be painted over, with the work living on only in photographs and a video of Wallraven creating it. "Ink can have so many possibilities with so many cultures," said Abby Chen, artistic director for the Chinese Culture Foundation.

When the Chinese Culture Center opened in 1973, it did focus specifically on Chinese art (both traditional and modern), because it was still very rare in the United States at the time. Due to political embargoes, "almost no one saw anything from China for a very long time," Chen said. 

But China has opened up, and its art has become more accessible. So by 2007–08, Chen said, the center's direction changed to display more work from American artists. Despite an initial outcry, it's now a mix of about one-third artists from the United States and two-thirds from China, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Taiwan. An upcoming show, Retrieved: The Art of Looking Back, will showcase work from a variety of international artists. "The way we look at it is, culture is a fluid concept," Chen says.

Wallraven's pieces owe some of their intricacy to his experience in animation, but they're also a play on the traditional Chinese ink paintings that depict large, flowing landscapes with tiny people. These works turn provide an edgy twist. In this show, Wallraven (who is not Chinese) tells us, the viewers in the gallery become those figures. "It's immersing them in the work and trying to get that same feeling of being surrounded that you see in that ink painting."

Wallraven said German Expressionism was another big influence. "The overall show, to me, is about experience and environment shaping the self and personality." The work spreads over the gallery's three rooms, Wallraven has titled each as Act I, II and III, because they feel, to him, like moving through the narrative of a play or film.

The first room includes what look like three enlarged Polaroids of women taped to the wall with names and dates underneath, along with a depiction of a cemetery. It's titled, "Act I: My dream girl don't exist." Wallraven says the images represent personal relationships.

The second room, "Act II: The black well," features a dilapidated-looking shack and a jack-o-lantern. Wallraven said it's "based on the house that belonged to my maternal grandparents, which I spent a lot of time in as a child. It had no electricity or running water. I moved around a lot as a child, so I don’t have a lot of home-based memories."

The third room, "Act III: Engage with sincerity," includes objects that are currently in Wallraven's bedroom, which have caused him to ponder how the things we see every day "have a lot of pull or sway, and influence you.” They include a depiction of a Nirvana poster he's owned since 1993.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 30th, and hours are Tuesday–Saturday, 10am–4pm. The gallery is tucked into the third floor of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, next to its banquet and meeting space; as you exit the elevator, look for the CCC to the left.


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