Now Playing

How Three Works in SFMOMA’s Survey of Chinese Art Got Blocked—in America

A controversial exhibition of contemporary art exposes our own cultural schisms.


Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995.

(1 of 2)

A video still from Huan Zhang’s multimedia work To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995.

(2 of 2)

As curators at the Guggenheim agonized over the monumental task of compiling the survey of “global contemporary” Chinese art that will make its West Coast debut this month at SFMOMA, their attention was understandably and rightly focused on issues of cultural sensitivity. What they failed to anticipate were the reactions of the show’s American audience. So it is that when Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World arrives in town on November 10, it will do so with some notably redacted works in tow.

The traveling exhibition’s two-part showpiece and namesake, Huang Yong Ping’s Theatre of the World and The Bridge, features a turtle shell–shaped glass panopticon and, above it, a long, snake-shaped glass enclosure. Inside both, vipers, scorpions, and other insects and reptiles were meant to coexist—or, more likely, not. However, in advance of the exhibition’s opening at the Guggenheim, animal rights protesters demanded that the pieces be removed, along with two video works (Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other) that depict, respectively, pigs copulating and agitated dogs tethered to treadmills. The museum, controversially, relented. When the show opens in San Francisco, all three works will appear in edited form, as they ultimately did in New York: Huang’s Theatre will include no live animals, and the video works will be “deactivated”—accompanying artist statements will take the place of the moving images. “We have to recognize the culture we live in,” says Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture. “That’s become an important part of the history of the exhibition.”

Look past the scandal, however, and the rest of the show offers a broad view of the breakneck economic and cultural changes in Chinese art and culture that took place between the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “Chinese artists have been working in relationship to those changes, not in tandem with them,” Garrels says.

Among the more than 60 artists whose works are on display are Ai Weiwei, quite possibly the most internationally famous figure to emerge from the country’s artistically fertile 1990s, and Cao Fei, the celebrated Hong Kong multimedia artist. In all, Garrels says, the show comes at a time when confronting China’s sociopolitical importance has never been more vital. And the fact that the country’s international art-market potential is at last beginning to be realized­—evidenced most recently by Art Basel launching a Hong Kong outpost earlier this year—well, that sure doesn’t hurt. Nov. 10–Feb. 24, 2019

Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Ian A. Stewart on Twitter @IanAStewart