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The Enigmatic East 

click to enlarge A still from Tobias Bernstrup’s video installation Mantis City (2006), part of the exhibition “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China” at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.
  • A still from Tobias Bernstrup’s video installation Mantis City (2006), part of the exhibition “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China” at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Changes are of epic proportion afoot in China. The environment, the landscape, social structures, cultural traditions, politics and economics are all affected by the country’s rampaging industrialization and urban development. But the price that will be paid for change will be exacted from individuals. “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China” at Mass MoCA in North Adams presents works by 20 artists, examining these changes from the perspectives of individuals as it affects individuals.

Of the 21 works on display, 12 are video installations, a medium which curator Susan Cross refers to as “the medium of our time,” and which she believes best “conveys a sense of the scale and pace of change” currently operative in China. In a world saturated in moving images, video is perhaps better suited to bring the viewer closer to the visceral experience of China. Three videos by David Cotterrell, Hero, Impresario, and Maestro are set up in a small room with each shown on a different wall. The viewer is surrounded by visual images and sounds of traffic in Shanghai swarming past a lone traffic policeman. The question of how individuals will cope with such dramatic change comes alive.

“Eastern Standard” shows not just superficial changes of life in China, it also delves into the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people. Patty Chang’s video Shangri-La examines the duality of a mythical utopian place and the realities of a town near the Tibetian border named after it. The video is accompanied by a sculpture of a mirror-faceted mountain which Chang describes as “kind of a giant sacred mountain prayer wheel crossed with a disco ball.” Emotional conflicts between retaining cultural traditions and embracing change are also seen in the video collaboration of Chang and David Kelley’s Flotsam Jetsam which follows a boat as it floats down the Yangtze, making stops to document the memories and fantasies of those who live along the river.
A documentary film series is being shown at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit that takes a closer look at lives of individual workers, rural poverty and the growing alienation of the younger generation. Films include China Blue, about workers in a Chinese blue jeans factory, and the experimental Metropolis, Report from China, in which Clemens von Wedemeyer and Maya Schweizer try to recreate Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from footage of Chinese cities.

Ultimately, change does not happen just to a country, it happens to individuals. “Eastern Standard” attempts to show the changes in China in terms of the human equation and it leads us to the question: What will come next, not just for China as political entity but also to its ever-growing population.

Seen as a whole, the exhibit has a synergy that gives a richer context for viewing individual pieces. This is not a show to pop in to take a quick look at a few parts. While you may not want to watch a full six hours of video at one sitting, it is well worth taking the time to go through the entire exhibit as it meanders through the second and third floors in a labyrinth leading to an unfathomable future.

“Eastern Standard” will be exhibited through January 31, 2009, at MASS MoCA, 87 Marshall Street in North Adams, Massachusetts. (413) 662-2111;

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  • The show "Eastern Standard" on display at MoCA attempts to show the many changes in China.


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