In the past week, during which hysteria over the proposed Cordoba House in lower Manhattan reached new fervor and polls revealed that 18 percent of Americans falsely believe President Obama is Muslim, a couple of interesting news stories came out about China. Many newspapers reported that China had surpassed Japan and became the worlds second largest economy. And then there was an absurd story of a Chinese traffic jam that is 60 miles and an estimated 9 days long. While mainstream America has been focused on the Middle East for the past decade, it would seem that in the future, we will be more concerned with China, which has an economy enjoying three straight decades of economic growth.
A film about globalization in China, as seen through the world of contemporary art, Robert Adantos The Rising Tide is a visually fascinating profile of the change happening there. In the relatively short period since the rise of Deng Xiaoping, China has undergone tremendous change and tremendously fast change vis-à-vis its thousands of years of history and the shift away from Maos communism to an orientation toward economic development. It screens at Zeitgeist this week (7 p.m. Wed.-Thu., Sat.-Sun.), and Adanto, who is in town working on another documentary, will attend screenings.
A stark but recurring background in Adantos first feature length documentary is one of grey rubble and destruction. Its actually demolition, a necessary phase in the constant growth and building in China. But it captures the confusion and sometimes bleak view of transformation that many of the artists have about globalization. The capacity to discuss it publicly is also a (not fully realized but) new possibility for them.
When Adanto set out to make a film about globalization, his research led him to China, and subsequently, he focused on a wave of young artists who are rising stars in the international contemporary art world. Some of this is by circumstance, as the Western art world has embraced Chinese artists quickly. Many are young, some still in art school, and they have the strange fortune of having dealers chasing them. With that comes income they never anticipated. The film combines a remarkable array of the artists photography and video, but it may be the tip of the iceberg as outside collectors and dealers are just beginning to explore China.
Many of these artists have come of age since the late 1970s, after the death of Mao, the during the assent of Deng Xiaoping. They dont remember the Cultural Revolution, when one of the artists parents, who were both teachers, were deemed dangerous intellectuals and reassigned to work on a pineapple farm.
The film is full of intriguing artistic work as the artists sort out their responses to globalization, which both offers opportunity, such as the income they are able to make as artists selling work in the West, and also seems to tear down everything that is traditional or old. One of the artists comes from a region in which a damn project is causing hundreds of villages to be demolished, residents relocated and their former home submerged. The photographers who go by the name Birdland capture the changes of Shanghai, which is one of the industrial and technological centers and its modernization is one of the frequently pictured faces of new China.
Also used in the film is file footage of Mao and the military pageantry of his monolithic state. Theres one almost surreal scene of an aging Mao swimming in the Yangtze River in 1966, a display meant to show the Chinese that their aging leader was still vigorous and strong.
Its not easy to make sense of all the change going on in China: from traditional to modern ways, Communism to a market-oriented economy, the rigid conformity of the Cultural Revolution to one of freer communication. Adantos film is limited to a handful of artists, though their ideas vary greatly, and it is a fascinating introduction to people talking about the country without the filter of the Chinese government.