Made in China & Vietnam & via Pakistan...

I'm one of those art-goers who tends to bristle when curators use a heavy hand to dazzle us. Not that I don't think curation isn't itself an art form; it is, but a nuanced, quiet one. Therefore, I'd expect readers to presume I'd hate the new Made in China exhibit pulsing off the upstairs Spencer Museum's gallery: bright red walls, glaring yellow tags, and loads and loads of photos. Given the premise, though, it works to near perfection.The back story goes like this: Two KU professors, Pok-Chi Lau and May Tveit, take a small group of Kansas students on a whirlwind tour of one of the most foreign places imaginable, cameras in hand, and have them document in words and photos what they have experienced. It's overwhelming, to be sure; the sheer amount of stimulation and information these students encounter could make their heads explode, which they have, in a way, all over the Spencer walls.![][1]The photos range from the arresting (a foggy-eyed factory worker challenging the viewer) to the disheartening (KFC, McDonald's), the expected (Mao, Mao, everywhere Mao) to the poetic (lovely embroidered fabric blowing in a doorway). Likewise, the impressions written throughout run the gamut, but a theme rises: This trip changed their lives.I can't help, however, to be irritated with one aspect: no photos are attributed to the individual responsible. I was told, and indeed appreciate, that the purpose was to present the exhibit as a collective experience. Yes, I see the tie-in with Eastern versus Western thought, but not being able to associate work to a particular artist is distracting.Festivities begin [Thursday night, December 7, from 6 to 8 p.m.][2], with music and mingling with the artists. (This date is the re-scheduled time due to the ice on Nov. 30.)[Click here][3] to read "From Boomtown to Beijing," participant Jill Ensley's insights on the trip.Views from VietnamLet's just get it out in the open: I am the daughter of a Vietnam vet, and the after-effects of the war shaped my life significantly. Therefore, it's impossible for me to see Views of Vietnam with anything near objectivity. Fetch that grain of salt before you read on.Spencer curators, in an effort to create dialog and draw parallels without taking sides in the current war controversy, developed the exhibit to show two views of the Vietnam conflict: that of the Americans, and that of the Viet Cong. A bit of pre- and post-war art is sprinkled in for good measure.![][4]The anchor of the exhibit, however, is the Spencer's Tran Thanh Lam illustrative watercolors of Viet Cong soldiers during the war. They are sweet images, deeply influenced by his interests in European post-impressionism and Mexican muralists, but their quiet, bucolic scenes are downright bizarre juxtaposed next to Larry Burrows' gritty Time magazine photos and James Rosenquist's pointed protests. With the exception of one Cezanne-esque abstraction, in which the figures are difficult to make out, it's as if the war to Tran Thanh Lam was one bright, sunshiny day.Initially, I wanted to read the exhibit as sharp criticism: American soldiers brutal and ugly, fetishized Vietnamese soldiers simple and good. It's an easy, tired statement.But sitting in that gallery, what I came to realize is that the work of these artists contrasts not in their side of the war so much as the context in which they were able to work. Burrows was so bold because he could be. Views of Vietnam is a small space illustrating that as marred and flawed as this nation is-as irredeemable as our mistakes will be, as neglected as my father was, and as adrift as my family seemed-at least our artists are able to show us, unflinchingly, what they really see. They have that freedom of expression.Maybe. In 1973, anyway. It's a small raft to hold onto, but for me, it gave great comfort. There you go for curators as artists.Chairman Mao's Golden MangoesNot to be missed is the small ode to a footnote in China's history: The cult of the mango.In 1968, Chairman Mao send mangoes to the Worker's Propaganda Team during their standoff with the Red Guard. The move aligned Mao with the Beijing laborers, establishing the worker-peasant class as the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. Originally a gift to Mao from the foreign minister of Pakistan, the mangoes became an icon of Mao's benevolence, eliciting poetry, appearing in decorative art, and eventually reproduced as wax replicas. At the Spencer, richly colored fabric with yellow mangoes drape behind books, bowls, and medals depicting the fruit, and wax mangoes are cased in glass bearing Mao's image. Odd as it was, the reverence of the mango lasted for about one year. [1]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/art/china.jpg [2]: http://www.lawrence.com/events/2006/dec/07/17665/ [3]: http://www.lawrence.com/blogs/godjilla/2006/nov/25/china_opening/ [4]: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/art/vietnam.jpg

Comments

Jill Ensley 13 years ago

It's official....the Made In China opening has been postponed.
Next Thursday, December 6th, same time, same place.

Hope to see you all there.

Jill Ensley 13 years ago

Sorry, that's December 7th. And great reviews Leslie!

leslie 13 years ago

Thanks for the update, Jill. I'll change the date in the text.

Dave Loewenstein 13 years ago

I'm glad you mentioned the Vietnam show. In an atmosphere that is so highly charged concerning war, this show felt really strange to me. I understood the museum's interest in showing the Tran Thanh Lam watercolors. They are fascinating. It was confusing however to not read this show as a comment on Iraq (everywhere we hear that the Iraq war is another Vietnam). And in that context it felt superficial and slanted.

leslie 13 years ago

In cases like this, Dave, I worry about being hypersensitive, and I try to make myself hold back. It took three visits to the show for me to gain this small perspective that I write about. I did, however, leave with a couple of other concerns: (1) When can we explore Vietnam as a region and culture beyond America's involvement in the war? And (2) I hope the Spencer treads carefully and does not become too politicized.

Dave Loewenstein 13 years ago

I agree about exploring Vietnam beyond the war, and there were a couple pieces in the show that did, but the show as a whole felt muddled to me.

Your concern about the museum becoming politicized is more complicated for me. I say that because you hear a lot these days the call for 'objectivity' in the presentation of contentious political, social, and religious issues whether it be in movies, theater, visual art, or other mediums. I think there is some merit in that, but I worry that museums, to be safe, may respond by avoiding all together the showing of work that they fear some viewers might find objectionable.

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