Listen carefully in the room of Liang Shaoji's work in Art of Change at the Hayward Gallery and you will hear something between a rustle and a murmur. It is the sound, much amplified, of silkworms eating mulberry leaves.
How Chinese is that? To my mind, pretty Chinese. Given that some of Liang's caterpillars are spinning their cocoons in carved antique window frames, it may even be very Chinese. But then that is no more than you'd expect of a show whose subtitle is New Directions from China.
Like Liang's work, though, my question is harder than it seems. Thanks to the Cultural Revolution and subsequent political repression, Chinese artists are latecomers to contemporary art – that is, art as it has been defined by the West since 1960. Beyond the question of how Chinese the work in Art of Change is are other, less obvious questions: Chinese how, and for whom? And beyond those again is another question, namely: should we be asking these questions at all?
Take Yingmei Duan. The work in Art of Change is loosely installational, one of the permitted categories of Western art of the past 50 years. Yingmei's is no exception.
In a side-room are three of her works, Sleeping, Patience and In Between. All consist of white shelves, cantilevered from the walls. The first has a woman in a sleeping bag; another woman stands with head poking through a hole; the third piece is empty, but should have had a woman sandwiched between its twin shelves.
From the last, you might think of Yingmei's work as Minimalist, like the 1980s wall pieces of Donald Judd. Yingmei herself describes her art as a response to Egon Schiele, whose paintings she saw while studying in Vienna. As a set of performance pieces, the three works owe a more obvious debt to Marina Abramovic, Yingmei's teacher at art school in Germany. The wall text which accompanies them views them differently, though. To the show's curators, Sleep and the rest are less about a Western tradition than about wei wu wei, the Taoist concept of the value of doing nothing. One wonders whether Yingmei knew this.
From the start, Art of Change stresses the Chinese-ness of Chinese contemporary art over its contemporaneity. It sees the fleeting nature of the work as a response to persecution by the People's Armed Police, as well as to "the acceptance [of change] … that is a fundamental aspect of Eastern philosophy". That that same volatility has also been at the heart of Western contemporary art, and that Chinese art might be global rather than national, seems less interesting.
A couple of years ago, I went to 798 Art Zone in Beijing, the hub of the city's new art scene until gentrification forced it to move. Along with Western-style property prices was a Western-owned contemporary arts centre, big Western gallerists and dealers. There was an Olafur Eliasson show. The air was of a cultural mission school, with Americans and Frenchmen showing the natives the true way. The other, palpable, sense was of native resentment.
Chinese contemporary art is new to us, and so we need context. The bank of computers in Art of Change where you can trace the history of cultural repression in China since 1979 is useful. But it's also reductive.
Yes, the first stones pressed into the wet clay forms of the MadeIn Company's Revolution Castings were thrown by Chinese protesters in street demonstrations. Now, though, visitors to the Hayward are invited to bring stones of their own for pressing. The work that results will move away from the political and specific to the formal. The Revolution Castings will become those things that until now they have only incidentally been, which is elegant and abstract.
I suppose what I'm saying is that it may be useful to visit this show twice, once to learn about the historical background of the work, and then once again to forget it. What would Art of Change be like if you weren't constantly reminded that the art in question was Chinese?
"Extraordinarily" and "good" are words that spring to mind. There is a maturity and meticulousness to much of the art that is missing in its British equivalent. Yingmei Duan has made a work called Happy Yingmei, in which visitors crawl through a low arch into a cave-like room. In this, a woman sits, sibyl-like, in a grove of dead saplings. As you look at her, she begins to sing – "La, la, la, la; oo-oo-oo-ooo" – and then to walk towards you, crushing dead leaves with her bare feet. The piece is beautiful but it is horrifying as well – knowing how to respond to her song, what to do with your face. In the end, I ran away. Happy Yingmei is about archetypes, universal things: caves, wise women, embarrassment. It is also Chinese, but only also.
Hayward Gallery (020 7960 4200) to 9 Dec
Take a trip on the high seas – in, er, Kilburn. Artangel has commissioned Lindsay Seers to turn the Tin Tabernacle chapel in north London into a ship; once inside you’re immersed in her film art; entitled Nowhere Less Now, set sail till 21 Oct. Or actually head to the coast for Tracy Emin’s Margate show, She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, at the Turner Contemporary before it closes on 23 Sep.Reuse content