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Matter & Spirit: A Chinese/American Art Exhibition

“What is the place of the spiritual in contemporary life, particularly in highly materialistic—and increasingly secular—cultures, like the US and China?” This is how the brochure that accompanies the exhibition Matter & Spirit: A Chinese/American Art Exhibition begins. This is, of course, too big of a question for such an exhibit to provide a definitive answer, but it does give us some provocative insights.

The exhibit results from a gathering in Beijing in 2018 of North American and Chinese art professors, sponsored by the Nagel Institute of Calvin University. It is curated by Rachel Hostetter Smith, who has chosen 55 works by 25 different Chinese and American artists to make up the show. The exhibit is on display at the Center Art Gallery of Calvin University through February 23. I should mention that none of the artworks are identified. They are without the name of artist or the artwork. I doubt it was for the sake of security, since all the artists are named in the brochure.

The first piece one sees upon entering the show is also one of the most captivating. It is a multimedia piece by Meagan Stirling, made up of a short film loop on a large screen, several still photos, and a shovel and some clothing. The central image is different shots of a woman digging a hole that looks like a grave. One of the pictures has the woman and a small child in the hole. While there was not a lot of despair in the works on exhibit, this was certainly a powerful way of beginning.

There were several tactile, interactive pieces. One rather whimsical piece dealt with the serious issue of the one child policy. By pushing a button to spin these three small circles, you could see the year 1986 (start of the one child policy), a mother and father with one child, and a birth certificate.

One piece was a clear commentary on a recent event in China—the tearing down of crosses from churches. This piece is a column about eight feet high and two feet wide, covered with thousands of tiny bright white crosses, and somewhat larger red crosses covering the floor around the column.

I was struck by several more photographic pieces. One of these has three seemingly bored young people sitting on a bed or sofa. In the background is a television newscast, further back still there is a picture of the crucifixion. Does it tell us that the crucifixion gives meaning to life? Or is it saying that today’s youth only see meaninglessness?

Another piece is by You Yong, an affiliate painter and curator at the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting in Beijing. In this oil painting on a wood panel, the nail-marked hand belongs to Jesus. Yong said, “I tried to paint a portrait of my life in the hands of Jesus.”[1]

Finally, a piece by Cao Yuanming is 100 photographs of old-style Chinese benches put together into one collage. Again, one could view it in different ways. Is it an invitation to find your seat and be part of the community? Or is it a lament about the dwindling of the rural church?

I am not an artist or art critic. I simply describe what I saw. For some very helpful background from people who are artists and art critics, check out the 2019 winter issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, which is dedicated to Chinese art. Especially helpful in regard to the Matter + Spirit exhibition are the articles “Contemporary Chinese Art and Christianity” by Clover Xuesong Zhou and John Camden, and the brochure entitled “In God We Trust.” These give much more information regarding the issues and styles of contemporary Chinese Christian art.

In their article, Zhou and Camden state: “Only a small number of outstanding Chinese Christian artists have successfully traversed the tightrope which connects Christian narratives and values to contemporary Chinese realities and thereby generated meaningful art that is well received in both the secular art world and the Christian church.” It seems to me that, if that is the case, then many of that small number are represented in this exhibition.

If you are in the Grand Rapids, MI area before February 23, stop in! It is well worth it.

All images courtesy of the author. 
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Wayne Ten Harmsel

Wayne Ten Harmsel is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lived for a dozen or so years in Beijing, working with Chinese churches and pastors.View Full Bio

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