In its shadow stands Wu Hung, a giant in the world of contemporary Chinese art, who inspired longtime friend Sui Jianguo—China’s most prominent sculptor—to create the piece for an exhibit of Chinese sculpture in Millennium Park.
A Beijing native who has deep roots in the city’s artistic avant-garde, Wu, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History and East Asian Languages & Civilizations, has known many of his country’s most important artists for decades. He visited them in China and was crucial in bringing four monumental pieces by the country’s most famous sculptors to Chicago.
One of the foremost champions of Chinese modern art since the 1980s and a curator who has introduced China’s bold aesthetic to the West, Wu was the “obvious” choice when the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs needed an exhibit co-curator for a new downtown exhibit called “A Conversation with Chicago: Contemporary Sculptures from China.”
“He is the star curator of contemporary Chinese art,” says co-curator Lucas Cowan, Millennium Park’s visual arts coordinator. “It would have been shameful if I didn’t have him do this.”
A Passion for Chinese Contemporary Art
The son of a Shakespearean scholar, Wu studied art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. During the last years of the Cultural Revolution, he worked in the Palace Museum, more familiarly known as The Forbidden City, living in a small house against the outer wall.
“There was a strange contradiction,” says Wu. “Inside, I was dealing with ancient carvings and imperial artifacts, and outside there was the political environment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Wu’s field is traditional Chinese art. His other passion, as becomes clear during an impromptu exhibit tour in Millennium Park, is the art of contemporary China.
Tall and with a shock of thick, dark hair, Wu stands amid the sculptures and speaks passionately about bringing to Chicago the kind of work that can draw the attention of the art world. He also talks about the ideas he hoped to convey through the installation.
“This show is a conversation between the artists in China and the people of Chicago,” says Wu. “We are trying to capture the excitement and reflect a society in transition.”
As he planned the show with Cowan, Wu says he tried to identify sculptures of great artistic merit that were, at the same time, visually accessible and would have broad public appeal. He looked for works that also had a seriousness of content and meaning that would contribute to the “conversation” that he wanted to have with Chicago.
The sculptors were all very taken with the physical context of Millennium Park as a prominent public space, Wu says.
“Chinese artists work especially well in Millennium Park,” says Wu, who is also a consulting curator at the Smart Museum of Art. “They are known for very bold, very public kinds of statements.”
Back to Beijing
The Chicago exhibit includes Chen Wenling’s “Valiant Struggle No. 11,” which portrays cartoonish—“but not benign,” Wu points out—figures that illustrate the grotesqueness of unbridled greed and commerce. Zhan Wang’s “Jia Shan Shi No. 46” reimagines the Chinese scholar’s stone, a traditional symbol of contemplation and restraint, in nearly 30 feet of blindingly bright stainless steel. "Kowtow Pump," by Shen Shaomin, replicates working oil rigs from three eras, in a commentary on modern anxiety and the oil industry.
This summer, Wu is having a conversation of a different kind. He is back in Beijing with his wife, Judith Zeitlin, who is Professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University. He is working with art critics to come up with critical standards for judging contemporary Chinese art.
“The art market was so strong it began to dictate artistic evaluation and criticism,” says Wu. “Now we are developing other criteria to define the concept of contemporary art and how in China to talk about its creativity and value.”By Lisa Pevtzow