By Mark James.
The documentary Chimeras is a contemplative, respectful attempt to look at Chinese modernity through the lens of its art. The film ends with a tripartite definition of the title. A chimera is a mythological beast made of different animal parts; a wild, unrealistic dream or fantasy; and an organism artificially composed from two or more genetically distinct tissues. Taken together, the themes of the movie are all there. Wang Guangyi, an older, successful artist waxes thoughtful about his career bringing Chinese conceptual art to the forefront of the international art world by adopting Western traditions. Liu Gang, a twenty-something photographer is just beginning to embark on his own career, casting a wary eye at the images which have followed in the train of Wang’s success. The two men form the chimera which is the “Chinese art scene,” but their individual work is also a chimera, an imaginary unity of Western and Chinese traditions.
The fact that all three definitions of the title contain some implication of falsehood is related to where the film itself, directed by a Finnish first-timer Mika Mattila, comes down on these artists’—and by extension, China’s—success. The Chimera, after all, is not just any old mythological beast. It is a creature from Greek mythology that happened to reside in the Lydian mountains, on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea. Choosing a Greek mythological monster rather than any number of analogous Chinese ones—bìxié, píxiū or qílín are all creatures from ancient myth that could have worked to evoke hybridity—is a forgivable choice, considering the film is aimed at an audience who probably does not even have the Greek reference. But it underscores the problem that these two artists try to grapple with: How to be Chinese—do Chinese art, maintain or advance Chinese traditions—in a Western-dominated world that favors its own traditions.
Since the death of Mao, China’s answer has been that it’s useless to resist, as Wang puts it. But once China is a strong nation again, Liu says, these questions will be turned upside down. Maybe so. But for now, the quest for national strength is a serious undertaking in all areas of life, and art is no exception to it. The two artists have different tasks, thanks to the vast generational differences they experience, but both face careers whose successes will be entangled with those of their nation.
Wang’s personal trajectory tracks the post-Mao transformation of China into the hegemon-in-waiting it is today. His earliest memories were of the excitement of the Cultural Revolution, and the Northern Art Movement he founded with friends may be the most visible and lasting effect of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He readily admits that his aesthetic has nothing to do with the Chinese tradition, and the themes in his work back up his claim to be influenced strongly by the German philosopher Hegel. But he finds the ideologies he’s cycled through to be a series of brainwashes. Now, in his older age, Eastern metaphysics comforts him, though he still enjoys fat, presumably Cuban, cigars.
The biggest misunderstandings two cultures can have of each other, Liu says, is when they think they do understand each other but they really do not. It is not clear whether that is a reflection on his own situation, or an admonition to the Finnish Mattila, but the ambiguity reveals a canny, intelligent artist in the making. Liu’s photography displays the same intelligence. He takes pictures of ads for luxury housing developments placed in cheap newspapers, crumpling them ever so slightly and then selling the prints for no less than $10,000. On one hand, it’s a classic second-order self-referential scam — his parents, like so many artists, do not understand how his work is considered art. But the interplay between economic and artistic registers, between fantasy and fictitious commodities, reveals a sophisticated observer behind the camera. The dreams of his rising generation are Liu’s subjects, but he’s aware enough to realize that his own life as a promising artist is also one of them.
At a toast with the male members of his family, Liu is told stories of the sacrifices his parents’ generation went through to bring him where he is — literal sacrifices, as the One Child policy required that pregnant mothers induce abortions or unexpected babies be killed. Liu listens quietly, but how can he possibly incorporate this knowledge into his actions? How can his generation behave appropriately towards their stillborn siblings? Likewise, Wang’s generation can’t possibly shoulder its historical responsibility to its own past when Wang and his cohort were induced by their parents’ generation to the history-clearing fervor of the Cultural Revolution. How can these artists synthesize a discarded past with their current reality, while still achieving the future success the country demands?
Wang has found a way to do the latter, at least. He appears to be the perfect artist for the current Chinese government — he remains personally committed to ancient Chinese culture, though this doesn’t stop him from achieving massive material success with contemporary (Western) methods; a dissident at Tiananmen now brought into the fold, Wang gives the government the appearance of political broad-mindedness without causing any headaches like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei. Liu’s path is a little harder to guess at, like his generation’s. He disregards his mother’s request that he focus on his own career to the exclusion of getting married, opting for a pretty girlfriend whose interactions with him onscreen are simply transactional at worst. But perhaps he’ll be happy, and this documentary won’t hurt his artistic prospects, at least. However, the challenges he’ll have are to synthesize the artistic past Wang’s generation had to break with as well as his own. Whether or not he’ll succeed remains to be seen. But Chimeras will be a valuable document of the quiet moment right before the handoff from the generation that opened modern China to the world to the generation that might take it.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and has written about film for numerous publications, including The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide and The Advocate.