View of “Taiping Tianguo,” 2012 Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong

New York is one of those places that are meant for the birth of legendary art moments. “Taiping Tianguo” exhibits the artistic creations— all produced in New York in the 1980s— of four Chinese artists of different backgrounds. The show takes its name from the title of one of artist Martin Wong’s paintings (itself based on the Taiping Rebellion of the late Qing). Given the diversity of the artists’ backgrounds in relation to China (Ai Weiwei is from Beijing, Tehching Hsieh is from Taiwan, Frog King Kwok is from Hong Kong, and Martin Wong is from San Francisco) as well as the event in modern Chinese history to which the title refers, it would be easy, thematically, for things to move quickly in the direction of “conflicts between Eastern and Western ideology,” or an account of the “American Dream,” or some otherwise comparative case study of the artists and their works— but the curator has successfully sidestepped all of these stereotypical motifs.

Just as the title “A History of Possible Encounters” reveals, the curator is infatuated with construction, here of four individual artists in the same time and space who, although intersecting from time to time, occupy each of their own wholly separate, three-dimensional orbits. Para/Site’s small exhibition space has been rhythmically divided into four segments: the front window, the entrance, the main gallery, and the back room. The four artists’ works, however, are not presented separately; they are mixed together, arranged at key locations throughout so that the artists and their backgrounds intertwine and mutually complement one another. The exhibition guide, though not altogether useful, emphasizes the staggered meshwork of these relationships as well. The same floor plan appears four times in each of the sections, each time only dispensing information related to the works of one artist; only if viewers have the capacity to overlay the four plans in their own imaginations can they truly attain a comprehensive understanding of the design of the exhibition and the distribution of the works within it.

One moment, we see a live performance organized by Ai Weiwei in New York, through Frog King Kwok’s photographs. The next, we see Tehching Hsieh in the midst of his One Year Performance, as captured by Ai Weiwei. And in a clip from An Autumn’s Tale (directed by Mabel Cheung) we see Frog King Kwok’s graffiti “Frog” characters on the walls of Chinatown (at one time the biggest collector and connoisseur of New York street art, Martin Wong here creates a “hyperlink” for viewing the exhibition, allowing the “encounters” between these two artists to materialize directly in your mind). In that place and time, the potential for all kinds of “encounters” among these four artists was very high. And now, in this place and time, the audience’s own “encounter” with the artists further reiterates that possibility.

Of course, the building of a labyrinth of interpersonal artistic relationships alone cannot constitute an outstanding exhibition; the true curatorial brilliance lies, in fact, in the precise construction of this labyrinth around the viewer experience. The works of the four artists themselves already represent an abundance of content, and rich textual documentation further extends the reading space of the exhibition. Meanwhile, the notable presence of black-and-white photographs in all the artists’ works lends an additional documentary boost, an enhanced sense of indexicality. Worth mentioning is that this exhibition, held in 2012 in Hong Kong and reflecting upon New York in the 1980s, only saw Frog King Kwok— who has already settled back in Hong Kong— in attendance. Martin Wong died of HIV complications in 1999, Tehching Hsieh has remained in New York since he first arrived there, and Ai Weiwei is at present situated in Caochangdi.

Aimee Lin (Translated by Katy Pinke)