TURNER Prize winner Grayson Perry is among 13 international artists featured in a large-scale exhibition which has Plymouth facing east – and experiencing an opium den.
Sinopticon runs across four venues this spring and summer, examining the influence of China in contemporary art.
Isaac Julien’s Hotel, which is being shown as part of Sinopticon
It’s a 2012 update on a process that started when often fanciful images started cropping up in Western art in the late-17th century – chinoiserie (French for Chinese style).
The exhibition runs across four venues, including two, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and the National Trust’s Plympton stately home, Saltram House, which have many historic chinoiserie exhibits such as fine ceramics and exquisite wallpaper.
But Sinopticon reflects how our view of China is changing as the Middle Kingdon becomes an economic superpower.
“Chinoiserie shows a fanciful China,” says London-based curator Eliza Gluckman, a specialist in Chinese art. “Sinopticon shows how our views are changing, asking what is our relationship with all the goods that are flooding in from China.
“Do we believe what we read in the papers, that China is taking over the world? Are we afraid of that?”
Sinopticon, which also runs at Plymouth Arts Centre and the city’s College of Art, examines the past, too. The museum has the mock-up of the opium den and the front of the arts centre’s Looe Street premises has been transformed into a take on a ‘curiosity shop’ from an American China town of the 1930s.
Work has been specially commissioned, too. UK artist Erika Tan took Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s 1995 big-budget telling of Sense and Sensibility, which was partly filmed at Saltram House, as her inspiration.
Tan re-shot scenes from the film at Saltram using Chinese actors to explore what happens to symbols of cultural dominance when the world order shifts.
There is a strong sense of illusion running through the exhibition including in that opium den and fine porcelain pots that turn out to be perfectly made replicas modelled from soap (by Korean Meekyoung Shin). Transvestite Perry’s trademark trickery, making apparently beautiful pieces that on closer examination have disturbing or even obscene imagery, features too, in a silk cape and one of his ceramics. He has also taken chinoiserie exhibits from the city museum into the show.
Ms Gluckman said Plymouth was chosen as the first host of Sinopticon because of the city’s east Asian connections, with one of the UK’s biggest Chinese communities, the extensive chinoiseries collections locally including at Saltram and the city museum, and as a port through which wares from China were brought in.
She said it was hoped to take the show next to Liverpool, home to the longest-established Chinese community in Europe.
The aim was to build on the legacy of the British Art Show, one of the leading contemporary exhibitions in the world, which took place across five venues in the city last year.
“We hope that bringing a National Trust venue in will broaden the appeal and mix the audience,” said Ms Gluckman.
Sinopticon (Contemporary Chinoiserie in Contemporary Art) opens tomorrow and continues until July 7. Admission is free at the City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth College of Art Gallery and Plymouth Arts Centre. Normal admission rates to Saltram House apply. For more details go to www.sinopticon.org