In October 2010, two students at Hebei University in central China were out when a car ran them down, killing one. As the driver drove away, he is reported to have cried out, “Sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang!” Li Gang, it turned out, was the deputy director of the local security bureau, and his son, Li Qiming, the driver of the car, appeared to think he could get away with a hit and run.
“My dad is Li Gang!” became a social meme in China, a shorthand indicator of entitlement. It infected the Internet, despite official efforts to shut the story down. Now it is the title of Shanghai-based artist Jin Shan’s subversive, witty, and ambitious installation at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University. At its core, the piece probes the gulf between the powerful and the disempowered and the ways those in power can make a theatrical spectacle of their strength.
Jin has left the outside gallery wall stripped to its studs, like a stage flat. Inside, the artist has built his own twirling, snazzy version of the Tiangong 1, the orbital lab China launched last year. To Jin, and probably to the Chinese government, it’s a symbol of China’s rising star in the world. Jin ratchets up that symbolism to a giddy degree, cladding his space lab in mirrored panels like a disco ball, casting reflective shimmers across the gallery.
A white bicycle cart, modeled after the type used by Chinese laborers, perches atop the spool-shaped lab. It’s made of nearly molten glue, gleaming, ghostly, and viscous, on the verge of dissolution, and it seems to move in the opposite direction of the rotating lab, like a hamster running desperately along the top of a wheel. Disembodied hands, black and apparently charred, hold the cart in place.
The idea is straightforward enough: The glamorous space project was built on the backs of poor workers. Maybe the lab has fallen, melting the cart on reentry. More glue spills onto the floor out of a hole in the lab, pushing the phallic form to orgasmic levels. Or perhaps the cylindrical lab is a meat grinder, taking the beef of Chinese labor and turning it to hash.
The artist nods to his own father, a painter of scenic backdrops for Chinese opera who, during the Cultural Revolution, was made to paint portraits of Mao. Those theatrical backdrops are painted with a long, bamboo-handled brush. Echoing his father’s technique, Jin strapped silicone hands cast from those of Chinese laborers onto bamboo poles, and with them traced, dabbed, and pushed around wet plaster on the gallery walls. Up close, these look like the marks made by someone trapped in a muddy hole, trying to claw his way out. But from a distance, they recall the calligraphic whispers of Chinese landscape painting.
There’s a lot going on in “My Dad Is Li Gang!” — maybe too much. Jin takes risks, piling metaphor upon metaphor, but those riffs effectively goad each other on, pitting the voices of the people against the cudgels, gags, and symbols of those in power.
Voices from the ’60s
The 1960s were a confused time in American art. What would come after the great wave of Abstract Expressionism? Several movements, it turns out, including Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art, and Fluxus. All show up in “Circa 1963,” a group show at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, which is surprisingly eloquent given all the different voices at work in the small Sert Gallery. The exhibit anticipates next spring’s 50th anniversary of the Le Corbusier-designed building.
A few Aaron Siskind photographs hold the show together. With his focus on urban gestures — graffiti, the pentimento of fliers and leaflets stripped off a wall — Siskind pulled together themes that many other artists addressed individually.
Siskind’s “Chicago 56,” a glimpse of pale hieroglyphic graffiti against a dark ground, complements Sol LeWitt’s Minimalist untitled sculptural painting, circles within a square in black and white, an odd little piece that predates LeWitt’s breakout wall drawings.
Then there’s Bridget Riley’s black-and-white screen print “Untitled (Fragment 5),” a pulsing arc in which the stripes narrow and widen to suggest volume. The piece is full of motion, pert as 1960s-era hair flip. It hangs beside a gracefully contemplative suite of Josef Albers’s prints from “Homage to the Square,” in which he experimented with the way colors vibrate against one another, set in concentric squares.
There’s documentation of a Yoko Ono performance, a Roy Lichtenstein print, and a lovely, dribbly Morris Louis color field painting.
Two painters, Albert Alcalay and Gyorgy Kepes, are rooted in Abstract Expressionism, but moving on from there. Alcalay’s “Age of Speed” depicts a moving cylinder built of tiny component parts — like a rocket, or the coalescence of a crowd into a mob.
And Kepes’s “Descending Light” ties centuries together, with wisps that recall age-old Japanese calligraphy rising from a deeply textured, sandy ground, which anticipates the enormous, ravaged canvases of Anselm Kiefer 20 years on. You can see a similar calligraphy in the scribble of tar on concrete in another Siskind photo, “Chicago.”
My Dad Is Li Gang!
At: David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 84 College St., Providence, through Nov. 4.
At: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Oct. 7. 617-495-3251, www.ves.fas.harvard.edu