The curators have selected nearly 150 pieces of sometimes shocking, often scruffy experimental art — video, installation, photography, performance — that questions authority, and uses animals (on screen) to highlight the violence of humankind. (“Theater of the World” caused a stir in Vancouver in 2007 when Mr. Huang included scorpions and tarantulas; he withdrew the piece from the show there rather than comply with requests to remove those particular creatures.)
The emphasis at the Guggenheim is on conceptual art. There are few oil paintings, and none of the flashy visages of big faces of the political pop school of the 1990s and early 2000s that fetched skyhigh prices at auction.
”We felt the whole concept of contemporary Chinese art needed to be exploded,” said Alexandra Munroe, the lead curator.
The chronology covers two distinct periods: the political repression after Tiananmen and the economic boom in the 2000s. In the aftermath of the protests, the government banned installation art. That provoked conceptual artists to stage furtive shows in anonymous apartments. Artists struggled. Many escaped abroad, came back, went out again. There were almost no galleries and little money to be made.
By 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, opening its doors to the global economy, the government understood that art could be China’s calling card. Money poured into places like the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Commercial galleries popped up in Beijing and Shanghai.
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games were staged as China’s coming out party. Many artists dismissed the celebration, preferring to concentrate on government corruption and the demolition of charming old Beijing. But the Games did help to open the eyes of outsiders to China and its art scene.
Soon after the opening at the Guggenheim, the Communist Party will hold its national congress in Beijing, a conclave set to anoint the current president, Xi Jinping, for a second term. The uninhibited avant-garde art at the Guggenheim will offer a jagged contrast to Mr. Xi’s stiff internet censorship, and repression of human rights that keeps some of China’s artists — including perhaps the best known, Ai Weiwei — from living and working in…