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A Glimpse of China: Duan Jianyu's Beautiful Dream 3

Duan Jianyu (Chinese, b. 1970). Beautiful Dream 3, 2008. Ink on cardboard; 15 3/8 x 21 1/4 in. (39 x 54 cm). Lent by the Sigg Collection. © Duan Jianyu

Duan Jianyu's Beautiful Dream series in the exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is surprisingly beautiful given the fact that it was painted on old corrugated cardboard boxes.

One of the most striking pieces, Beautiful Dream 3, depicts the Great Wall's dark silhouette on a flimsy piece of cardboard taken from a carton for a discontinued soda brand. The stark black silhouette covers only about a third of the cardboard segment, and the rest mimics the haze of a polluted night sky. It is very hard to reconcile our knowledge of the Great Wall as a colossal demonstration of combined human power with this portrayal presented on corrugated cardboard, but there's meaning in the contrast. It suggests that something, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, is "rotten in the state of Denmark"—or in this case, China—but doesn't elaborate.

The piece not only demonstrates a great way to turn recycling into a political statement but seems to relate directly to tourism. In many ways, we—the viewers—are tourists visiting the idea of China portrayed in the work. Then of course there are the literal tourists to China, travelers who visit well known sites such the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the mausoleum containing the famous terracotta warriors. The artist suggests in the Beautiful Dream series that outsiders looking in on China are getting only a flimsy view of what really characterizes this ancient culture. The portrayal of the Great Wall as majestic, yet inherently fragile, reminds us that tourists usually see the outline of a country but not its substance.

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