Art from the Silk Road

The Silk Road, a new exhibition of work from the Saatchi collection on show in Lille, provides a snapshot of the artistic vitality emerging from China, India and the Middle East.

Wafa Hourani
Qalandia 2067, 2008
Mixed media
400 x 700
Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
© Wafa Hourani (photo : Wafa Hourani)
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This autumn's show at the Tri Postal, a colossal former postal sorting office in the northern French city of Lille, is a spectacular showcase of recent Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern art from London's Saatchi collection, posing powerful questions in an ever-more global art world. The title, The Silk Road, comes from the ancient trade routes linking Asia and the Middle East, to the Mediterranean and Europe. It's also an apt symbol of commerce between cultures and the dialogue between East and West implicit in many of the works.

It's a neat follow up to the "Passage du Temps", the exhibition of work from Francois Pinault's collection, which was shown in the same space last year. Charles Saatchi has always been proud of introducing new artists - and of his role as "kingmaker", with his ability to catapult previously unknown names onto the art scene - while Lille gained a reputation for bringing adventurous contemporary art to a wide audience when it was European Culture Capital in 2004, and has kept up the momentum ever since with the ongoing Lille 3000 festival.

With 30 artists from nine nations, the show naturally encompasses art coming from very different situations. Some of the artists are firmly established on the global art circuit, leading high-profile international careers. Take Bharti Kher, born in London, now based in New Delhi and one of the world's most expensive artists at auction in 2009. Her colourful bindi spot paintings and bindi-covered sperm whale heart could be a reference to Indian bindis but they are also a knowing nod at Damien Hirst.

The Silk Road certainly pulls out the stops from the start in a luscious ground-floor spread, with Subodh Gupta's UFO, a flying saucer of bronze bowls, and Spill, a work in shiny stainless steel dishes and cooking utensils that overflow from a giant bucket. There's a big ash head - made from burnt-out incense sticks from a temple - by Zhang Huan, and Kher's camel in a suitcase.

Saatchi's taste for spectacular big pieces is well known. Not for nothing was the 1997 YBA (Young British Artist) show at the Royal Academy in London called Sensation and if the works here aren't out to shock in the same way, a certain bling is evident - no doubt in part due to the works that were chosen to fill the huge Tri-Postal - in mega-sculptures that suggest the mega-bucks of the booming new art markets. But sometimes the meaning of all these show-off pieces gets lost in the spectacle. Up on the first floor, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Old Persons Home is like a ballet of automated wheelchairs that move around the room, propelling vaguely familiar but unnamed old men - military, political, religious leaders it implies - milling around in a Disunited Nations of total lack of communication. It is hypnotising to watch - will there be gridlock if the wheelchairs all collide? What happens when they get stuck on the columns? - combined with the familiarly eerie fascination of hyper-realism: real hair, real clothes (suits and military uniforms), the mottled skin of old age. It's amusing, but isn't it also a little bit trite?

Also spectacular but with more bite, literally, is Liu Wei's Love it! Bite it!, a sprawling city composed of world monuments, recognisable cultural icons and symbols of power - the dome of St Peter's in Rome, the spiral of the Guggenheim in New York - made from dog chews. The material is both tough and fragile, the buildings are skewed and distorted, hinting at collapsing cities or civilisations - "post-apocalyptic" the catalogue suggests - and, disturbingly, potentially edible.

Kader Attia's Ghost has been recreated in a special, temporary version just for this show with 560 of his praying, shrouded tin-foil figures, stretching across an entire room. Attia is of Algerian origin, but was actually born and lives in France, and is arguably as much, if not more, a product of France's multiracial suburbs than the Arab world. The work is both strikingly beautiful and thought provoking: it suggests, faith, prayer, identity, but the figures, or ghosts, are also hollow. Yet this is an uneven show. In an exhibition where virtually all the works are figurative (essentially painting and sculpture, there is little photography and no video), the lesser pieces risk becoming mere illustration or falling into the didactic. Bombay artist Jitish Kallat wavers between social commentary and kitsch: a giant statue of a child street vendor bearing books makes a bland statement; more interesting is his double text piece that reads from one direction as the promotion of mobile phone calls for "just one rupee" a day, from the other as the story of a schoolgirl who commits suicide because her mother is too poor to afford one rupee for lunch, but the effect is weakened by the unnecessary giant rupee coin that stands in front. And there are times when love for the spectacular simply comes undone. Huma Mullj's Her Suburban Dream, a stuffed cow trapped in a concrete sewer pipe, slides into the ridiculous: has India's sacred cow been caught up by galloping urbanisation or, you can't help but wonder, has it simply died from poor taste?

Despite Saatchi's taste for colour and kitsch, it is the bleaker, disquieting side that pervades: the lot of the worker in the dynamic new China or new India is not a happy one: Zhang Dali's suspended upside-down figures were cast from mouldings of Chinese workers who had immigrated from rural areas to the new megalopolises; Taller L N's blackened hospital bed, whose pile of heaving black mattresses breathe uneasily in and out.

For several of the female artists, gender and the position of women is an issue. Like Everyday, Shadi Ghadirian's photo series of veiled women follows all the conventions of art photography or portraiture but the faces are replaced by household objects of the domestic housewife: grater, a broom, a rubber glove. Chitra Ganesh's amusing comic strip series Tales of Amnesia reverses the Indian hero roles of Bollywood and transposes them into a sort of Indian Superwoman.

However, it is the less flashy, more ambiguous works that are the most powerful. Reena Saini Kallot touches on religious identity in a double portrait. The woman in white is Hindi, the man in a turban a Muslim, but their mouths are covered by the map of Kashmir and the museum-style cases of what look like bones turn out to be knives and daggers. Minimalism meets politics in Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc, a floor map of Beirut and its different sectors on black tyre rubber. Perhaps the most exciting work for me is the powerful piece by young Palestian artist Wafa Hourani, which occupies a whole, small, dimly lit room. Qalandia 2067 is an elaborate maquette of the military checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the year 2067, its name a reference to the 100th anniversary of the Six Days War. What at first appears to be an anarchic model of cardboard and wires, toy cars and bits of string is a reflection on the evolving relationship between Israel and Palestine. Is it the normalisation of war or is it quietly optimistic, as a military border post becomes a tourist attraction and as café chairs and tables replace soldiers for the viewpoint?

We've seen Saatchi go through American minimalism and post-Pop with his first collection, the YBAs after that, and he's currently working his way through new German and new British artists in London. Will Asia and the Middle East prove to be just another temporary passion? In any case, many of these works speak to issues of today - identity, gender, the chaotic urbanisation and change of rapid globalisation. As often with Saatchi, one is torn between admiration for the collector and doubt as to some of the choices - but that is also the fascination of the private collection rather than public institution - and although this show cannot do more than give a tiny glimpse of the art emerging from Asia and the Middle East, it does give a sense of the vitality and engagement of the art being produced in these countries.

The Silk Road, Tri-Postal, Lille, is on until January 16.