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The water's unreal 

Art Center screens film about art in China, which is hot, hot, hot


The average American’s interaction with China is often limited to the consumption of egg rolls and mass-produced goods. The world’s most populous country is in the midst of an economic, cultural, and artistic boom—they don’t like the term “revolution” as it implies too sudden a change—and the fusion of communist red and capitalist green will have long-reaching effects the world over. Los Angeles based filmmaker and teacher Robert Adanto explored this non-revolution through the perspective of a demographic that has already experienced the financial rewards offered by this new China—its artists.

The SLO Art Center is screening this film, The Rising Tide, on Sept. 21. Adanto didn’t set out to make a film about China; he started with the concept of globalization, but that led him directly to the land of cheap goods and labor. The filmmaker began research for the film, which he completed in February of 2008, in July of 2005. Before spending 22 days filming in China, he conducted preliminary interviews in New York. What he discovered was a complex story changing more rapidly than it could ever be told, in a country of paradox.

“The most important relationship in the 21st century will be the United States and the People’s Republic of China,” explained Adanto. “More and more schools are switching to Mandarin. The Chinese are here. They’re here to stay. This is going to be the Chinese century. It’s the beginning of the end of American dominance.”

Briefly, the major changes began with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Under his regime, people’s lives were structured; their every decision and action were dictated by Mao and the communist party. His absence would leave many people morally anchorless, and open the gates for a new China filled with trade and the pursuit of cash. With the previously taut reins of censorship slackening over time, Chinese artists have become wildly popular internationally over the past decade. Sotheby’s sells their work; they travel; they are the financial and intellectual elite. The artists that Adanto portrays in his films are worlds apart from the starving artists of Bohemian Paris.

When Adanto first set out to document the metamorphosis of Chinese art, he intended to interview poets. But once he had found them, he became concerned that they would not have as powerful a visual impact as artists working with video and photography. With an MFA in acting and a background in drama, it was important to Adanto that his film be visually compelling while telling the story of China’s meteoric rise to power.

Adanto encountered work by Wang Qinsong, a photographer who re-interprets classical Chinese art within the context of contemporary trends. From there, Adanto found an entire generation of artists working frantically to document, and sometimes comment upon, their new world. Most of them had been classically trained painters who switched mediums in an effort to keep pace with the change. He studied them thoroughly, read every interview they had given in preparation for his own interviews with the artists. He started by contacting them online and establishing a relationship, discussing their specific pieces.

“No artist is going to give me their work to use in my film unless I give them the respect of knowing their work,” he explained this approach. “China’s a very different type of place. There’s a certain way you have to go about things. I think [the artists] respected my approach. One of them said ‘I can’t believe a westerner wants to tell this story.’”

Beside Qinsong, artists featured in the film include Chen Qiulin who documents performance art pieces including one in which she applies make-up in front of a mirror while men in business suits hurl whipped cream at her. Her work juxtaposes tradition and modernity staged against the background of urban cityscapes. Cao Fei works with documentary films, experimental theater, conceptual photography, and performance art. Where some artists swept up in the tide express uncertainty or outright uneasiness about the changing culture, Fei eagerly embraces this new world, which she characterizes as surrealistic.

O Zhang is primarily a photographer, though she also works with film and paint. Her photography works include a provocative series titled “Daddy and I” posing American fathers with their adopted Chinese daughters. The power structure between the two figures in the photographs is not unlike that between China and the United States; as the girls grow the power shifts, usually uncomfortably for the person in power. There are others too. Xu Zhen exhibits 186 cm of ice—his height—that he removed from the top of Mt. Everest. Song Tao and Ji Weiyu, known collectively as Birdhead, take photographs of everyday life in Shanghai. And Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, provides a political and economic backdrop for the artists.

DIVE IN:  The SLO Art Center will screen Robert Adanto’s The Rising Tide on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. The cost to attend is $5 for Art Center members and $7 for non-members. The Art Center is located at 1010 Broad Street. For more information visit or
  • DIVE IN: The SLO Art Center will screen Robert Adanto’s The Rising Tide on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. The cost to attend is $5 for Art Center members and $7 for non-members. The Art Center is located at 1010 Broad Street. For more information visit or
All of this makes for a vibrant whirlwind of a film, which will likely leave the viewer salivating for more art, but also somewhat uneasy about the inexorably shifting power dynamic.

“China’s economic growth is effecting the world in ways that we remain blind to,” said Adanto. “They came out of the recession first. They want the same things that Americans want.” Whether the world’s environment can sustain the entire population of China enmeshed in its own version of American of suburbia is a huge dilemma. Of course, it’s a dilemma of our own creation. And Adanto has a scarier question still.

“What is 1.3 billion people going to look like when they’re all driving?

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has a taste, but wants more. Send samples of faraway art to


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