ST. PETERSBURG — A pair of rounded, jet black statues ringed with barbs stand at the entrance to the Museum of Fine Art's new exhibition of young Chinese artists, a riff on traditional guardian lions in a corporatized 21st century setting.
On one wall, there's a series of photographs showing dilapidated apartment towers built into the sides of hills, a giant superimposed panda bear sits atop one of the housing projects, a mournful-looking brown monkey crouches in the middle of another – monster-sized images of a natural world displaced in a chaotic, urbanized culture.
An almost silent black-and-white film flashes bleak animated images of crows clinging to black telephone wires and giant mosquitos latched onto a globe next to faceless businessmen in top hats.
Almost none of this hits on western expectations of Chinese culture or art — multicolored dragons, serene landscapes or communist propaganda cartoons depicting healthy, smiling people.
“We have this stereotype of the Chinese just kind of being in lockstep and that they don't really have any political satire, that they've been brainwashed to the point where all they care about is material things. That's the way I think corporations want us to see them,” said St. Petersburg resident Rufina Cappellini.
Cappellini spent more than an hour transfixed by films of political satire and multimedia pastiche of global commercial culture where beer labels are pasted on top of historic landscapes.
Saturday marked the opening of “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists,” a two-part exhibition spanning both sides of Tampa Bay at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Art and the Tampa Museum of Art.
The photos, paintings, videos and mixed-media represent 27 young Chinese artists in a country where two-thirds of the population is younger than 35.
Their works will be on display through Sept. 28.
Wednesday marked the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a violent government suppression of student protest in Beijing.
The works at the Museum of Fine Arts, which focus on political and environmental themes, hint at this recent history.
But the freedom to express these critical sentiments also shows an openness that a western audience might find surprising.
“Since the Cultural Revolution back then, all that was banned and you'd only see healthy young people with strong teeth depicted and so on,” said Lise Matievich, who toured Beijing before the massacre in the 1980s.
“But now, evidentially, it's more OK. The younger generation is asserting itself.”
That freedom of expression still extends only so far, as in sidestepping direct critique of those in power, and artists like Zhao Zhao that have gone too far have faced government harassment.
His “Constellation” series includes a giant mirror and glass window, both cracked and riddled with bullet holes shot up with a pistol — which, the museum notes, is very difficult to obtain in China.
“It takes you off guard,” Matievich said of the exhibition.