There is extraordinary design work being done in China, but it gets lost in the claustrophobic mess that is Portland Art Museum's China Design Now. This show—which originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, traveled to Cincinnati, and is ending its run in Portland—aims to showcase Chinese design in three key cities: Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. But in its rush to overwhelm the viewer in a multimedia mishmash of more than 100 designers, at every turn the exhibition propagates the worst stereotypes of Chinese Communism: authoritarian rule, overpopulation and the marginalization of the individual.
Things start out promisingly enough. Through the museum's main entrance you glimpse, beyond red-tinted glass doors, the exhibition's title spelled out in neon Chinese characters. The graphic simplicity of this greeting is swallowed up by the red-walled antechamber to the show, in which dozens upon dozens of black-and-white photos of Chinese designers are strung up from the ceiling like so many political prisoners. This motif—multitudes of creative thinkers whose colors and identities have been blanched out and overwhelmed by the red of the state flag—leads into an exhibition space jam-packed with posters hung too close together, Unme dolls, jackets and dresses and tennis shoes, architectural maquettes, and computers with Chinese websites on the browsers. There's a horrifically garish bar and barstool ensemble by a trio of Shanghai designers, a 2003 art-house film by Han Jiaying, and an entire stairwell wallpapered with magazine covers. Hell, there's everything except the torch from the Beijing Olympics. Oh, sorry, there's that, too.
The element that puts the whole enterprise over the top (which is saying something) is the promotional video extolling Terminal Three of the Beijing International Airport. With its glacially dispassionate narration by a British voice-over actress, the video transports you to the World's Fair pavilion from hell, or to some quasi-futuristic spaceport from Gattaca or Minority Report. This misguided, "more-is-more" approach appears to be the fault of local faves Ziba Design, which oversaw the layout and clearly strayed from the elegance that is the hallmark of its projects.
What is lost in this horrific melee is the truism that design, no matter how far-flung its reach, is predicated on one individual's response to one product. A designer who understands that is Lin Jin, whose immaculate tea set is nearly lost in all the fuss. The work's biomorphic forms and swanlike cream pitcher engage not only your eyes and mind, but your mind's hand as well. Looking at it, you feel yourself grasping, embracing its curves; you imagine it performing its task with utility and grace. The designer's concept for the piece is posted alongside: "I was imagining myself as the tea flowing inside the pot." Ah. If only there were more moments of such quietude, poetry and insight in this exhausting exercise in PR bluster.
China Design Now at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Closes Jan. 17.