A steamy sampling of Chinese art

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Once categorized as a "melting pot", the United States has in recent years seen the rise of a competing analogy: "the salad bowl", a mix of ingredients and toppings that don't so much as melt together as mix for a blend of distinct flavors.

A new exhibition in Vermont attempts to demonstrate the same principle, as applied to a particularly Chinese parallel: the communal hot pot.

For more than a millennium, Chinese have gathered around the pot of broth which cooks meat, vegetables and other ingredients - no dish exactly the same.

Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art, running through June 23 at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, showcases 20 notable contemporary artists including Zhang Dali, Cui Xiuwen, Li Hong-bo, Lin Tianmiao, Hai Bo and Huang Yan.

Like the traditional dish, the exhibition attempts to showcase a range of elements that in this case includes painting, photography, video, metalwork and sculpture from across China's contemporary art scene.

"In a hot pot you might throw in chicken and snow peas and a little bit of everything, but you will still get the crunch of this vegetable and the tenderness of that meat - with a beautifully melded broth," says the museum's chief curator Mara Williams. "A hot pot in Chongqing will vary from a hot pot in Beijing, and this is only one hot pot, with a multitudinous gathering of spices and herbs.

"At BMAC we have always tried to produce shows and programs that explore the biggest ideas and art of our time. China is a huge idea of our time, one that impacts us as a country and as individuals in interesting ways. Artists in China have an awful lot to say about our world, their world and the global world."

The variety of Chinese artists included in the exhibition makes it particularly noteworthy, says Eli Klein, proprietor of a gallery in New York which specializes in Chinese contemporary art. Klein assisted in coordinating logistics with many of the artists on display.

"There aren't too many places in the US where you can walk into a museum or gallery and get such a wide-ranging idea or feeling of the contemporary Chinese art scene, and (BMAC) has been able to achieve that with this exhibition," Klein says.

"This particular collection of artists as a whole encompasses a large part of what Chinese contemporary art is about today, with a wide range of very high-quality artwork."

The exhibition addresses three central themes: image and identity, the environment and politics, and the reinterpretation of traditional Chinese art forms.

Liu Bolin, whose works appear in a companion exhibition at the museum titled The Invisible Man, explores political and environmental issues in oblique and subtle ways.

Liu has previously painted himself in a backdrop of the Yellow River, which has in recent years been deeply polluted by industrialization.

Fourteen of his works are on display at BMAC; Klein also assisted in coordinating that exhibition.

BMAC's interactive Ticket Gallery will feature a hands-on installation in which visitors will be able to camouflage themselves into various backgrounds.

Hot Pot also showcases various artists who reinterpret and reference work that has come before, in a tradition that is integral to Chinese culture.

Although many of the artists currently at BMAC are household names in China, they are virtually unknown in the Western market.

"In the US audiences are definitely under-educated," Klein says. "I think most people don't have any conception of Chinese art, which is understandable.

"China's far away, and it's a relatively new scene. But I think it's inevitable that the understanding of Chinese contemporary art will continue to proliferate through the US."

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