Articles and Essays on Chinese Contemporary Art

Revolving Stage_New Contemporary Art from China Print
Sunday, 21 April 2013
Revolving Stage_New Contemporary Art from China

Multiplicity of Chinese Art

Lee Sun-young

Chen Wei, Waiting a bird to wake up, 2011, mixed media, dimension variable

These two exhibitions dismantle this fixed impression of Chinese contemporary art. In these exhibitions, China still remains as an unidentifiable country. However, these exhibitions also prove the potential of China as a country that can flexibly supply products for any kind of demand. The artworks in these exhibitions represent ideas ranging from extremely delicate and aesthetic dimensions to a self-consciousness about the violent history of imposed changes. Also these artworks reflect, on a microscopic as well as macroscopic level, the on-going changes in China that made it one of the two giants along with United States, after the fall of other socialist states. By looking at Chinese modern art from various angles, the exhibitions let us know that the artist is the most convincing witness of this age.
By, or against their own will, artists, who have to be the most individual beings, have hypersensitively responded toward totalitarian culture. After the new China was established in the mid 20th century, there was a history of violence and oppression on the other side of the dazzling growth, as it became a rival to Western capitalism. A system that opposes an imaginary or real enemy, needs to strongly crackdown on domestic opposition in order to seize hegemonic control from the external opposition. Whether the state has a credible cause like revolution or for the purposes of enlightenment with a bright vision, an argument based against the opposition is a similar idea to making the enemy into the opposition. In the midst of the conflict with capitalism, Chinese socialism became a capitalist system not be led by the economy but by the state. At here the nation monopolize the capital and even the violence. Not just the reform policy of the Chinese government, but also its role as the world’s workshop in the global market has brought tremendous upheaval to both domestic and foreign policy, revealing the contradiction of capital as being the same as that of Western imperialism.

Beyond Contradiction of Modernity

Reflecting the spirit of the times, the artworks in these two exhibitions share subtleties with the modernization of Chinese society, as they are modern art. In this case, modernity has two faces that developed out of destruction. The equivocal form that not so much as capitalism or socialism has made them stood out both strength and weakness. The contradiction of capitalism like the gap between rich and poor in a classed society meets inefficiency, authoritarianism, and corruption, so social conflicts cannot be hidden but are instead used to create violent effects. Good examples of this can be seen in the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square Massacre. The anxiety and the fear of the change that appears frequently in Chinese modern art reflects the history of the one party system that has tried to conceal the actual violence it has perpetrated as well as the history of coercion suffered by many people. But this severe contradiction in Chinese society and the conflict it enacts prompts artists as the others of society and has therefore, paradoxically, become a fertile ground of content for art making. So, from the diverse possibility of art making itself, which has antagonized and acted against the system, we can identify the capability of the Chinaese people and its true identities.
The Chinese contemporary video works shown in Revolving Stage, at Arario Gallery, are the proper medium to capture the accelerated flow of the time in the Modern era. Yet the exhibition’s title Revolving Stage and the repetitive character of video art change the stairway step-like linearity into a place of eternal recurrences. These works must have been started with an aim towards liberation, but ultimately became a place not only for the contradiction of enlightenment that the oppressing propaganda art illuminated, but also the retrogression towards commercial trends that intensified after their first appearance in the 1990s. Sun Xun’s work, seen immediately upon entering the first floor, is a video made by the woodblock print, which was a long tradition and also modified and adopted for a right use during the Cultural Revolution. With unique strong lines and contrast of the colors of the woodblock prints, leaping between the cuts, is so rough as an animation that we may feel seasick at the drastic changes in the portrayed history. With the strong contrast of black and white and the intensity of sudden changes, the video shows a distance from the water-stream-like natural time flow. As well, in the work of Wang Jianwei, placed at the entrance of the second floor, there is a feeling of chaos on the stage of history. Each of the main characters in this video occupy uproarious stages, in a market fair, wearing traditional, modern and contemporary costumes. In the last part, they all mixed together on one stage. The ideology of the modern paradigm, like progress or development, cannot make things of past disappear completely. The staged scenes the artist directed were already a spectacle, yet he later modified these in the editing to create an even greater sense of chaos and vibrancy, in order to show these mixed realities coexisting.
Wu Junyong’s animation, which depicts nine round moons floating in space, is made from ink-and-wash paintings, and was inspired by a line from a poem about the Buddhist utopia in Sung dynasty. Compared to the long history of China, the modern concept of utopia is blind and imposed as the most severe of changes, which this work compares by decentering it with multiple loci. Another artist Wang Gongxin records the changing process of pigments sprayed on body parts. What is aesthetically appealing here is the interaction between the body as a living organism combined with the refined inorganic substance. It is reminiscent of death as the fragmented body assumes the shape of the inorganic substance. The video repeats a time flow that shows the relationship of death to living on a microscopic dimension. On a screen, slow and calm like an art film, with an unclear narrative, Jiang Pengyi’s work suggests a different pattern of life that tends not to cross the law of nature. It is a return to the value, which was there in each and every bit of tradition, but has been forgotten by due to the abusive qualities of modernization, so Pengyi’s return itself is consistent with modern media, which can handle picturesque scenery or a nature show effectively. The change has been always there, but in the modern era the uncertainty of it has risen as expectation rather than experience, in other words the portion of future is rapidly grown than the past. (Reinhart Koselleck) The uncertainty of the modern era does not originated from chaos but from systematization. Systems, regardless of left or right, or even more when the two oppose each other, operates more as unified force. Here it is clear the new media artists of China are responding to this hostile force.

Wang Jianwei, Gaze, 2009, single channel video, 13min 25sec

Art, Reflection of Uncertainty

The artworks in New Contemporary Art from China show the intense wave of change to Chinese society are not a variable any more, but a constant. These changes, like them or not, right or wrong, have become a standing condition of living, so people just have learned how to live with them. Another characteristic of our time, is that the present is regarded as a transition period. Contemporary artists mix the uncertainty derived from the system with the internal workings of art making. The impact is internalized which then reverberates through varied formal devices. Upon entering the exhibition, Li Hui’s laser installation is just inside, with its red lights pouring into the space, symbolizing the dynamic changes in China. The numerous sacrifices made by the Chinese people that created dark shadows upon Chinese modern history, are reflected the flow of the red lights, which then are reminiscent of both energy and death. This cosmic human epic is also the subject of Miao Xiaochun’s animation. Miao expresses the multiple timelines coexisting in modern China, by using the icons of the Western art history. While the circle of time repeats, its cycles leads us to an unknown world, yet in Miao’s work he revives human history in a compressed form by showing the endless creation and extinction in the context of Chinese history. On Wang Wei’s shining propaganda pavilion, largely occupying the width of the room, he has grafted the past onto the present of China. Both physical and psychological, Wang’s structure obstinately takes up space in the present, but eventually it too will fail the test of time. Wang’s mixed monument of traditional architecture and political propaganda is a paradoxical historic monument that paradoxixally betrays the very thing that it memorializes.
The work of Xu Bing looks like vintage calligraphy, but is made up of signs that cannot be read. Xu seems to follow a traditional style, but there is a contemporary aesthetic in his piece that puts signified and signifier in parentheses, while experimenting with the structural elements of language. In this formulation the structure generates the meaning. In contrast, Yuan Yuan arranged sparkling youths as though they just stepped out of a fashion magazine into a bubble shaped structure. The structure itself is similar to a space where merchandize is arranged. At a glance, the colorful consumer society brought about by the open economic reforms seems far away from the dreary authoritarianism of the past, but is really equivalent in that consumer society is a voluntarily agreed upon totalitarianism. The sketches of daily life by Wen Ling have the light touch of a comicbook. Different from ordinary artists, Wen says often he indulges in publishing comic books, Internet community and social media, which can be an entry point for the capitalist consumption, but also a powerful influence in transforming a closed authoritarian society. The media Wen indulges in have potentials to disperse power from the party and the nation to citizens and society. In Song Yige’s painting the modern ego is shown as having the frailty of the naked life on a flat background which is a space of confinement or fear. The bird or angel, which Chen Wei installed in a dark space can neither step on the ground nor fly up to the sky, but instead merely floats. Maybe it has been hanging there for a long time in between the lucent spiritual world and the material world’s gravity. This omnipotent being who could once cross many universes, now elegiacally looks down at the one-dimensional world, which is buried under materiality, the only value.


Main Problems of the Chinese Contemporary Art
Source:Art Focus Author:Du Xiyun Date: 2008-06-05 Size:
Since the end of the 1970s, Chinese contemporary art has always been entangled with the western art.

Robert Rauschenberg Works

Since the end of the 1970s, Chinese contemporary art has always been entangled with the western art. In fact, this entanglement started when China began to modernize under the western influence. In this condition, the intellectuals’ attitude towards the local culture swings back and forth between conceit and inferiority, similarly, the attitude towards western changes between admiration and resistance. During the Fine Art New Tide in 1985 when China began to be open to the world after the culture shortage, Chinese people were eager to cure the “disease” with the help of western culture. Therefore, it is evident that Chinese contemporary culture followed the western as an example. Here is a case in point. After the Robert Rauschenberg Exhibition hold in China, many followers appear in China. Though this kind of imitation is immature; it is still an indispensable step in the growth of the Chinese contemporary art. In addition, faced with various western cultural resources, Chinese contemporary artists chose to imitate. The imitation with individual and local experience indicates that the imitation is based on the demand of the local culture. Meanwhile, it is undeniable that there are accidental and blind imitations. Just as what Shang Yang told to me, “Someone came across an idea in a book and felt greatly inspired to practice it and make speeches according to it, thus, others followed and imitate him to create a theory in China. There is a phenomenon from 1980’s to now.” “Actually, it is accidental. If the book is not picked up or translated, it is impossible for the idea in it to develop in China. For instance, a large number of people follow the style of Freud Lucian. What’s more, a common painter, was the most popular one in China and had a great influence on the Chinese art. It is ridiculous.”

In the entanglement of imitation and alienation, as well as admiration and resistance, Chinese contemporary art in 1990s saw the post-colonialism market. Then, a sharp and serious problem arose: which way we should choose to go, returning to the local culture and facing the rigid ideology, strict control and sluggish market, or producing paintings in large quantities to meet the demand of the western post-colonialism. The Chinese overseas artists, on one hand, had no choice but to accept the inferior situation, on the other hand, they tried hard to take advantage of the cultural background and resolve the problem in the perspective of the local culture and on the basis of the local resources (Huang Yangli defined this way as Using Eastern Culture to Win Western Culture). Chinese contemporary art distinguished itself rapidly and degraded itself ideologically so that it is far from resolving the problems of the local culture. Its pioneering quality is fading gradually. At present, indulging in culture thievery is evident and serious. The reason why people feel puzzled about the definition and orientation of art lies in the value of the artists.

Since 2005, a large amount of capital was put into the Chinese contemporary art market. The Chinese contemporary art, once a borderline category, became popular so rapidly that the old artists who are busy to summarize the victory still have doubts and puzzles. First, we have to admit that the Chinese contemporary artists are pride of self-control. The fact that Chinese contemporary art can draw so much attention is closely related to the economic and political development of China. Second, the sudden prosperity of the Chinese contemporary art market has something to do with the non-academic tendency, such as the current financial policy. Third, the price of the contemporary works is soaring. However, the art value is not table. Some people buy the works with the intention of seeking profit by short-term investment instead of collecting. The buyers use a series of propaganda activities to increase the price and then sell them. Nobody wants to be the final owner of the works of the highest price. Because they will lose every cent they invested if the market collapses. Finally, with the increasing of the price, artists become more and more confident. And the western culture which was the model is ignored and despised. Actually, there is no direct relation between the academic value and the market value. If artists can gain confidence because of the price increase, they also can lose it because of the price decrease. It is the truth that the works with the highest price were the ones with a strong sense of post-colonialism created in 1990s. The value of the mainstream of the Chinese contemporary art is not high.

Generally, it is self evident that academic value is more important than market value. Capital investment in the Chinese contemporary art market has its advantages. In the current situation of China, it can help the Chinese contemporary art to free from the authoritative ideology. With the capital assistant, the Chinese contemporary art with the foundations and galleries can gain its academic value. But the current situation is worrisome, because the Chinese contemporary art is entangled with profit. The different categorization is originated from the problem of the independence of the Chinese contemporary art which is the main problem that artists face. Faced with the temptation of fame, many people can not stick to his belief. However, it is the serious problems of the local environment that the Chinese contemporary artists should face. Artists shouldn’t do some vulgar things in the name of contemporary art.

China’s Artistic Diaspora

For sixty years, upheavals in Chinese politics have not only remade the country’s economy–they have remade Chinese art

  • By Christina Larson
  •, May 02, 2008, Subscribe

Secret Palace

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky(1987-1991), hand printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type using false Chinese characters, dimensions variable, installation view at “Crossings,” National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1998). (Courtesy Xu Bing Studio)

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Xu Bing’s sunny art studio in Brooklyn, with spacious ceiling-to-floor windows and reassuring domestic touches—including a purple plastic slide in one corner for his seven-year-old daughter—is worlds away from the desolate labor camp where he toiled as a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution. Yet, as the 52-year-old artist told me when I visited his studio earlier this year, the tensions and turmoil of recent Chinese history continue to fuel his artwork.

Like many artists and intellectuals of his generation, Xu left China shortly after the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. After moving to the United States in 1990, he began to explore the theme of “living between cultures,” as he puts it. One of his first stateside exhibits showcased his invention of something called “New English Calligraphy,” an elaborate system of writing that fuses the linguistic and visual conventions of Mandarin and English. In 1999, he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which firmly established his standing in the international art world.

Throughout history, periods of religious and political repression have provoked an exodus of creative and entrepreneurial talent from various countries—from 17th century Huguenots fleeing France (after the king revoked religious freedoms), to 20th century Russian writers evading the Kremlin, to Jewish intellectuals escaping Nazi Germany. Likewise, many prominent Chinese artists and intellectuals who came of age during the Cultural Revolution later left China to garner fame and fortune abroad. Artists such as Xu Bing constitute what Melissa Chiu, the Museum Director of the Asia Society in New York, refers to today as “the Chinese artistic diaspora.”

For sixty years, upheavals in Chinese politics have not only remade the country’s economy—they have remade Chinese art. During the Mao era, Soviet-inspired “socialist realism” was the only acceptable style in the strictly controlled authoritarian society. However, in 1979 Deng Xiaoping’s monumental economic reforms also paved the way for the emergence of contemporary Chinese art. Over the next decade, Chinese artists had much greater access to international news and scholarship, allowing them to take inspiration from a panoply of global art movements.

The 1980s saw the advent of Chinese versions—and subversions—of everything from Renaissance portraiture to Andy Warhol-esque pop art to Dada philosophy. In the city of Xiamen, for instance, painters burned their canvases after exhibitions to enact “creative destruction.” In this period, Xu became active in Beijing’s new bohemian art scene. As he told me, “Like someone who was starving, suddenly we feasted—we ate everything, at once, almost until we were sick. It was a very experimental time.”

After this period of relative openness, 1989 marked a turning point. Following the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, state-run museums imposed new restrictions on free speech and public art exhibitions. Subsequently, many avant-garde artists and curators left China to form new creative communities abroad, particularly in Sydney, Paris, and New York. In the United States and elsewhere, legislation in the wake of the massacre made it easier for Chinese citizens to obtain refugee status and work abroad.

But the fact of geographical separation did not constitute psychological detachment for most artists. In fact, something like the reverse occurred. While living overseas, many actually felt a heightened need to define and distill “essential Chinese identity” through their art. For a plurality of diaspora artists, “historical and cultural references to China are more overt in their work today than when [they] lived in Beijing,” observes the Asia Society’s Chiu.

In New York, a fifteen-minute drive from Xu Bing’s workspace is the studio of another prominent Chinese artist, Zhang Hongtu. Zhang moved to the United States in 1982, deeply disillusioned with the propagandist art of the Cultural Revolution. Initially he hoped that living abroad would allow him to “avoid mixing politics and art.” (“I wanted only to paint things because they were beautiful,” he told me, “not to have a message.”) However, the Tiananmen crackdown touched a nerve, and Zhang’s international reputation gave him a platform not available to artists inside China. During the 1990s, he completed a series of politically charged portraits of Chairman Mao—including a famous painting of Mao sporting Stalin’s mustache, and another in which Mao is depicted with Cubist multiple faces.

Today another era in contemporary Chinese art is beginning. After two decades in which artists primarily left China, the Middle Kingdom is starting to exert a greater gravitational pull. In recent years, Beijing has stopped enforcing some restrictions on public art displays, and a growing number of regional governments now see creative industries as potential economic engines. The government of Shanghai, for example, recently gave avante-garde artist Cai Guo-Qiang the opportunity to do something impossible in virtually any other major metropolis—to stage a massive pyrotechnics display on the downtown waterfront—for the purpose of impressing visitors to that year’s APEC summit.

International galleries, meanwhile, are now deliberately showcasing the work of more artists who reside inside China. In February, the Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery in Manhattan hosted an exhibit opening for Tu Hongtao, a 31-year-old painter from southwest China. When Tu explained his work to prospective collectors, he didn’t talk about politics, but instead about the cultural ramifications of how “China’s cities are growing so quickly.” (Pointing to one painting of a woman lying on a steel-frame bed in a vast snowy landscape, he said, “I try to understand how we can find ourselves inside the city, and outside the city.”) The gallery’s director, Ludovic Bois, refers to younger Chinese artists interpreting the country’s current social and economic upheavals as members of the “cartoon and chaos generation.”

Indeed, the exhilarating pace of cultural combustion in modern China is even luring some diaspora artists back home. In January, Xu Bing accepted a post as a vice president of his alma mater, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Although he will still maintain a studio in New York, he says he will now spend the majority of his time in China. Reflecting on his time abroad he told me, “I’ve been able to do things outside China that I couldn’t have otherwise done,” but now it is time “to return to Chinese soil … that is where the energy is, where history is happening. There are so many multiple cultural layers—it is something really new.”

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China Perspectives

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Contemporary Chinese Art Under Deng Xiaoping

Emmanuel Lincot

Editor’s notes

Translated from the French original by Michael Black

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  • 1  This article is based on Emmanuel Lincot Culture, identité et réformes politiques : la peinture en (…)

1Studying contemporary art in China is not an exclusively aesthetic choice. In the context of an emerging market, art is as much a matter of cultural economy as of socio-politics. Thus art is not the product of an independent condition. In its imagination, as well as in its own diversity and its transformations, it encompasses and summarises the changes of a culture which is appropriating the schemes, images and notions inherited both from an age-old tradition and from the West (a West which is sometimes in close proximity, as in the case of Muslim Central Asia or Buddhist India). Artists reinterpret the original meaning in order to arrive at a proclamation of their own difference, which is usually held up as cultural nationalism. In order to understand the evolution of contemporary Chinese art, we will examine some salient facts of artistic life in the country, which was profoundly changed by the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. These changes have not stopped uniting or dividing the Chinese cultural scene in its relations with a government engaged in a constant search for legitimacy, the guarantor of order, and of an orthodoxy which has been shaken by the economic opening up of the country and by globalisation 1.

  • 2  Cf. Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China (1949-1979), Berkeley (…)

2Art in China since 1979 and the first reforms, is a space where two major aspects of Chinese history at the end of the twentieth century intersect, under the two-fold aegis of political orthodoxy and of a multifarious culture (duoyuan wenhua), which oscillates constantly between the endogenous and the exogenous, between native traditions and imported cultural practices, while calling into question the aesthetic criteria of what is called the socialist-realist period 2. This enormous and tumultuous mixing, often linked to acute political crises, lies at the source of a huge iconography which exercises its power over successive generations, and reveals itself as the arena of intense rivalries where the most diverse temporalities clash. One cannot understand, in hindsight, either the emergence of a political and reactionary pop art (the critique of mass consumption, the ironic and playful extolling of Maoism…) or the popularity of kitsch, without taking into account the irresistible infatuation, in China, with enchantment (qiguan), the post-revolutionary sentimentality. This is, by definition, one of the most anecdotal aspects, and thus the most dated, of a period marked by a sudden acceleration of history. An art of transition, kitsch in its Chinese version, marks the beginning of a concensus established between the government and public opinion about the value of money. Thus art, which was essentially, in China, that of painting and calligraphy, has become a plural phenomenon: there is not art, but arts.

The impact of the exhibition “China/Avant-garde”

  • 3  Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.

3The first national and avant-gardist retrospective, China/Avant-garde (Zhongguo xiandai yishu zhan), which took place at the Peking Palace of Fine Arts in 1989 3, constituted a precursory event. The artistic community, on the eve of the repression of the Tian’anmen movement, gave meaning, its own meaning, to ten years placed under the sign of a self-proclaimed avant-gardism, which the successor generation was to recognise only in order to distance itself from it more effectively, thus laying claim to a total break from it and the gap between it and the traditional world of art, and in particular that of painting. The values of painting—linked to those of the scholar and the age-old myth of state culture—on which rest the framework of debate and political choice lead to the definition of new frontiers. While information—which was scattered from the 1980s onwards—and the transformation of Chinese society do not allow the historian to envisage, for the moment, an all-encompassing analysis, covering all the events which were part of the new languages of art, it does seem possible, however, to focus on the exhibitions and the new artistic professions which created the new face of a society seeking to legitimise both its Chinese identity and its contacts with the outside world.

Peking, 1989. China/Avant-garde (Nu U-Turn).


In Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, op. cit., p. 16

  • 4  On these artists, and the period concerned, a number of journals and books in Chinese are available (…)

41989 was the year of a failed revolution. It was also that of a successful aesthetic putsch, with the exhibition China/Avant-garde which opened on February 5th and brought together 293 paintings, sculptures and videos by 186 artists—among them Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yongping and Gu Wenda 4.

5The event was prepared for a long time, within the framework of so-called “modern Chinese art” (Dangdai yishu yantaohui) convention, whose principles were established in November of the previous year in Tunxi in the province of Anhui. This exhibition was the result of a collaboration between three art critics: Gao Minglu, Peng De, and Li Xianting. Gao Minglu, who now teaches in the United States, was the editor at the time of the magazine Meishu. Peng De, Vice-President of the Hubei Artists’ Research Institute, edited the most independent art magazine Meishu sichao, which was published in Wuhan until it was definitively censored from 1987 onwards. Li Xianting is attached to the Art Research Institute of Peking. Co-founder and editor of Zhongguo meishubao until his resignation in 1989, he remains one of the most influential critics in China.

6China/Avant-garde did not show the public any traditional Chinese painting (guohua, literally: national painting) or calligraphy. The exhibition expertly summed up the climate of tension which, for several years, had constantly divided the art scene. China/Avant-garde was the first national exhibition of experimental art (shiyan meishu). This is the name given to any exhibition which allows the works to produce their effect on their own, eliminating any rooting (of the work, of the criticism, of the institution) in a cult. China/Avant-garde was precisely a challenge placed in opposition to any form of cult. The event was marked by a performance by Tang Song and Xiao Lu: shots were fired at point-blank range on their installation, a telephone booth ironically entitled “duihua” (Dialogue). The organisers aimed, at those who were willing to see, tangible signs of the break between the moment of the exhibition and the public, using streamers stamped with the label “No U-Turn”.

7This mode of artistic expression was to become predominant during the following decade. The exhibition of experimental art goes against the repressive state (an expression equivalent to a pleonasm in the case of China, which has never been a liberal state). The clash between these two entities which are opposed in every way (an abstract organisation versus a concrete manifestation) could only be head-on. China/Avant-garde was censored. The event preceded the repression of the Tian’anmen Square demonstrators, which took place three months later.

  • 5  Cf. Kraus Richard Curt, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Ber (…)
  • 6  Francis A. Yates, L’Art de la mémoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.

8If we consider that an art as overwhelmingly cult-bound as painting—and its corollary, the veneration of an image which corresponds as much to that of the scholar as to the culture of which he is the guardian—was suddenly made available to all, one can understand that, in parallel with museum exhibition, the Chinese visual arts went into crisis (weiji). This crisis in art—and in particular in painting and calligraphy, which are considered, in China, to be at the summit of the hierarchy of aesthetic and social values 5—consisted in fact in the invention of it. Where before there had been no art in the strict meaning of the word, but an object of or for worship, from then on there was art, because a question had been asked about the gesture that founds it. Each exhibition of contemporary art reinvents art by asking again the question of art, of its boundaries, and, a novelty in China, of memorisation, or of what Francis A. Yates, in a completely different context, called the art of memory, emphasising the value and the anamnestic role of history 6. It took the transformation of an ancient religious art into an exhibition art, before the question of what was religious in it—its aura—could at last be asked.

Towards the disappearance of the old frameworks

9The exhibition, as place, as work, and as event, has since become a space for the transformation of the traditional categories in the domain of the visual arts. As happened in the United States and in Europe almost forty years ago, the frame, both literally and figuratively, is being shattered before our eyes, shaking up the elements of a visual language which, in the past, had assigned to the visual arts (calligraphy and painting) and to their supports (the guohua scroll, the stretcher for oil on canvas) their specificities in terms of domain: materials, hanging, places of exhibition, modalities of diffusion borrowed from Western practices. It is the work which, as is the artists’ wish, leads very directly to the questioning of its exhibition, and more generally questions the role of exhibition.

10In the wake of these upheavals and the profusion of experimentation, a growing number of artists abandoned the base, the frame and the scroll; the wall, the table (the conventional support for the Reading—nian—of a calligraphy or of a shanshui) were no longer pre-eminent for the presentation of works, and many of them now occupied the floor or the ceiling. The archetype of the museum, an inheritance from nineteenth century Europe and before that from the early curiosity rooms of the Renaissance, with its cultural and political implications, as well as in its very architectural configuration, was disputed; artists like Zhang Dali or Rong Rong turned to the ruins of the workers’ housing estates, the disused industrial sites, an urban space which had been disrupted and which itself simultaneously disrupted the choice of exhibition venues.

Rong Rong, photograph, untitled.


In Emmanuel Lincot, L’Invitation à la Chine, op. cit.

  • 7  China’s New Art, Post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, 1993.

11The exhibitions of experimental art in the People’s Republic were discovered by art professionals from the West, Taiwan or Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1990s. The success of the international exhibition China’s New Art, post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ 7, and the considerable attention attracted by the first participation of young Chinese artists in the 1993 Venice Biennale, as well as the publication of articles in Flash Art and The New York Times Magazine, explain the growing interest of the foreign media in the Chinese art scene, as well as the enormous prestige which artists acquired by becoming, sometimes against their will, the flag-bearers of their country.

12Exhibition venues diversified. They tended to oppose the persistent collusion between state interests and the members of the juries, which is rarely propitious to the development of original creation. After 1989, exhibitions retreated from the art galleries and the commercial spaces, sometimes to spaces in private houses or in diplomatic compounds. Beginning in 1993, the galleries affiliated to institutions, such as those of the Teacher Training College or the Central Fine Arts Academy, became major sites of experimental exhibition in Peking, mainly because of the open-mindedness shown by the directors of these establishments. These were not, however, isolated examples. Thus, Guo Shirui, director of the very official Contemporary Art Centre in Peking, began, in 1994, to organise a series of highly important artistic events. With time it became clear that these galleries and the art world in general were subject to the play of competition and to a strategy of modulable discourse which sought to transcend the constraints of government censorship and to seek public and private subsidy. This competition was at the source of the development of a contemporary art market which began with the first Canton Biennale (in October 1992). Then came Shanghai (1996), the stakes of which, on the world art scene, were upped by the French art critic Pierre Restany when he presided over the event four years later.

13At the heart of this decision-making process was the author, at one and the same time set designer, director, interpreter and creator of the exhibition, which was conceived as a work of art where the artist, the organiser and the public met; the events became a performance. The word recalls the variety of meanings, the differentiation and the multiple temporalisation of social phenomena. The performance and its objects refer us as much to the subject as to the venue, which is to be considered as a site where the work is made, is consulted, is even booed at, and never ceases to build and rebuild itself. The fact that the work and the exhibition were constantly evolving gave the organisers a variety of ways to circumvent the constraints of censorship, for example by transferring their exhibition from China to one or several foreign countries. It was in the microworld of the experimental exhibition that were developed the newest ideas and the most powerful images, which were less and less often those of painting. The government’s reluctance to facilitate these artistic events was all the more understandable in that they perturbed political arrangements and age-old cultural codes. Censorship or self-censorship leading to the cancellation of an event, constituted the symptomatic realities of a culture held in an ideological yoke which continued to exercise a fearsome constraint in the era of Deng Xiaoping.

14However the real revolution in Chinese contemporary art was to be found in its integration into the logic of the market, which the national economy as a whole was then tending to embrace. This evolution was accompanied by the emergence of new socio-political categories, centred on the individual and situated on the frontier between the professions of information, of art and of politics.

Ai Weiwei, Spider table.


In Emmanuel Lincot, Avant-gardes (Xianfeng yishu), op. cit.

An archetype of the communicating artist : Ai Weiwei

15A new profession appeared: that of critic-dealer or cultural mediator (in English “independent curator”; in Chinese “duli cezhanren”). The cultural mediator is a freelance professional who combines several functions. He is the obligatory intermediary between the Ministry of Culture, its éminences grises, the exhibition commissioner, the artists, the public, and the potential consumers. He “manufactures” opinion, describes current trends, travels, and negotiates between the parties concerned, in particular with the collector who, by means of his financial assets and social position—he is often a diplomat or an industrialist—spreads rumours, destroys reputations, drapes himself in the prestigious role of patron, of defender—on occasion—of human rights, of freedom of expression in a country where, it is true, society does not much appreciate independence or the right to be different.

16The major factor in this evolution of the art scene was the appearance of selective events, in the form of performances or of exhibitions in private spaces, which tended to vary their participants and their venues without it being necessary to obtain, in a systematic way, the permission of the authorities. As this trend developed, not without coming up against real reservations (sometimes on the part of the artists themselves who preferred, for career strategies, the exclusive recognition of official circles), the field of artistic experimentation broke up into very diverse groups (in the 1980s) and then into individuals (after 1989) on the edges of the system, which increased their dependence on critics, dealers, and on a range of opinion, which was no longer restricted to the conurbations of Peking and Shanghai. Willingly or not, they were integrated into a micro-society where imagination met the internationalist economy. Virtual processes like the Internet, and other communication media, sometimes had the effect of shifting the attention of the critics and of the public onto the identitarian and even the nationalistic specificity of both the work and its producer.

17There were many examples of brilliant artistic careers. These successes were undoubtedly linked to the utilisation of the new communication media, which the artists of the new generation ingeniously turned to their advantage. The most remarkable archetype of this new kind of artist was the Pekingese Ai Weiwei. Artist, dealer, gallery owner, collector, publisher, he embodied to an extent previously unequalled, the most diverse functions which correspond to the key axioms of art communication, then still in its infancy. His way of working and his libertarian attitude made him an artist of a new kind, on the frontiers between the art world, assumed poetic dissidence, commercial opportunism, and scholarly aristocracy. As the son of the poet Ai Qing, a supporter of the regime, his pedigree opened the doors to a broad social recognition. He chose to attend the Film Institute which reopened in 1979, having been closed because of the Cultural Revolution. But neither the cinema nor China could hold the young Ai Weiwei, and after joining the Xing Xing group, he opted for expatriation in New York. There, he attended the Parsons School of Design, traded in antiques for a living, and frequented both the museums and the underground, as well as one of his mentors, William Burroughs. His reference in art was and has remained Marcel Duchamp: a choice which is symptomatic of a generation which finds its marks not in a formalist debate, but rather in the distinction between the sphere of art and of aesthetics.

18In relation to this model, the journey of a work to its presumed consumer is no longer linear but forms a loop; in this it resembles a practice which existed in scholarly circles in the China of the old school. The scholar, as both man of action and man of letters, was a cultural mediator as well as an essential conveyor of the production and transmission of knowledge. For Ai Weiwei’s generation, however, which stands halfway between a claim to modernity and the disenchanted ideal of the scholar-peasant which Mao Zedong embodied in the iconoclastic and revolutionary mode, the path to follow is that of consumerism and, springing from this, of the inauthenticity of works of art and their reducibility to the level of language (whether that of advertising, of the classical, of the universal or the cryptic) becoming the driving force of a reality which needs to be reinterpreted. The artist broke new ground when he suggested to the collectors and dealers Hans Van Dick and Frank Uytterhaegen that they set up a foundation in Peking, The China Modern Art Foundation, of which he is now co-director. This venue exhibits his own works (paintings, installations and sculptures), and functions as a venture in social advancement, in keeping with the nature and ambition of artistic marketing on an international scale between Peking and New York.

The integration of Chinese art in the international market

  • 8  A number of exhibition catalogues have been published in the West which make it possible to become (…)

19The novelty in China was not the marketing of works of art—which is doubtless as old as the invention of collecting―but rather their integration in the international art market. The craze for contemporary Chinese art was in keeping with a media movement with strong exotic inclinations which first began in eastern Europe, before and especially just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which continues to this day. At first it was private initiatives, on the part of art lovers such as the Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, which attracted the attention of the media. Then various governments organised, with some difficulty, major retrospectives in Europe, in Australia, in the United States and in Japan. There were few galleries in China until the early 1990s—except for those established in Hong Kong. The reason for this was the endless harassment and administrative threats faced by the owners of these spaces (which were moreover much coveted by artists), most of whom were of foreign origin. These galleries, mostly situated in Peking and Shanghai, nevertheless had a considerable impact, for they set the prices of works of art for those who aspired to an international career 8.

20The critics often reported a perversion of the art school system and the increasing unease of the public, who assessed the works only in terms of the market speculation to which they were then subjected. This unease encouraged the authorities to adapt the art school system to the norms created by the market. Structural reforms as well as the overhaul of the training courses for students (including work experience in advertising agencies or abroad) opened up the art schools to new possibilities. The overhauling of the art schools in China (the merging of several academies, the creation of galleries with joint public and private funds), which came into effect only after the death of Deng Xiaoping, called fundamentally into question one of the canonical principles, once defined at Yan’an: art only in the service of the people.

21The deep unease felt by a large number of artists and intellectuals in China in the face of this upheaval, is better explained by the fact that the last twenty years produced an extraordinary confusion in people’s work and in their minds; the egalitarian and communist philosophies were succeeded by nationalistic and even xenophobic ideas of resistance to “spiritual pollution”. And yet Deng Xiaoping’s China was no longer, if indeed it had ever been, a cultural loner. It followed and accompanied globalisation, and, at the same time, offered resistance by the reinterpretation of a living tradition which was its own, while fundamentally calling into question the structures of the art world inherited from the Maoist period.

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1 This article is based on Emmanuel Lincot Culture, identité et réformes politiques : la peinture en République populaire de Chine (1979-1997), doctoral thesis in process of publication, University of Paris VII, 2003.
2 Cf. Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China (1949-1979), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994, and Ellen Jonston Laing, The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China, Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1988.
3 Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.
4 On these artists, and the period concerned, a number of journals and books in Chinese are available. We should mention in particular the book by Lu Peng and Yi Dan, Zhongguo xiandai yishu shi (1979-1989) (A History of Contemporary Chinese Art [1979-1989]), Changsha, Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1992. A journal offers a trilingual presentation (in French, Chinese and English) of these artists: Emmanuel Lincot, Avant-gardes (Xianfeng yishu), published with the assistance of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peking, 1997.
5 Cf. Kraus Richard Curt, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Berkeley, University of California, 1991; James Cahill, The Painter’s Practice. How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China, New York, Columbia University, 1994.
6 Francis A. Yates, L’Art de la mémoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.
7 China’s New Art, Post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, 1993.
8 A number of exhibition catalogues have been published in the West which make it possible to become more familiar with the work of some artists. In particular: Emmanuel Lincot, L’Invitation à la Chine (Biennale d’Issy-les-Moulineaux), Paris, Beaux-Arts, 1999 (one of the very first retrospectives of contemporary Chinese art in France); Marie-José Mondzain, Transparence, opacité ? 14 artistes contemporains chinois, Paris, Cercle d’art, 1999 (a remarkable reflection by a philosopher who specialises in the image); Jean-Marc Decrop and Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Modernités chinoises, Paris, Skira, 2003 (the collection of a Paris gallery owner with a commentary by an academic); Made by Chinese, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2001 (a practical inventory and biographies of major contemporary Chinese institutional artists); Paris / Pékin, Espace Cardin Asiart archive, Paris, 2002 (a superb inventory of the private collection of Baron Ullens).

Post Avant-garde: An Issue About the Stance of Chinese Contemporary Art

Posted on 2013/02/05 by admin

Wang Lin

The rapidly developing economy of China with its population of 1.3 billion has fueled not just economy , but also the growth of an important cultural industry, contemporary art Since the debut of Chinese artists on the international art stage in 1993 at the 45th Venice Biennale, Chinese participation has become a regular feature in all major international exhibitions.

However, in sharp contrast to the success of artists,Chinese curators,collectors,art media and art institutions are still not truly engaged with the international art system. On the occasions when they do get involved,they mostly play minor roles,or at worst serve as“spicing”for diversification. No matter how many international exhibitions have been held in China,and how many overseas artists invited,Chinese contemporary art remains primarily a target for western curators,collectors,art media and art institutions Something can be said about such kind of integration with the world:it benefits the opening up of Chinese culture and society, and provides opportunities for artists;however, other serious problems have risen:it encourages opportunism and fosters a type of post—colonial mentality. Furthermore,due to the restrictive selection of the cultural Other, and the institutionalized role of international exchange,this also obscures serious local cultural problems. With the establishment of the official China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale,the presence of Chinese contemporary art in the becomes increasingly the sounding board of official tome.

Under such a“conspiracy”,what Chinese contemporary art lacks is critical thinking,a thinking based on local context and indigenous issues. Without a freely critical thinking supported by academic knowledge,there is no way to precisely interpret and understand Chinese contemporary art. The collective muteness of Chinese critics leaves our art defenseless on the international stage.

In 1993 when Achille Bonito Oliva invited 14 Chinese contemporary artists to the Venice Biennale in the name of Wandering in Orient Land,I published one article titled Oliva Is No Saviour of Chinese Art. Why not? The reason is:Oliva’s selection did not reflect the real dilemma in the life of Chinese people. China’s main dilemma is the widening economic gap caused by the collusion of market economy and bureaucratic power, which has fundamentally shaken the traditionally accepted ideological premise of equality. Faced with the collapse of traditional values,what can China do to regain its footing? How should it revive its culture in this new age? This is a critical issue for contemporary Chinese art,and an issue shared by every nation regardless of historical cultural differences,whether East or West .

In today’s world,dominant modes of production still allow Capital to claim unfair majority of surplus value created by Labour. In China,such  capital is further strengthened by the power of institutionalized bureaucracy. In my understanding,the“cultural nomadism”promoted by Oliva is not a sort of cultural tourism taking pleasure in spectacles of nomadic shepherds grazing their herds along the streets of Paris or New York,but a sharing of artistic creations from various cultural backgrounds. We must realize that there is no ‘internationalization’ that can transcend regionalism. Even the Trans—avant-garde Movement promoted by Olivia himself originated from the regional art of Italy.Hence,Chinese artists only have a true presence,and significance as artists,when they return to current social and cultural problems in their own society.

Due to the volatile political system and the abnormal development of consumer culture in China today, the entire society is pervaded by commercialism and utilitarianism. In art this can be evidenced by artists‘ evasion of social issues,avoidance of historical memories,and lack of humanitarian concern for those abandoned by the current social system. Their concern is catering to the needs of domestic and overseas art markets and pandering to communication media. In fact,since the 1980s,there has been no fundamental change in the historical context of Chinese contemporary art .While we deal with modernist issues about individualism and formalism,and post modern theme of cultural identification, the pre-modern theme of enlightenment has still not been resolved. Under such circumstance,official recognition of contemporary art is more like a form of baiting,luring with personal benefits,with the aim of enticing avant-garde art to give up its critical stance.

A key problem here is the attack on Chinese avant-garde art by post-modern scholars as they wage war against modernism‘s universal principles. In fact,when post-modern scholars like Foucault or Lyotard reflected on the principle of equity of Enlightenment philosophy, they did not challenge the basis of modernity, namely, the primacy of individual freedom and a related legal system for establishing a sound society and new national culture. What they condemn is precisely the regressive absolutism in society, and the application of the power of knowledge,cultural industry and ideology to manipulate individual minds .The importance of China’s avant-garde art movement since the 1980s lies precisely in its persistent pursuit of individual values.

There are at least four reasons that justify the assertion of individual values: firstly,we can note the inherent difference of each individual,based on his physical and psychological make-up; secondly, the special personality and temperament resulting from individual experience;thirdly, factors natural and social that combine to make an infinite diversity of people;fourthly, different expectations and inclinations affecting every person’s growth and development.

The importance of art rests upon the foundation of individual values.

Regional diversity should always be accounted for in the discussion of individual consciousness and individual values. Cultural heritage also plays an important role. For this reason Chinese artists should not ignore indigenous roots for the sake of‘internationalization’,neither should they discard history for the sake of being ‘contemporary’. Regional characteristics are integral to individuality. Therefore,individuality,‘regionality’ and internationality should constitute the three different levels of discussion about contemporary art. ‘Regionality’ is the embodiment of internationality and a deepening of individuality.In this sense,our emphasis on individuality is not only a critique of collectivism within China,but also a critique of the international structure of collective power.For this reason the pursuit of individual values by Chinese avant-garde artists does not fundamentally change with the new context of post-modernism. However, today the ideals of avant-garde art a re facing challenges from two sides. On the one hand there is the seduction of fame and acceptance when entering the circuit of international art. On the other there is the similar seduction when it is accepted by the Chinese official cultural institution.

The novel situation facing contemporary art today is the increasing necessity for art to open up to social reality and mass culture,this means it is necessary for artists to depart from the modernist ideal of formal,individual pursuit,and emphasis instead the need for interaction,both with people and with society as a whole. Through interaction each artist brings forth their individuality and special character.Interactivity is not just a call for art to step outside its boundaries,but also a call to change its artistic character. This means artists must not look at themselves as omniscient cultural revolutionaries who enforce their wisdom on society. Instead,they must open up to other people and to society so as to experience social reality,history and existence,so that they may realize their own potentials and contribute to the history of contemporary culture. Contemporary art should not simply pay lip service to social reality, but must seek to expose all hidden impediments to spiritual growth as it engages the social world Comparing‘modern’art and. ‘contemporary’art: while both point toward the depth of social and spiritual experience, the only difference is the angle each takes;contemporary art aims to be open and interactive,rather than closed and solitary.

For artists, reflections on real life and popular culture should embody their engagements with and critique of social reality and history.  This constitutes the heterodoxy and heterogeneity(namely the avant-garde nature)of art. Contemporary art is not the self—righteous prophet described in Kandinsky’s Spiritual Triangle,who takes upon himself the mission of directing the spirit of the age. A contemporary artist is one who is immersed in social reality, yet maintains alertness against the alienating forces of totalitarianism,cultural industry and ideologically induced habits. His mission is to expose the methods of these alienating powers,and to critique accepted cultural methods so as to pave the way for new cultural practices .If the Hong Kong exhibition‘China’s New Art Post 1989’of1993 was a pioneering event in showing the achievements of new art since the 1980s New Wave Movement, which was then announced to the world through the platforms of Sao Paulo Biennial and Venice Biennial,then the most important things to look for today,10 more years later, are related but alternative post avant-garde artworks. By the‘post avant-garde’is not meant a difference in temporal period;it refers to a creativity that embodies a different creative consciousness and involving alternative artistic alligances. When the ‘post avant-garde’comes to maturity and is ready to display its achievements,that is the time when international exchange and historical manifestation are ready to unfold. On the one hand this will be an international exchange based on individual expressions of the Chinese situation;on the other hand it will be a manifestation of contemporary China through a fresh ‘historicism’.

Likewise for critics,if their ambition is independent artistic and critical insight,their mission would be the research and promotion of the‘post avant-garde’,an art that grows out of the historical situation of contemporary China. What should be done mainly are the followings:

1. For Whom Does History unfold

The global economy has brought about the globalization of consumer culture, and under the overwhelming dynamism of mass culture intellectuals can only but step aside to the fringe. This is not necessarily a bad thing for them, as it allows them to think and ponder the social, cultural, spiritual and individual ethical issues facing their time. They are made to history from within. History is the last stand that cannot be robbed from intellectuals. It is to them that falls the privilege of inspecting history and analyzing the root cause of things. It is to them that is given the opportunity to write history, preserve the memory of its experience as a nation and a people; then finally to create history and within the resigned determinism of current reality, to ponder the possibilities for humanity. Just as artists and art can only hope to seek solace in art history, the enquiries of intellectuals can only be historical; and because of this, these enquiries must be directed at present realities.

2. Living  Within Problems

We call the young art movement of the 1980’s ‘avant-garde’ because the participants identified themselves under this banner. They challenged the dominant official artistic tradition, and made their marks as pioneers of diversity in contemporary art. The ‘self’, as a heroic personality supported by the general principles of Enlightenment, was regarded as self-evident and true. But, into the 1990’s after Chinese society entered a market economy, we discovered that we are all living within problems; we are all part of the problems. So heroes turn into dwarfs, dwarfed by financial capital and privilege capital, and this is the sadness of intellectuals and avant-garde art. The problem is not just that we live within problems, but that we must reflect on ourselves before we can face these problems, especially reflections about the responsibilities and conscience of ourselves as ones who have benefited, and consider the relation of our existence to those still on the fringe of society, at the dredge and in the wilds. A true artist is one who would definitely defend awareness of the self, and not a selfish individualist desperate for gains.

3. Enquiry From an Alternative Position

Market economy, cultural industry, dominant ideology and their public media not only attempt to control our needs, they even try to control us by making us willingly want what they want. Individual rights and spiritual liberty is today more seriously challenged, in more intense and more complex ways, than any period since the Enlightenment. Chinese society has not stepped into a ‘post-industrial’ era with the arrival of global economy and information revolution, we are in fact caught within a cultural matrix of pre-modern era, problems about personality and formalism from the modern era and issues of cultural identity have not been resolved. Therefore Chinese contemporary art should not simply take at face value the looks of post-modern art, and get unduly excited about ideological cross-over and iconographic interpretation. Art must enquire from an alternative position: choosing to remain non-mainstream when culture is officially controlled, become an anarchist when the spirit is restricted, and stand for the negation of negation when life is alienated. Art’s enquiries should adopt an alternative way, an anarchistic and non-mainstream way, to confront raw life, cultural context and spiritual pursuit.

4. Difference Within Interaction

If we say the human spirit needs to constantly enrich, deepen and transcend, that it needs a rounded development, then we would have full reason to argue for cultural diversity. The principle of difference in contemporary art is built precisely upon such a basis. In contrast to the general principle of modernism, this does not imply negation; instead this is built upon the modern individual’s principle of liberated thinking that came about from the Enlightenment. Difference is not simply the distance between cultures; it is also the distance between social groups within the same culture. In a manner of speaking, the individual’s specificity is the result of crossing different social groups and diverse cultures. Therefore a person’s cultural identity is determined by his social group belonging and cultural belonging. What we call ‘individuality’ is the accident, and the possibility, of such belonging. There is no such thing as a pure individual, there is only a responsible individual within human relationships. Therefore the individual is always interactive, and his counterpart can either be other social groups or ethnic groups, or historical memory and cultural reality. Interactivity is the unavoidable outcome of difference, and this truth is evidence of the wisdom of dialectics: true specificity arises from the crossing of generality; true individuality comes out of the richness of specificity. Specificity, as the mediator of generality and individuality, is that which we most treasure in art.

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My Opinion on Contemporary Chinese painting

Posted on 2013/02/10 by admin

Li Xiaoshan

“Chinese painting already reached a dead end” has become the talk of the painting circle. However, people with such a view are by no means looking at the existing state of Chinese painting from this perspective. The truth is a little bit more complex than we can imagine. Contemporary Chinese painting has arrived at a crossroads where it is presented with these mutually opposing choices: crisis or new life; destruction or creation. Contemporary Chinese artists find themselves in frustration and anxiety as well as introspection and contemplation, which is a reflection of the characteristics of our historical development. It is toughest to be a Chinese painter now than in any other historical periods, as his creative talent is significantly stifled by objective pressure and subjective dissatisfaction. Indeed, for contemporary Chinese artists, it is a baptism to face up to the challenges of the times.

As one aspect of the feudal ideology,traditional Chinese painting is deeply rooted in an absolutely closed authoritarian society. According to the feudal cardinal guide of “the Invariable Heaven, and the Invariable Tao”, Chinese feudal society which lasted 2000 years demonstrated astonishing stability from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, which restrict the development of art as Ideology. Both from form and content, Chinese paintings maintained a balance with the social process from the formation, development to the decline and did not show any mutation or leap. The history of Chinese painting is actually a process of unceasingly perfection of formal artistic medium adopted to pursue the so called ‘artistic conception (yijing)’ on techniques, and one that is continuously narrowing down on artistic concepts and aesthetic experiences.

It is not difficult to understand that from early Chinese paintings(silk painting, fresco, relief stone sculpture)to later ones, the evolution of form in painting is to gradually phase out the kind of pure point, line, color, black way to mould, but gives these formal symbols with Abstract aesthetic mean. It is safe to say that the stronger the abstract aesthetic tastes emphasizing brush work of calligraphy is, the better it is to indicate the stricter rule in the form of Chinese painting. Following this, the apex of technical perfection therefore led to a sheer and rigid abstract form. Thus Chinese painters began to focus on painting techniques in pursuit of ‘artistic conception (yijing)’, which is the most conservative elements in later Chinese painting, rather than on exploration of artistic concepts.

Of course, the “stagnation” of traditional Chinese painting development is not simply a result of the conservative feudalism; the weakness of Chinese painting theory also stifled the practice of Chinese painting in a considerable extent. The ultimate meaning of Chinese painting theory is not how to guide the painting to observe and grasp the changing beauty of life by the roots, but empirical talk which is dominated by the national characteristics of “take methodology more seriously than theory” and collected on the foundation of large amount of painting practices. Among which some of the valuable and essential parts are often lost in numerous lengthy and repeated methodology. The “Six Codes” has actually become the highest standards of Chinese painting both in Aesthetic judgments and creative methods. (Although many ancient painters and theorists have made complements to this “Six Codes” after it was proposed by Xie He, but the theory was not largely modified by them). If painting theory does not provide dialectical epistemology to painting practices, and does not guide practices fundamentally to open up new aesthetic concepts but remain in the low-level emphasizing teacher-student relationship, and specific skills of painting, or proposes some vague ideas (sometimes may be classic too), it will not be helpful to provides guidance on painting practice to make continuous innovation. As you know, the history of development is a dialectical integration of succession and intermittence, gradual progress and revolution. When the social progressive accumulation reached the breaking point, brand new, epoch-making theory, namely the revelation and foresight made standing on the peak of intellectual and social development is needed to promote the rapid expansion and carrying out of social practices. However, the leading nature of theory is not only stifled by objective conditions, but also the tradition of theory itself. Under the historical condition of today, Chinese painting theory need to be fundamentally changed, rather than be revised or complemented.

So, we must discard the old theoretical system and cognition of the arts and pay more attention to emphasize conceptual issues in modern painting. Painting concept is a series of constructive factors dominating paintings: painter’s understanding of the subject, the approach to objects to represent with technology and how to constitute a unique “visual language” which is different from other sensory stimulation etc.

Changes in concept are the beginning of painting revolution. We must recognize and evaluate contemporary Chinese paintings according to this basic point. The new viewpoint of painting was not fabricated; it would for sure absorb from the outstanding traditional heritage. The so-called artistic heritage is certainly not a bunch of dead goods which lined up for people to pick and use whenever they need and mix them up randomly according to temporary needs. The outstanding heritage of Chinese painting refers to the spiritual essence which integrated space, time, and observer himself. On the point that painter project ideal and mood to the objects he painted as an observer, the practice of Chinese painting highly matches the modern scientific spirit( such as the relativity theory, principle of quantum theory, etc.). As the German physicist Heisenberg said: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to us through our method of questioning.” Indeed, it is just the superior oriental artistic spirit that modern Chinese painting needs to carry forward. By understanding this, no one shall misunderstand new painting concept to be abstract stereotype

So, which aspects of Chinese painting should we reform?We show our admiration to Fan Kuan and Zhu Da when we read the album of their paintings or in the museum, it shows at least two things: first, preconceived aesthetic concepts are controlling us when we appreciate pictures, second, these works are indeed able to arouse echo in our hearts both in aesthetic sentiments and forms. We are willing to acknowledge the greatness of ancients and insignificance of ourselves. It clearly revealed the fact that as long as we are infatuated with the ancient art forms and perceive Chinese painting with a traditional view, we will have no choice but to acknowledge that ancients are smarter than us and worship the ancient on our knees. So it can be seen that the primary task of reforming Chinese painting is to change our worship to the strict formal standards and break through the old fashioned formal restrictions.

The Chinese painting reached an end-stage of development in the age of painters such as Ren Bonian, Wu Changshuo and Huang Binhong.( there are already great heroes in figure, flower-and-bird and landscape painting) Although contemporary Chinese artists did not give up to continue the diligent work in the garden of Chinese painting, but they obtained little success. When we see a large number of talented artists are still defending the obviously outdated artistic concepts, and have indeed wasted so much energy in practice, the only thing we can do is to show our deep sorrow and sympathy; When we see some painters who consider themselves quintessence school painters above politics and worldly interests, especially some of the once famous old painters despising the reform movement of art, we believe that this is not lofty, but stupid and lazy. He who wants to be Don Quixote would make themselves the laughing-stock of the afterworld. Schiller said that the dangerous threat is the extreme vulgarness, while the most detestable vulgarness is loafing about and muddling along. The nature of art is to create continually, without it, art will become merely manual skills that make ends meet.

It should be admitted that the efforts of contemporary Chinese artists are not entirely in vain. They recognized that the traditional Chinese painting has been senile, and is trying to catch up with the times breathlessly and only could absorb some leavings of cultural heritage. Painters like Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are those who began their art career under the influence of trend of thought in the new era. They didn’t lift their voice to clamor the urgency of reform in art, yet they played the role of a link between past and future in practice. Their conception in painting was limited in the scope of traditional thought, but this did not obstruct their practice in exploring new aesthetic experiences. What promoted them to do so was the talented artistic insight and irresistible creative spirits of these artists. As the outstanding representatives of contemporary Chinese painting, they could certainly not be regarded as epochal masters; yet as artists who have led Chinese paintings to go on the way of modern art, they should enjoy the highest honor. To evaluate the position of an artist in the history of art, we should mainly see whether he had made any breakthrough in the form of art and any exploration in the concept of art. So the basis to confirm Liu Haisu and other artists as outstanding ones is that their created had added to the continuation of Chinese painting.

If Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are more inclined to the modern aspects in painting(of course, views on modern painting were merely seen in their works), then Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s works contained more rational elements, they have not exceeded the track of traditional Chinese painting yet, and they only wanted to put their effort in finding new subject matters in life. They moved toward the extreme in some traditional technique, namely they paid too much attention to the pictures, which influenced the direct reveling of sentiment in pictures. Thus their way of art became even narrower. Their shortcomings did not affect themselves that much (Their diligence, hard work and talent helped to make it up) but the disadvantages have been largely magnified on their students. We can say that, most influenced of Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s achievements in Chinese painting are negative for the later generations. Compared with them, Fu Baoshi also had something in common. His painting was unique. He has a unique way to perceive tradition. The biggest characteristic of him was his great attention paid to life experience, so when you see his painting you can actually smell the real life. However, he inclined too much to naturalistic style. Among all famous contemporary artists, he was one who used least traditional methods; He fell into the convention of old bottles for new wine while rebelling against tradition. Painters influenced by Fu Baoshi, not only lost the vigor of Fu’s works but also completed his artistic exploration which he hasn’t done and fixed it rigidly to be a normalized mode.

Certainly, explorations on Chinese painting by Pan Tianshou, Li Keran and Fu Baoshi are noteworthy. However, Li Kuchan, Huang Zhou and others are much more inferior . In fact, Li Kuchan’s works were the typical sample of putting pieces together. He didn’t fully understand the spirit of traditional Chinese painting by root and he just drew out the advantages on some skills and even the disadvantages from senior painters and then moved them into his works with hardly any changes. He’s adept skill in brushwork did not upraise his art, but caused the loss of his personality instead. Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa’s works are monotonous repetition. Their early works did show some talent with a kind of passions of young artists. However, they soon came to a stagnation; specifically, churning out is their main problem which showed that their understanding of art was too inadequate. Many figure painters similar to Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa are all incapable of not making their mistakes——their figure paintings have already become the game of brushwork with the pure goal to develop the characteristics of ink and wash.

Make a general survey of the current Chinese painting, we can not find a leader of art reform movement which is quietly launched before our eyes at present among the numerous famous painters. This era doesn’t need artists who could only inherit cultural tradition, but artists who can make epochal contribution. We should create such an atmosphere: each artist can abandon the strict specifications in technique and rigid aesthetic standards to create a colorful and varied art form on the basis of free exploration. Don’t worry, real artists who are living in modern China will neither be “westernized” nor cling to the “national essence”. National life customs and modern concepts open to international world would bring unlimited prospects to contemporary Chinese painting. Courage, nerve and strength are basic requirements of artists who have the lofty ideal to bring out a new situation for contemporary Chinese painting. We use the words of Epicurus to end this article: people who agree with God may not be sincere, while people who disagree with God may not be insincere.

Looking forward to the Establishment of New Critical discourse

Posted on 2013/02/10 by admin

——Also discuss the issue of how to establish the measure of value in criticizing Chinese contemporary art from 2000 to 2009

He Guiyan

In the conception of “Reshaping History — Chinart from 2000 to 2009” exhibition, two critics, Lv Peng and Zhu Zhu wish to make a comprehensive review, sorting and summarization of Chinese contemporary art since 2000, in an attempt to display some typical phenomena and works of art through exhibition, thereby to construct a basic theoretical framework and a narrative context of art history, and provide some necessary texts and visual materials for arts researchers. We can say that this work is full of challenge and has a constructive significance. But, whether or not can we use “Chinart (New art of China)” to refer to the typical works of this period is still debatable. For “Chinart” as a brand-new concept, we not only need to define the border of its form clearly, but also to provide a set of discourse about its own connotation and denotation from perspectives of art and culture, especially the narrative of art history. That is to say, we need to sort out how critical discourse and theoretical system of “Chinart” were established? In my opinion, if we want to use the concept of “Chinart”, we need at least to make necessary definitions from perspectives of time dimension and culture connotation. For example, could art post 2000 be defined as “new art”? If it is not bordered by time, then does “new art” have requirements in artistic form? Does it have clear cultural demands? And how could it keep a contextual relation with the previous contemporary art history? Obviously, if we do not define “Chinart”, then this concept will eventually become meaningless for being vague and general.

However, discussions about “new art” can not avoid a core issue: what is the measure of value for Chinese contemporary art? In other words, as for artistic creations from 2000 to 2009, we can by all means use other concepts to replace “Chinart”, but, no matter what concepts we use and choose, we will need to show the basic appearance or trend of the creation in the recent 10 years through an exhibition. Meanwhile, we must answer a basic question that what on earth is the value of contemporary art creation in this period. The reason why we agree with contemporary art is actually an agreement of value. Even though this value can emphasis on different connotations due to different contexts, such as on culture, politics, the history of arts, spirits and the history of thought, but this does not stop us from finding a value orientation with universal meaning or dominant role. Therefore, if we would discuss creations of Chinese contemporary art in the recent 10 years, we must discuss whether they have represented the problem of new value and if we discuss this problem, we would also need to go back to context of the development of Chinese contemporary art.

Briefly, in 1980s, value demands of Chinese contemporary art are mainly reflected in two aspects: one is to emphasize the critical standpoint of avant-garde art. In the whole historical context of art in 1980s, contemporary art and mainstream system kept an encouraging and struggling relation. No matter “Stars Art Society”, “Anonymous Painting Society (wuming huahui)”, or folk art groups emerged during ’85 thought trend period, most artists adopt ways of “Civil vs. Official, Avant-garde vs. Conservation, Marginal vs. Mainstream, Elites vs. The public” to instruct their own creations. Another is to realize the contemporary reformation in artistic language. This can be seen in the popular saying that “we used less than ten years to go through the 100-year artistic style of the West”. Of course, no matter pursuing the rebellious characteristics of avant-garde art or realizing the construction of modern language, Chinese contemporary art in 1980s still set foot on localized cultural context and was seeking for a transformation in cultural modernization, namely to achieve ideological liberation, to comply with the creative freedom of individual and to defend the independence of art.

In 1990s, Chinese contemporary art developed in an almost brand-new context of society and culture. Compared with 1980s, other than emphasizing its own rebellious characteristics, Chinese contemporary art is also confronted with an erosion of post-colonial trend of thought due to globalization, and multiple shocks of popular culture and culture of consumption. At present, issues such as arts and market, cultural identity against the background of globalization, survival strategies of avant-garde art, system of international exhibition, are directly or indirectly affecting the evolution and development of Chinese contemporary art itself. Therefore, value demands of Chinese contemporary art in this period are mainly about emerging issues such as localization vs. globalization, eastern vs. western, cultural conservatism vs. post-colonialism. By the end of 1990s, inner value measurement of Chinese contemporary art has basically formed, which was its anti-official status, and avant-garde nature, experimental nature, elitism and critical characteristics reflected in both artistic language and cultural demand – they together bestowed “contemporary” with rich humanistic meanings of history, reality and art.

From 2000 onwards, Chinese contemporary art entered into a brand-new developing period and faced with a situation of artistic history which is different from that of 1980s and 1990s.In this situation, new realistic circumstance and artistic ecology will definitely change our way of expression when we discuss the value demands of Chinese contemporary art. If we observe it roughly, there is some changes claim attention. 1. Both connotation and denotation of “contemporary art” have changed a lot. In 1980s and 1990s, the connotation and cultural orientation of contemporary art are its avant-garde nature and rebellious characteristic. However, since the end of 1990s, avant-garde and rebellious characteristics of contemporary art started to be spalled and swallowed by various opportunism, cynicism and utilitarianism. 2. Exhibition system and external living condition changed fundamentally. This is mainly reflected in three aspects: (1) In recent years, China has established its more mature biennale mode; (2) International exhibition platforms are gradually increasing in number; (3) Solo-exhibition or joint exhibition held by galleries, art museums and art Expos have realized diversification in exhibition modes. We can easily find that, different from early Chinese contemporary art seeking for an entry to public space [1], craving for shifting from “underground” to “stage”, today’s contemporary art already has a certain degree of legitimacy, with a large number of opportunities of international communication. However, the formation of all kinds of exhibition systems not only changed the external living environment of Chinese contemporary art, but also imperceptibly affected artists’ adjustment in creative strategies. 3. Chinese contemporary art entered a comprehensive marketized phase. Marketization played an active role in promoting contemporary arts while also brought about great negative effects. For example, since 2004, one of the results brought by the integration of art capital and market is the overflow of iconized and symbolized creation of contemporary art, as well as the prevalence of kitsch-oriented and anti-intellectual aesthetic appreciation. Of course, another result is that, relevant art institutions formed a series of comprehensive operational plans from packaging, promotion, and auction to collection and others by controlling a variety of funds; they took contemporary art works as an important tool to operate art market. This transformation would naturally draw people’s attention to re-trial the function and value of contemporary art. 4. Since 2007, some art institutions of the government accelerated the incorporating and accepting process of contemporary art, and tried to integrate contemporary art with the development strategy of national culture to promote. It is for sure that this transformation does not only neutralize the rebellious and independent spirits of early contemporary art, but also, would have lasting and profound influences on the future development of contemporary art.

Under these new contexts of history and reality, how to rebuild the measure of value criterion for contemporary arts becomes a hot potato. Especially when facing creations of contemporary art since 2000, we can’t help wondering, what are their value demands? What kind of relation should they keep with the surrounding culture and reality? Through ten years of creation, perhaps, we can reach the following consensus. 1. Contemporary art should inherit their avant-garde and rebellious spirits. Here the avant-garde and rebellious spirits are mainly reflected in two aspects: one is to take against that rigid, archaic mainstream culture, as well as the popular, kitsch mass culture; another one is that contemporary art is in need of self-denial as well, which is to overturn pre-fixed avant-garde spirits with an avant-garde spirit. The Significance of the former one is to keep the independent, self-disciplinary elitism stance of contemporary art and that of the latter lies in maintaining vitality and promoting continuous developments of contemporary arts. 2. Contemporary art shall comply with the development logic of local culture. Meanwhile, artists should keep sensitivity to social reality, and defend the criticalness of contemporary art. Even though the value of contemporary art is also reflected in the renewal and experiments of artistic language, but its core value still lies in its critical function on society as well as the irreplaceable “Chinese experience” inside the works. It is necessary to point out that, “Chinese experience” does not originate from cultural conservatism and cultural strategy of “post-colonial” which is to please western countries here, but aims to really set the foot of “contemporary” in the stance of China, with new meanings derived from categories like sociology and culturology and others. 3. Contemporary art should comply with existing tradition of art history, and artists should be able to propose new possibilities on methodology of artistic creation while maintaining an independent creation state. Whereat, individual independence is not taken into account from aesthetic category of modernism, on contrary, it focuses more on the political meaning reflected in the creative activity itself, namely to put creative freedom of individuals into the category of democratic politics for measuring, and enabling creations of contemporary art to become an important part of  the democratization process of China. 4. Contemporary art should insist on pluralistic development, meanwhile, artists adhere to an open cultural standpoint and possess the insight and capability to participate in international dialogue. We should say that, from 2000 onwards, no matter taken into account in perspectives of time or creative conception, one of the characteristics of Chinese contemporary art is that it can keep pace with Western contemporary art and its development. Although above points can not cover all aspects of contemporary art, but they can at least give us a basic idea to understand and comment on contemporary art.

In a word, due to the great changes taken place in the history of art since 2000, development of Chinese contemporary art and the criterion to measure its value would definitely be affected and changed. Of course, it is not important whether the representative works emerged during this period are called “Chinart (New Art of China)” or not, because, the real key point is that whether we could find a critical discourse to state, descript and summarize these works according to them, and then to combine them with the narrative of art history and construct a brand-new system of theory. Only under such a condition could tradition and cultural spirits of contemporary art be inherited and continued, so that a dominant, universal measure of value for contemporary art could be finally established.

Nov. 11, 2009

At Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts

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