- A comparative study of Chinese conceptual art practices between 1980s and after 2000.
A surprising parallel can be drawn between the practice of contemporary artists in China today and that of those active during the 1980s in that. A artists seem to be fanatically far more obsessed concerned with the politics minutiae of everyday life more than that of with the politics of society at large. In many of their works, there is little direct or systematic reference to Chinese or international politics or and history in a direct or systematic way, much less so than in that of their contemporaries peers elsewhere. Why such lack of careWhat is the reason for this lack of interest, especially considering China’s unique political environment and turbulent history? Such anThe inquiry question can also be extended to the general population. W: why have we become so indifferent to politics and history?
Back in the 1980s of the last century, intellectuals and artists having who had survived the extreme and atrocious nature of the 10ten-year political turmoil during the Cultural Revolution were disillusioned and disgusted by the complete erasure and destruction of personal existence by grandiose political aspirations and the country’s monist political outlook at politics. Embracing a new and temporary wave of intellectual freedom, and inspired by philosophical ideas and modernist art movements from the West, artists and writers were busy rediscovering and recovering their owna sense of self and human nature that had been suppressed and obliterated by the former decade. In the 8At this time0s, contemplating about the self in art was as much a political statement as it was an artistic engagement. Stylistic issues dominated the major art discussions. Without an infrastructure in place for the production of art, finding the a niche and means of self-expression in the public sphere was one of the most challenging priorities and challenges occupying the mind of the artists back then.
In the meantime, stylistic issues took up some of the major discussions about art in the decade. The possibility to of experimenting with various styles was in itself a significant sign of the intellectual liberty of the age. The ubiquitous Rrevolutionary Rrealism of the previous decades had stifled the diversifying of artistic expressions, which spurred the newfound interest in stylistic experimentations and discoveries nation-wide from the critical circle to the artists. People in the 1980s were exhilarated by the fact that they could now choose to wear colours other than themore than the two officially designated colorblue and blacks of the previous decades, which were blue and black. This simple change of in fashion actually embodied a fundamental shift in the political climate, and affected people more profoundly than the fast changeover of in fashion lines does today. Such was It is an example of how everyday life was so intricately interwoven with political complexities that the fascination with the everyday lifethe quotidian was a natural and extremely revealing direction to pursue and was extremely revealing in every sense.
The fact that the 1980s was crowned ascalled the ‘Chinese cultural rRenaissance’ of China following the Cultural Revolution suggested both reflects the optimism, urgency and vibrancy of cultural production and the sense of hope prevalent among Chinese intellectuals of at that time, while and the fact that they were consciously maintaining a sense of caution towards and distance from the political reality. Thinking about art practice itself, thinking about the formation of our perceptions and preconceptions, thinking about the physical and metaphysical self, thinking about introducing philosophical ideas into art, constitutharacterised the aesthetic discourses in art at that time. Without addressing larger political issues and the political reality of China, the work and thinking of Chinese artists actually in fact had took on an unmistakable oppositional and critical quality, which is regrettably missing today.
Historically, art once played a hefty role in the political life of China. Mao Zedong’s speech at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942 made claim for an art that would strive to be much larger than itself. His goal was to: ‘ensure that revolutionary literature and art follow the correct path of development and provide better help to other revolutionary work in facilitating the overthrow of our national enemy and the accomplishment of the task of national liberation.’ This call for art to serve the people, above all, the workers, peasants and soldiers, not only prescribed the audience for art, but was to become the fundamental rule governing artistic production for years to come and the one and only criterion by which it was judged and valued. It is still shocking to think that art and culture could be hijacked by the political agenda of the ruling party for almost half of a century, until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Its impact has proved even more durable. Many artists and viewers still habitually and subconsciously look for the ideological meaning in artworks.
The 1980s saw conscious attempts to unwind the damage of the previous decades, to contemplate in unprecedented ways the nature of art, as well as the relationship between art and the public. Discussions were lively, led and sponsored by critics working in key art magazines and newspapers. In order to share responsibility in case of running into trouble with the authority, artists got together and worked collaboratively. Most of these group initiatives were activated outside of regular art venues, which rarely existed apart from government-run museums. They were often concept-driven, action-based, spontaneous, insurgent and explicit in their position and purpose. The group dynamic of the 1980s was an important chapter in the history of Chinese contemporary art, which pushed forwards experimental and conceptual practice in the country. The Pool Society (including Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Wang Qiang, Song Ling and others), based in Hangzhou, organised three happenings in the course of its brief existence. In one of these, the artists sneaked out at night to put up cut-out life-size paper figures in different Tai-chi postures on a wall; they then observed how passer-bys looked at and interacted with these images during the day. Critical of the functionalist approach to art in a political or commercial context, the Pool Society looked for possibilities to forge genuine engagement and communications with its audience. In Beijing, New Measurement Group (including Gu Dexin and Wang Luyan) focused their explorations on reducing art and life to pure numbers, measurements and analytical geometry, without the colouring of human emotions and exaggeration, while emulating the accuracy and procedure of scientific experiments. Many of their works remain on paper and were shown only to a limited circle of artists and critics.
The autonomy of art during the 1980s, free from any political agenda or commercial motivation, allowed art to be driven purely by artistic concepts, by intellectual curiosity, as well as by critical and philosophical imagination. However, this was soon to be swept aside by an overwhelming and long-lasting wave of political and commercial interest from the West in the 1990s, after the country opened its doors to the outside world. Opportunities for selling works and exhibiting abroad attracted artists to works that contained formulaic elements of political ideology and the criticism of emerging consumerism, and whose aesthetic was rooted in Revolutionary Realism and popular vernacular tastes.
Certainly,Today’s contemporary artists today are working with a different set of coordinates, and thus challenges, as well. Economic optimism and opportunities in every walk of life sweep have swept aside, disguised and annulled political concerns. In the government’s conscious efforts to cultivate a stable and harmonious society, a collective oblivion is installed and prevails, both among the general public and the society’s intellectuals. This collective oblivion is manifested in the prevalence of tacky entertainments, the manufacturing of spectaculars spectacle, and the incessant obsession with consumption in the society.
More importantly, tThe role of intellectuals is radically being radically redefined. Intellectuals They have become alliances with and consultants for the government, appearing in the popular media to provide information but rarely opinions, and teaching techniques in universities on the government’s payroll. In a commercial society like the one we are in, when where the government is the country’s primary employer and contractor, and monopoliszes all forms of businesses and career opportunities in the country, the independence of intellectuals as critical thinkers is out of the question.
Despite the secret distrust and dismissal harboured by some of the artists towards China’s one-party political system, the dream for democracy was long , uprooted long ago by the 4 June 4th 1989 crackdown on Tian’anmen Square and, has been substituted by sweet dreams of easy entertainment and mindless material pursuits. Think about the trajectory of Mmany of the artists and writers active in the 1980s that who were also the participants of the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing, some of them fled the country following the its failure of the democracy movement. Since the late 1990s, they have returned to China, with a determination determined to forget about their political and cultural aspirations of the idealistic 1980s and get on with life, meaning embracing the enormous potential that the country presents for personal development, especially in the compartments where money and power are concerned.
Take Ai Weiwei for example, h. He was a founding member of the Star Group, among the earliest unofficial artists’ groups collectives to form after the Cultural Revolution and whose artistic and political agenda was simply to create and exhibit works that were formally diverse and different from the singularuniform form of the Cultural Revolutionary Realism. The first public appearance of the Star Group accidentally took place on the a wall in the a park, which led to the imposed and and was prematurely closure closed of the show by the police. The group fought for the legitimacy to exhibit their works, and eventually succeeded ; and they continued to defy political orders by exploring alternative means to work and exhibit. Like most of its Star’s members, Ai Weiwei left the country for New York in the late 1980s, where he suffered from years of anonymity. He returned to Beijing in the late 1990s, and since then, has established himself on one hand as a radical cultural figure who wins earns respect and attention by commenting critically on social phenomena. and meanwhile Commissioned both by the government and private clients, he has landed on some of the most lucrative and name-making architectural projects of in the country, [is he an architect?] contracted by the government and private clients, for instance, including the Olympics Stadium. The unspoken contractual relationship between the government and individual intellectuals negates the objective nature of intellectual thinking and speaking in China. China’s The country’s new leadership has also learned not to suppress entirely but to contain criticism and differences of opinions entirely, but to contain them within a moderate and manageable limit, allowing. Thus it allows someone like Ai Weiwei to play the devil’s advocate for the government and , while in the meanwhile,time charming him with professional possibilitiesoffers. Ai Weiwei is, aAs a popularWang Shuo’s 1989 book title suggests, Ai is, ‘half fire and half the sea’.
For artists in the 1980s, Having the resources and platforms available for contemporary art practices like what that the artists are enjoyed today was would have been an unthinkablea luxury unthinkable in the 1980s. Fighting for art’s legitimate existence without any political baggage fuelled some of the lively artistic movements and experiments of that time. However, the irony lies in the fact thatdespite the fact that today’s art has now achieved a legitimate status of art and the material empowerment of the art system, this haven’t hasn’t necessarily enhanced the potency of artistic discussion. In the 1980s, it was the fight for such legitimacy that had fuelled some of the liveliest artistic movements and experiments of that time. On the other hand, tThe vigor and absurdity of the reality defined by the current breakdown of the country’s value systems and the demise of cultural and ethnic foundations, coupled with the insatiable desire for economic improvements, tends to dwarf any artistic reinvention and drives artists to seek refugee in conceptual practices, which that nod to the hey days of conceptual art practicesuch work from of the late 1980s to theand early 1990s. Actually,
But some of the discussions and issues addressed by the artists of the previous decade are still valid to this momtodayent. Take In Wang Jianwei’s 1992 piece ‘Documents’, for instance, he devised an intricate laboratory procedure and system, which that illustrated the arbitrary nature of the formation of our perception and its consequent unreliability. In As the curator of a recent exhibition [title, date?], I have chosen to reenactrevisited this work, not only through video documentation and manuscripts, but also by reenacting the experiment in a replica of his studio and the very experiment that was carried out in the studio. The This historical work was shown alongside a series of light boxes made by Li Yu and Liu Bo, two young photographers from middle ofcentral China. They have had spent a whole year collecting hearsay stories from local newspapers and , which they then restaged each of the stories in as this a series of theatrical photographs, focusing on the by elaborating some of the most gruesome or incredulous incredible details of these hearsays storiesand heightening the theatrical mood of the images. Like Wang Jianwei’s work, Li Yu and Liu Bo’s works this project raises question and awareness of our immediate reality and the ways in which experiences shaping our perceptions and judgements are shaped and , in a way informed, in this case by digital technology and the mass media.
Without believing in collective experience and perception, some ofOther the artists have kept consistently returning returned to their own bodily existence, either for inspiration s andor as a conveyers for of their artistic experiments. Zhang Peili was one of the experimental artists active from the mid-19 80s and inarguably tthe earliest champion of video art in China. His video work ‘Uncertain Pleasure’ reduced the ennui of everyday life into to repetition and absurdity by showing ongoing repetitive images of men scratching themselves over and over again. Zhang Peili’sHis fascination with the physical body in his work has continued to exert influences on many young artists working today.
The body and its allusive and indescribable sensations are constantly explored in the works of video artist Kan Xuan. In A Persimmon, 1999, we are exposed to the slow and torturous process of a full, mature yellow persimmon being fondled and then squashed by a pair of hands until it is eventually reduced to a pile of pulp. It aroused a rich range of sensations in the viewer, from disgust and pain to a kind of perverse and guilty pleasure.
In a work entitled ‘Buying Everything on You’, (2006), Shenzhen-based artist Liu Chuang went to a local job market in Shenzhen, where job-seekers from neighbouring rural areas or inland cities have come to find work in a young city with a high concentration of manufacturing bases and economic possibilities. Liu spent days in the job market doling out his name cards, offering to buy all the personal belongings of any passing individual. In this city, that which boasts the youngest and most productive population of the country, the level of individual affluence and success is unsubtly flaunted through such personal status quotes symbols as clothing, accessories and cars. The guyBut the man who eventually agreed to sell the artist all his belongings at a reasonable price was however, only just starting out in a this competitive but hopeful city. He had been there for days, having experiencing little luck in his search for work and staying in a 10-yuan-per-bed hostel every night. He had to carry all hHis meager personal items, which he carried on with him all day long, which consisted of such items as two copies of his resumesresumé, a comb, four small packs of shampoo, a photo of his girlfriend and one of himself. Liu Chuang bought everything off from him, from including his clothes to and his shoes to his handbag, which contained all the above items, collecting a brief history in of this very individual’s life. He The man sold them out of desperation and necessity. The scarcity of his belongings however, but they won him a way to continue searching for his dream in the city. The disposable and value of any object is clearly changeable and highly dependent on individual conditionscircumstances.
The body and its allusive and indescribable sensations are constantly explored in the works of video artist Kan Xuan. In her work ‘A Persimmon’ (1999), we are exposed to the slow and torturing process of a full and mature yellow persimmon being fondled, squashed by a pair of hands until it eventually turned into a pile of pulp. It aroused a rich range of sensations in the viewer from pure disgust and pain to a kind of perverse and guilty pleasure.
The general apathy towards social politics among young artists today is also telling indicative of a kind of paradox in the country’s and deranged social psyche in the country. The overheated economic driveclimate, the omnipresent publicity drive for the 2008 Olympics, the image of an uprising and powerful nation on an international level, the unethical business operations and prevailing lack of moral standards in the society, and persistent inflations, all contribute to a sense of the helplessness, vulnerability, aimlessness, anxiety and confusion ofin any singlethe individual, who contradictorily finds it hardstruggles to live contentedly and smoothly in a country on the rise.
It’s It is therefore intriguing to notice that despite the political void that in which contemporary Chinese artists choose to reside in, the longing for power, or the its impossibility, of power is a reoccurring subject in their artistic discussionwork. This unstoppable quest for power was evident in a recent installation of by Beijing artist Liu Ding, entitled ‘Tiger’, (2007). Liu followed the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, who embarked on a journey to search for the legendary blue tiger that, which didn’t only existed beyond in the belief of the local villagers. Like Borges, Liu believed in his own power of invention as an artist and set out to constructed a wild spectacle. The centerpiece was an imposing tower of 30 around thirtysomething pieces of white-washed concrete beams reclining over each other. This tremendous and perilous pyramid-shaped structure was seven7 meters metres in height, nearly reaching closely towardstouching the tip of the arch-shaped ceiling. The excited viewer walked around to the back side of the impressive structure only to encounter a disheartening view of a whole tiger skin spread out on the floor, with its head buried deep underneath the beams, deflated and defeated. The artist deliberately covered the back wall of the room with mirror-surfaced acrylics, which reflecting reflected everything in the room, and including the audience’s engagements with the work and. This more importantly heightening heightened the illusive nature of the installation, the experience and and the artist’s bold yet futile claim for to power.
In his work Flying Blue Flag,2006, Hu Xiangqian staged a political game that proved the inaccessibility of power and the emptiness and pretext of political promises. The work was both conceptual project and social experiment. Renting an apartment in. In 2006, Hu decided to Nanting Village, he decided to run for office in Nanting Village as the village chief, where he lives in a rented apartment. In [The village was situated near?] Guangzhou, a city in south China famed for its flexibility and openness that , whichare derivative have derived from its geographical distance from the central government and its historical status as a hotbed for revolutionary movements. and leaders of the early 20th century, artist Hu Xiangqian threw himself into a literal political game and proved the inaccessibility of power and the emptiness and pretext of political promises. The work entitled ‘Flying Blue Flag’(2006) was as much a conceptual project as a social experiment carried out by the artist. He decided to run for the chief of Nanting Village, where the artist rented his apartment. He Hu visited the local villagers, introducing himself and hiswith grandiose future plans and promises. for the village to its residents, practiced his speech, delivered it at the actual campaign but was interrupted and disqualified in the middle of his speech because he didn’t come from the village originally. The video that documented this process showed the artist awkwardly and amateurishly emulating and exercising all kinds ofthe gimmicks and methods employed in political practice campaignsin an awkward and amateurish manner, to as well as the various responses of the villagers. Some were responsive to his claims for change;s, some others were indifferent; some agreed to vote in his favour, and some asked for kickbacks in return for their support. However, in the middle of his campaign speech, he was disqualified because he was not officially a villager. The fact that he was thrown out of the campaign on these grounds that he was not officially a villager eventually underscored the impenetrability and closeness of any political system for theto outsiders and its, ultimate motif to consolidate its own place, even though it had initiated such a mechanism as anthe election was meant to be open to all in the first place, supposedly to search for the most eligible candidate.
When governmental systems are put in place only to serve the inner circle and the privileged few, resistance resistant to differences and changes, any then political concern or civic conscience from in the common populationrest of the society is literally worthless. In effectstead of brewing direct confrontation, however, the result of this has been the development of an a defiant, anarchistic mood is developed in defiance, instead of direct confrontations. Apolitical approaches to life and art have become the norm. Birdhead is a collaborative of two young artists based in Shanghai, Ji Weiyi and Song Tao, two young artists based in Shanghai, known collectively as Birdhead. They, take photographs of young Shanghainese people and their immediate urban settings. Their images are a mixture of documentary photographs and, snapshots of street scenes and their peers, as well as self-portraits. The non-judgemental, offhand, and often -moody quality of their works echoes the temperament of a young generation of Chinese people. Their fixation with on everyday life bears displays little feeling or sense of responsibility towards anything beyond their personal realm of living. Such a fixation is usually senseless, has no particular purpose, and shows little enthusiasm or passion in its manifestation. Maybe Perhaps such nonchalance is the best answer to the dominant pragmatism in our Chinese society, firmly planted in the heads of the people since the economic reform of the early 1990s.
Pragmatism Such pragmatism, which asks forexpects everything to have a purpose out of everything and expects and tangible, immediate and quantified results, which easily drives artists to despairposes problems for artists. How can art fulfilll the this philosophy of functionalism when it is everything anything but? It i’s no wonder that when confronted with a powerful reality that promotes the disregard of knowledge and idealism, artists lose their ability to speak and dismally realize that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ We can evenOne could say that the working of this generation of artists is almost like shooting arrows without a target at which to aim. Their target-less practice precisely affirms the predicament of our times:, the powerlessness of art and thinking in the shadow of functionalism and collective oblivion.
Historically, art had once played a hefty role in the political life of China. Mao Zedong’s speech at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942 laid out an aim for art that was much larger than itself. The core of Mao’s talk was ‘to ensure that revolutionary literature and art follow the correct path of development and provide better help to other revolutionary work in facilitating the overthrow of our national enemy and the accomplishment of the task of national liberation.’ (‘TALKS AT THE YAN’AN FORUM ON LITERATURE AND ART’, Mao Zedong, 1942) Mao’s calling for art to serve the people, above all, the workers, peasants and soldiers, not only prescribed the audience for art but was to become the fundamental rule governing artistic productions of the whole country for years to come and the one and only criteria by which art was judged and valued.
It’s still shocking to think about how culture and art could be hijacked by the political agenda of the ruling party for such a long time, almost half of a century until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Its impact has proved to last even longer. Up till today, there are still artists and viewers who habitually and subconsciously look for the ideological meaning in artworks.
The 80s was full of conscious attempts to unwind the damage of the previous decades on art, contemplate the nature and styles of art as well as the relationship between art and the public, like never before. Discussions were lively, led and sponsored by critics working in key art magazines and newspapers. To share responsibilities in case of running into trouble with the authority, artists got together and worked collaboratively. Most of these group initiatives were active out of regular art venues, which rarely existed apart from government-run museums. They were often concept-driven, action-based, spontaneous, insurgent, and explicit in their position and purpose in art and charged with urgency and effectiveness. The group dynamic of the 80s was an important chapter to register in the history of Chinese contemporary art, which did push forward experimental and conceptual art practice in the country. The Pool Society in Hangzhou organized three events in its brief existence, which all took place in the form of happening. In one of the occasions, they sneaked out at night to put up cut-out life-size paper figures in different Tai-chi postures on a wall and observed how passer-bys looked at and interacted with these images during the day. Critical of the functionalist approach to art in a political or commercial context, members of the Pool Society (including Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Wang Qiang, Song Ling and others) were looking for possibilities to have genuine engagements and communications with the audience. In Beijing, New Measurement Group (members including Gu Dexin, Wang Luyan and so on) focused their explorations on reducing art and life to pure numbers, measurements and analytical geometry, without the coloring of human emotions and exaggeration, while emulating the accuracy and procedure of scientific experiments. Many of their works remain on paper and were shown only to a limited circle of artists and critics.
The autonomy of art during the 1980s, free from any political agenda or commercial motivation, allowed art to be driven purely by artistic concepts, intellectual curiosity as well as critical and philosophical imagination. However, this was soon to be swept aside by an overwhelming and long-lasting wave of political and commercial interest from the West in the 1990s after the country further opened its door to the outside world. Opportunities of selling works and exhibiting abroad attracted artists to art forms whose content contained formula elements of political ideology and criticism of emerging consumerism and whose aesthetic training were rooted in revolutionary realism and popular vernacular tastes.
Although art-school training is still dominated by Soviet Rrealism, the aesthetic potential in the art of today’s young generation is clearly informed and shaped by a wide range of influences, all fragmented, momentary, miscellaneous and international. Free from the historical and traditional baggage of their predecessors, They are the this generation that is capable of re-shuffling the cards. Historical and traditional baggage belonged to their predecessors. They are able to start on a clean chartslate, without memory or pain. They live without remorse over regarding loss of time or youth, or the responsibility to reverse or amend any historical mistakes. All theyInstead, they have are youth, opportunities, competitionve spirit, and confidence. Then again, what is the problem with the kind of But does art that is severed from its past carry a price tag? What is the price to pay foris the cost of coming out of a fragmented history and where tradition that was has been largely erased and removed from our the culture? Maybe It may be that this is the reason for the fickle quality and lack of consistence consistency in the practices of mostof Chinese artists working today. A nationalised grouping of works such as those presented in ‘China Power Station II’ underscores the sense that, Apart apart from basic stylistic uniformity, there is an unmistakable deficiency lack of continuity in an the thinking of these young artist’s line of thinking is unmistakable and unforgivable on the account of young age. But maybe they will just survive at in a time that is has supposedly to be the end of a dispensed with a linear, art-historical mode of thinking, in which one style proceeds to the next, perhaps these artists will thrive. Or maybe such a nationalized grouping of works as China Power Station II will just underscore such a lack instead of covering it up. We will see.