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Contemporary Chinese Art

Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents

by Wu Hung, editor; with the assistance of Peggy Wang
The Museum of Modern Art, Duke University Press, Durham, NC
464 pp. illus. 79 b/w, 50 col. Paper, $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4943-3.

Reviewed by Ellen Pearlman

Contemporary Chinese art skyrocketed into Western awareness during the mid-2000's primarily through its high auction prices and ubiquitous images of Chairman Mao. For knowledgeable Occidentals who want to probe the origins of modern Chinese art history, criticism, and theory from primary Chinese sources in English the resources have been scarce. Wu Hung, the University of Chicago's Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History and East Asian Languages and Civilization, the Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, and a consulting curator at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, along with Peggy Wang has done an incredible service to the field of English language contemporary art history and translation publishing this fact filled book documenting the rise of Chinese art post Cultural Revolution. He has astutely divided it into different critical time periods from the mid-1970's until 2006. He has also regrettably managed to drag along the same old prejudice from China with a near total exclusion of women from this (his)tory. Since Hung has a reputation as being "female friendly," this exclusion is all the more galling. Though he is astute enough to note the patriarchal and sexist tradition in China as a veritable footnote, he doesn't do much to dispel it.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution's attacked the "four olds", i.e., ideas, culture, customs and habits. When the Gang of Four, including Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, were removed on October 6, 1976, this opened the way for contemporary art. It is inconceivable for most Westerners to understand just how deep the attack and annihilation on culture was. Exhibitions as we understand them and viewing of Western Art were not in the equation. Art teachers who had managed to survive the putsch mainly taught methods relating the rules and regulations of formalist aesthetics.

As recent as 1984, China was still afraid of Western liberal bourgeoisie imports. However, Robert Rauschenberg's 1985 exhibit at the National Gallery (now NAMOC, the National Art Museum of China) had a huge impact on Beijing theorists. A young Fei Dawei, now a major curator commented, "How limited our knowledge is regarding Western concepts and ideas."

The 1985 "New Wave" introduced current blue chip artists and critics like Huang Yong Ping (Xiamen Dada movement), Zhang Peili (the "father" of Chinese video art), and Li Xianting (the "godfather" of the Chinese Avant Garde.) Thinking shifted from mass collectivity to individual creativity. Zhang Peili predicted art would critically challenge the Chinese establishment, and "An age of confrontation, rebellion and reconstruction was immanent." Huang Yong Ping, one of the first to mention John Cage and chance operations wrote, "Collecting art in China doesn't exist and this may be a good thing."

It is revealing to read statements like "China lacks the social and cultural background for modern art. Modern art evolved after the Western humanism established a solid social foundation and after the concept of the subjective consciousness had emerged in modern philosophy ... Chinese art emphasizes poetic grace, the expression of the subjective consciousness, and the drawing process and has been influenced by the Soviet Union." This is something most astute non-Chinese observed early on, but to realize the Chinese concurred is astounding.

Shu Qun defined the difficulties China faced were from two sides, "spiritual poverty" and "material poverty." Peng De argued contemporary culture was an influence from abroad and initiated from outside. He observed on the surface the 1985 New Wave artistic movement was voluntary, but "anthropologists point out that when one particularly isolated society encounters another strong and more technologically advanced society the two will form a relationship of subordination and domination, with the subordinate force adapting to the dominate one." Yi Ying added, "What we copied from Western Modernism in the '85 New Wave consisted mainly of its early styles which had already become academic relics... We are going through a process which Western developed nations have already gone through." And in 1986, now blue chip artist, Wenda Gu, stated: "One borrows Western modernism to attack (Chinese) tradition and now one needs to use Chinese tradition to strike against Western modernism."

The China Avant Garde Exhibition at The National Gallery evolved into a veritable who's who of the contemporary Chinese art world. Li Xianting wrote, "After being constrained for so long a new mentality yearned to be set free," saying real avant garde art (nudity and performance) was not allowed, even though one had to "confront society" with a sense of "freshness and provocation." He referred to Xiao Lu and Tang Song's "gunshot incident" with their piece, "Dialogue," that caused the entire exhibit to be shut down by the police when Xiao Lu whipped out a gun and shot her installation. This is where Wu Hong had a chance to right an egregious wrong; he could have included Xiao Lu's statements about her exclusion from that point on by every male critic in Chinese art history and the reasons for it. These statements were freely distributed by Berenice Angremy and Huang Rui's DIAF and Thinking Hands organization in the mid 2000's, but Hung did not, thereby excluding Xiao Lu's seminal actions once again from the annals of "official" (his)tory.

After the crackdown of Tiananmen Square Chinese art entered no-man's land of cynicism and darkness, birthing the styles of Cynical Realism and Political Pop. In 1992 the "new history group" learned when performance art got political, it got shut down. To "objectify concepts into external social activities," East Village artists Zhang Huan made masochistic art, and Ma Luming made meals in the buff. Particularly insightful is China's reaction to artist Zhang Dalai who sprayed guerilla-style graffiti, as opposed to propaganda - they just didn't get it. While artists during the 1980s willingly assumed the burden of regional history and social responsibility, artists of the 1990s sought to reaffirm their self-identity in a global sphere.

There is an insightful explanation of new photography that began with the April Photographic Society in 1974, and gave way to individualistic social documentation with the 1990 artists of the East Village. Video art did not reach China until 1990 when a professor from Hamburg Institute of Art showed video art to students in Hangzhou's Zhejian Academy of Fine Arts. In 1991 Zhang Peili, considered the "godfather" of the form, exhibited "Document on Hygiene No. 3," the first piece of video art by a Chinese artist inside China.

After the crackdown of 1989 many Chinese emigrated abroad, which reshaped their arts practice to transcend national boundaries. Ho Hanru, another great curator residing in France, wrote, "Chinese artists work with the identification, non-identification and re-identification." April 1990 saw the first exhibit at CAFA, the Central Academy of Fine Arts of "World of Women Artists," which I wish Hung had expounded on, instead of glossing over.

In the late 1990's through early 2000's the use of animal corpses and the artists' own body are discussed. Zhu Yu had skin surgically removed from his stomach and sewn onto a dead pig. The dealings he went through with authorities are meticulously archived, becoming a record of his social interactions. Critics said he turned art into "hospital surgery rooms and morgue." By 2001 the Ministry of Culture was issuing hysterical bulletins, arguing it was time to get back to "Marxist Aesthetics." Some even denounced the pieces as Western Colonialism injected onto Chinese art.

In 1992 China recognized the need for an art market based on global standards, hosting and promoting Biennale Art Fairs. The third Shanghai Biennial brought Chinese art from being shown as "apartment art" or "embassy art" and launched the rise of the first independent not for profit spaces. The artist Zhuan Hung noted the abysmal role of the critic in China in developing the art market. He aptly describes them as either rambling philosophers or those who ply a secret exchange of favors between friends open to the highest bidder, a problem that is ongoing today.

The book showcases artist writings, such as the letter of Fei Daiwei to Li Xianting, ("Does a Culture in Exile Necessarily Wither?") Xu Bing, a MacArthur Fellow discusses words and language (On Words), and Wenda Gu explains his United Nations Arts project. There are also essays by Cai Guo-Qiang whose retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum was well received a few years ago, and Ai Weiwei often referred to as the Andy Warhol of China. Wei slyly wrote, "In a rational social system artists should play the part of a virus, like a computer virus. A small project has the ability to effect definite change in a rational society, and the chaos that results form such a change is the process of making a rational world more alert. That is an important function of art today; otherwise, if art were merely reflecting public morals, then its outcome would be far inferior to scientific activity."

By 2000 domestic and international writings grew strident and polemical. Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi's seminal 2000 "Fuck Off" exhibit in Shanghai criticized cultural power, art institutions, and art trends between East and West, exoticism, postmodernism and post colonialism. Because this period produced more documents in English, this section supplements the many available materials and books.

Hung included Brita Erickson's essay, "The Reception In the West of Experimental Mainland Chinese Art of the 1990s." She mentions the 1998 Frauen Museum in Bonn show of 24 Chinese women, mounted as a rebuttal to an exhibit two years previously of 31 Chinese artists that contained no women whatsoever. Finally, at the back of the book a chronological section of 1976-2006 defines who did what, where, and how over a span of 30 years.

China itself is now setting the record straight. This past December, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) mounted Yao Daimei's enormously important show of over 100 works, "Woman Art in China (1920-2010) Self-Image: Interpreting a Perspective of Chinese Woman Art in the 20th Century."

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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