Then and Now: China, An Old New Tradition
On the occasion of “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (October 6–January 7), we perused ARTnews ’s coverage of China’s ever-evolving art scene since the June 4, 1989, uprising at Tiananmen Square. We first set the stage by quoting a 1990 Associated Press report about the government’s crackdown on avant-garde art, and then observed the changing movements and styles of artists like Lu Shengzhong and Cai Guo-Qiang. By 2008, with the rapid development of the economy and a new generation of collectors, there was an increasing demand for museums, and artists began moving their art beyond the confines of the gallery. One of the artists to do so was Cao Fei, whose videos and digital works address dreams and reality in contemporary Chinese society.
The art scene in China has changed radically since the June military attack on student-led demonstrators in which perhaps thousands of people were shot and killed.
Most of the young artists who a year ago astonished the nation with the first public shows of nudes and avant-garde works have gone underground. The open atmosphere prevalent before the crackdown has been replaced by censorship and a government-sponsored propaganda campaign.
Artists can earn little or no money for their works domestically, and those who once sought foreign buyers have been censured.
—“Martial Art,” from Associated Press
Exceptions to the post–June 4 prohibition on avant-garde art appear to occur when traditional elements are invoked by artists because they can point to these images to defend their works against accusations of “bourgeois liberalization.” One installation last year in Beijing that sparked hope for the future of the vitality of Chinese experimental art was Lu Shengzhong’s Calling the Souls (1988–91). . . . [Lu] used approximately a million traditional, red, cut paper silhouettes of the “soul” (which looks a bit like a paper-doll image of Steven Spielberg’s creature E. T.) in an installation that spread over floor, ceiling, walls. Whereas many conservatives in the art world did not understand an installation of footprints that Lu made for the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, most visitors recognize that Calling the Soulsdraws from a Chinese folk-art source and therefore believe the image is old and nonpolitical.
—“Chinese Art Today: No U Turn,” by Joan Lebold Cohen
Born in China, partially trained in Japan, and presently living in New York, Cai [Guo-Qiang] represents a new kind of international art star—the displaced artist in search of a transcultural self. [ . . . ] And like other Chinese conceptualists, such as Xu Bing, Wenda Gu, and Chen Zhen, he draws heavily on his native culture—incorporating gunpowder, acupuncture, herbal medicine and teas, historical figures like Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, and mythical characters, like serpents and dragons. But rather than veering toward the political, the issues Cai raises—from the origins of the universe to the possible existence of extraterrestrials—are inherently philosophical. By adopting inventive, sometimes quirky materials, he has cultivated a visual vocabulary that is not only accessible but esthetically compelling.
“I think he’s looking at something that the rest of us aren’t seeing yet,” says Jane Farver, director of exhibitions at the Queens Museum . . . . “He pulls you in. The fact that he comes from outside the art world—that his primary interests are nature and spirituality and healing—is what makes him so intriguing. He doesn’t seem to be tied to one culture, and yet he is so clearly Chinese.”
—“Flame & Fortune,” by Carol Lutfy
Fueled by [a] budding counterculture, the once-rustic frontier [Shenzhen] region has also become a center for artists seeking to break away from the northern avant-garde that has long been the representative face of Chinese contemporary art to the West. At such events as the Venice Biennale, China has usually been represented by artists like Chen Zhen, Wang Du, Huang Yong Ping, and Zhang Peili, most of whom made their names in Shanghai and Beijing in the 1980s and have since either relocated to or been active in Western Europe. But recently, younger artists like Yang [Yong] have created something of a southern school, which, in its open examination of modern urban life, has begun to attract attention in places such as Finland and Switzerland.
—“Yang Yong and the Four Elephants,” by Jonathan Napack
Two nights after the opening of the Shanghai Biennial on September 29, 2004, Moganshan Lu is hopping. The streets of the industrial zone are packed with 20-year-olds in T-shirts and jeans, brandishing cell phones and punk hairstyles, anxious to see the latest art projects on view at BizART, Eastlink, ShanghART, Art Scene, and other galleries that have moved into the area. The scene could be anywhere—New York, London, Berlin—but it is surprising to find it in China, less than a decade after government crackdowns on avant-garde art made such openings forbidden affairs.
It’s this pack of twentysomethings that art watchers are counting on. This new generation, born decades after the Cultural Revolution, has embraced contemporary art, just as it has taken to video games, television, Starbucks, and Hollywood movies. Economic forecasters are already banking on China’s 1.6 billion populace and its new class of freshly minted millionaires to boost the revenues of industries ranging from luxury cars to portable music players. Similarly, those who have a stake in the international art market hope that the next generation, the children of the millionaires, will fuel the contemporary-art scene in China.
“There’s a lot of money in China,” acknowledges Mark Porter, Christie’s International managing director. “And where there’s money, there’s an art market.”
—“The Opening of China,” by Barbara Pollack
“Right now in China there is a very large demand for museums,” confirms Li Lei, director of the Shanghai Art Museum, which hosts the Shanghai Biennale. . . . “For a long time, there was no access to art education for ordinary people, but with the rapid development of the economy, the people’s attention has turned to art and culture,” he explains. Indeed, it is easy to find crowds a many of China’s art museums, ranging from young professionals and art students to elementary-school groups and foreign tourists. But the flip side of this popularity is the lack of infrastructure for cultural activities in China: there is no legal framework for establishing a not-for-profit organization in mainland China, and there is no tax benefit for making donations to cultural institutions. Therefore, art museums—both government-sponsored and private—must continually invent ways to raise money, often resorting to methods that might be considered illegal or unethical in the United States.
—“Making 1,200 Museums Bloom,” by Barbara Pollack
In Chinese art circles, most other artists thought that Ai Weiwei was the only one who could get away with such subversive work. In January 2010, China’s Art Valuemagazine had readers vote on the Internet for their favorite artist. Ai Weiwei won, with 3,000 more votes than the next leading artist, following which the magazine eliminated Ai Weiwei from the competition. The artist showed up outside the magazine’s awards ceremony, mocking the other artists who attended. “I just make fun of those guys,” says Ai Weiwei. “Where are you all, those artists? Why don’t you protect the basic human dignity or the rights of art? You just sell, sell, sell.”
—“Crossing the Line in China,” by Barbara Pollack
APRIL 12, 2016
Cao [Fei’s] work often focuses on the collision of dreams and reality, specifically in modern-day China.
[ . . . ]
Cao has extended that interest in fantasy to the digital sphere, and in 2007, she created RMB City, a virtual world made using the online-gaming system Second Life. Players around the world could join for free and interact with Cao’s avatar, China Tracy. They would see a city that resembled Beijing, where Cao moved in 2006, but one that is more idealized and even, to some extent, nightmarish—it has a giant panda that floats above it, but it also has a huge smokestack that spouts fire.
—“In Another World,” by Alex Greenberger
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 143 under the title “China, An Old New Tradition.”
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