» Archive for the 'writing' Category
[”All that is solid melts into air” installation, ShanghArt H-Space, 2012]
Text by Lee Ambrozy / First published in ArtAsiaPacific, Issue 80, Sept/Oct 2012.
It is mid-summer in Shanghai. Shi Qing unlocks the door to ShanghArt’s H-Space and small armies of mosquitoes flock to us. Inside the sunless room, the air is humid and heavy with the smell of the overgrown botanical life—all to be expected from a sunless room filled with plants for a month. This is Shi Qing’s latest exhibition, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” a garden of potted plants and geometric sculptures made of raw construction materials, resting on wooden shipping pallets. On the exhibition’s last day, it is now a wilting panorama flecked with neon colors from fluorescent tubes placed inside cardboard boxes, and several sporadic spray-painted Styrofoam scholar’s rocks nestled in the foliage.
Shi Qing’s installations tend to intrigue, or repel, audiences. Born in Mongolia in 1969, he began exhibiting in the late 1990s with the group of artists behind the “Post-Sense Sensibility” exhibition in Beijing (among them Qiu Zhijie, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu) and is currently based in Shanghai. Of modest height, Shi Qing wears boxy-framed glasses, has a sincere demeanor and a penchant for serious discussion. Drawing heavily from critical theory and modern art history, his research-based creative process has traversed documentary film, photography, performance and installation. His latest works resist the label of “art objects,” yet their forms borrow heavily from Modernism.
Reflecting on art history’s local and global narratives, Shi takes on invisible structures such as political economies, belief systems, collective behaviors, and institutionalization, challenging the assumptions supporting them. He sees art production as more than the fabrication of final material objects: to many, he is a prolific intellectual worker, blogging and Weibo-ing with zeal.
Addressing the global economic crisis in his 2009 exhibition “Halfway House,” Shi raised questions about how a nation could pause to reflect on alternative models for social and economic development. His own answers came from exploring local histories. Using his family’s standard-issue furniture from work-units of the “New China” era, he built model factory buildings to the same proportions as the family sofa, bed, bookshelf and other furnishings. These models were lit from inside with neon bulbs and then laid out in a typical factory floor plan. In the same exhibition, Farm (2009) was a wooden greenhouse constructed according to the size of a standard apartment balcony, inside of which he arranged vegetables and even a rooster, recalling the urban farms that were common in the 1970s and 1980s. By looking into the past, he proposed potential alternatives to the present “capitalist” model.
Shi’s references to Chinese traditional art, blended with Western modernist styles, read like an attempt to converge two art-historical trajectories that have hitherto been divorced. For instance, in the sculptural installation Not Long Enough (2010), he mimicked post-minimalist quadrilateral forms with plywood, coating them with a yeast mixture pigmented with Chinese ink, and lit them with white fluorescent tubes arranged in specific angles around the bubbling masses.
At the end of 2010, he held a small exhibition in his studio titled “Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat.” The vernacular of the bird and flower painting genre, once a realm for sentimental musings of the traditional literati, is combined with modernist abstraction in objects otherwise known as industrial waste. The result was a room haphazardly filled with sculptural “mountains” built of rebar, Styrofoam, and sometimes tree branches, all covered in globs of paint and occasionally an artificial bird. In the accompanying series of short, manifesto-like statements, he rejects capitalism’s influence on the scale of contemporary art production and the “auto-institutionalization” he believes it causes.
Here, the use of surplus materials from other production processes served as Shi’s strategy for artistic autonomy. As he wrote of their drippy and layered aesthetic: “The form copies modernist aesthetics, they are hand-made imitations of machine processing; ideas imitating geometry. Nothing is more suitable for imitating minimalism because smooth abstract surfaces are always plagued by the traces of labor…” Considering his working definition of “proletariat”—“here it refers specifically to the empty-handed people within the political order”—Shi Qing seems to see himself as in the same social class, or aligned with, the proletariat.
Despite its title, Plant Republic (2011), an installation at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, did not feature a single piece of vegetation. Instead, the notion of “wild” plant ecologies existing in opposition to systematic social organizations served as an institutional critique. As Shi Qing describes it: you can plan a garden, but you can’t control how the plants will grow.” He sees artistic creativity in the same way––you can build structures to contain artists, but you can’t dictate how they will develop creatively. In Plant Republic, architectural idioms such as porticos, arches and columns were extracted from their contexts, reduced to a lexicon of forms, and then reinterpreted in cardboard and industrial steel. The rough and irregular geometric forms hinted at the human touch involved in their manufacture. Shi’s appropriation of elements from classical structures, which he then renders in cheap industrial materials, can be seen as a gesture that ridicules the nature of ideologies––capitalism, socialism, and even religions are merely collections of ideas or words, which can, like other material components, be deconstructed and rearranged, then discarded.
On one level, the temporary nature of his chosen materials is addressed by the title of his latest solo project at H-Space, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.” This title is taken from Marxist writer Marshal Berman’s book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Modernist Experience (1982), and is a line that Berman, in turn, borrowed from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848).
The installation was realized over a ten-day construction process and based on vague blueprints, it was constructed by the artist himself with the help of a small team. A natural extension of the tropes and ideas he has nurtured over the past few years, the installation featured plywood architectural facades from totalitarian or supremacist societies––all which are no longer extant; 20th-century art historical terms spelled out in both English and Chinese using cardboard signage, what Shi Qing calls “dead words,” such as Letatlin (Vladimir Tatlin’s human-powered flying machine from 1930); and half-finished works or materials brought in from his studio. Shi’s emphasis on process, not outcome, is fundamental to his works, and it deemphasizes the importance of final object itself.
Shi Qing encourages critical approach to art viewing, and does so with formal hints that expose what he calls the “backend” of an exhibition: the deliberate transparency of the installation process, the use of unrefined and inexpensive materials, the inclusion of studio objects, and architectural models that are merely facades. Ambling through the exhibition, there is no front-end, no back-end, just different angles. A tribute to Malevich’s Black Square (1915) in perforated steel hung above a “proletariat bird and flower” sculpture, two lumber posts levered against the floor rest against it––one of the artist’s visual metaphor for “systems.” Nestled among the wilting leaves are art-historical terms such as Gläserne Kette (“glass or crystal chain,” a chain letter that circulated among important German architects from 1919 to 1920) carved into and out of cardboard, some lit from the inside with fluorescent lamps.
Discussing these references from an era when art, architecture and utopian dreams were moving towards the same goal, Shi is matter-of-fact, not wistful. If the wheels adorning the wooden shipping platforms pallets he has integrated into his installation are any hint, he seems to have made peace with the temporary nature of everything surrounding him, from the political and the economic, to art movements and urban development, and even to life itself.
中国美术馆｜NATIONAL ART MUSEUM OF CHINA (2011.08.21–2011.09.07)
(Chinese version is posted on artforum.com.cn, 中文版 here）
[马秋莎 Ma Qiusha，Ashes to Ashes，2011，single channel video，3′15″]
The Taikang Collection’s vision for a corporate art collection in China occupied the entire third floor at China’s national art gallery (NAMOC) for two weeks late this summer. Collection shows don’t always provide much to speak of in a critical sense, but the much talked about and rigorous programming at Taikang Space in Caochangdi has been generous in facilitating discussion on emerging artists and experimental practices, so the show was widely anticipated by art professionals.No small number of touchstone works in modern/contemporary art history are currently entrusted to the Taikang collection, and the selection of works displayed here dropped all the most recognizable names of the contemporary market, while nodding to the art historical key points that have come to embody the general narrative on China’s evolving avantgarde. But the show pushes the beginning of its story into the mid-1960s, or earlier, predating the conventional citing of 1978 as the “birth” of Chinese contemporary art.
Xiao Lu’s twin phonebooth installation, Dialogue 《对话》, scene of the notoriously over-cited gunshot performance from the 1989 China Avantgarde exhibition significantly makes a return to the scene of the crime. The work is now unequivocally attributed to Xiao Lu alone, her co-conspirator Tang Song left off the roster, makes for an interesting bit of historical revisionism twenty years after the fact. It might have caused most discomfort for museum director Fan Di’an, who was rumored to have nervously sidestepped the piece at the opening, on display in the NAMOC again Dialogue was an underwhelming and static reincarnation. This art world “incident,” although important, has received so much exposure via media and critics that it has tragically overshadowed other works that from the same historical exhibiton. Nearby, that surrealistic canvas that has become the visual manifestation of the enlightenment of the mid-eighties, The Enlightenment of Adam and Eve 《在新时代——亚当夏娃的启示》(1985), by Meng Luding and Zhang Qun, hangs behind a glass frame. It is in good company, with works by Chen Yifei and Wu Guanzhong.
[吴印咸 Wu Yinxian, Building Enterprises Under Hard Conditions《艰苦创业》, 1942, B&W photo]
Rarely included amongst “contemporary” narratives are two icons from the xinzhongguo meishu, or Maoist, era: the first is Jin Shangyi’s Full Length Portrait of Chairman Mao 《毛主席全身像》 (1966), its celebrity status matched only by the 1942 print from Yan’an documentarian and photography master Wu Yinxian. Wu’s Building Enterprises Under Hard Conditions《艰苦创业》 is arguably the most recognizable image of Mao from the Yan’an years, and was significantly captured during the Talks on Literature and the Arts. Despite what feels like a vast psychological barrier between works from the 1960s and today, it subliminally suggests that the talks are still important to art production today. The reiterative display of Mao’s portrait in this broader context made for a curious, if not explicitly self-reflexive exercise in historical reflection. There is a feeling that the exhibition has created a peculiar historical space by making a fold in history from the cultural revolution to the contemporary, many issues were lost in the fold, forgotten, but we seem to be standing where the two ends meet.
While it was disappointing not to see more of the collection’s early works on display, or artworks outside familiar market-driven narratives, the show does provide an important opportunity for such a collection to interact with the general public. Not only does it introducing to the general public a sense of corporate cultural responsibility, its unique success is in providing non-art saavy, average citizens with the possibility of seeing contemporary art as the equivalent to Wu Yinxian’s portrait, or Jiang Zhaohe’s From Now, The Chinese People Have Stood Up 《中国人民从此站起来了》 (1949).Conservatives are likely to dismiss “contemporary art” because it exists in uncharted territories and outside the “approved canon,” but here, they are quietly introduced to some of the most avantgarde trends in the art world, direct from distant Heiqiao artist studios on Beijing’s peripheries well outside the 5th ring road. Doubtless, few casual visitors will critically examine whether or not the juxtaposition of red classics with contemporary art implies the latter are “good” or meaningful works within the “new” tradition of Chinese art (after 1949), but what other occasion might we have reason for Chen Yifei’s Eulogy of the Yellow River《黄河颂》 (1972) displayed alongside Zhao Zhao’s 5113 rat droppings?
On the last Sunday of its opening, most visitors did not linger in the first room, “Revolution and Enlightenment,” where the benchmarks of history are proudly displayed (although they are perhaps familiar only to “specialist” visitors); nor did visitors linger in the second room, “Pluralistic Patterns,” where calling cards from almost all the “super star” artists are dropped such as Wang Guangyi, Cai Guo-qiang or Huang Yongping. Although, in this room the “most photogenic artwork award” goes to Hong Hao and Yan Lei’s conceptual work Taikang Project 《泰康计划》 (2006). Here children were posed, and adults postured themselves before the enormous recreation of Van Gogh’s Ward in the Hospital in Arles (1889), (into which Hong Hao and Yan Lei inserted their own visages a la Van Gogh self-portraits), visitors carefully framed their snapshots to exclude the life insurance documents that occupy the right half of the enormous baroque frame. It looked like a “masterpiece,” and here it was in the museum, so it proved itself worthy of photographing one’s self infront of it––is this a shanzhai version of the Western art historical canon? Perhaps the irony of this display, the naïve appropriation of Western works by casual audiences, was anticipated by they artists when they first exhibited the work in the small Taikang Gallery in 2006.
[ 肖鲁 Xiao Lu,《对话》Dialogue, 1989, 2011 installation at NAMOC ]
This last room “Extended Vision” is filled with a selection of artists from Taikang’s 2010 to 2011 “51m2” young artist series, and represents the close of the Taikang story. Perhaps it was the mundane nature of digital video, or the habitualized captivation by flickering screens, but in this last room viewers were enthralled by two works. First was Liu Chuang’s Untitled (Dancing Partner)《无题（舞伴）》 (2011), a video of two cars traveling in perfect company, side-by-side on Beijing’s ring roads, never speeding, never slowing, but dictating the flow of traffic around them through this simple gesture of solidarity. The next was Ma Qiusha’s large screen projection of Ashes to Ashes《黎明是黄昏的灰烬》 (2011), although hers is a provocative treatment of this celebrated state iconology, viewers lingered comfortably before the floor to ceiling screen. Adults were rapt, and children danced, projecting themselves as shadows onto the familiar streets and the bullhorn-laden lampposts surrounding the square. Rendered in this “contemporary mode,” and with a distinct criticality, the political heart of contemporary China still has the power to mesmerize, even if the context has completely changed.
8th Shanghai Biennale [from February 2011 Artforum]
The Shanghai Biennale is charged with a significant task: to harmonize the expectations of professional and international audiences with the tastes of a broader local public, all while conforming to Ministry of Culture’s requirements. By the time its eighth incarnation opened last year, the biennial had a reputation as China’s most significant international art show, the most important benchmark for China’s role in the global art-cultural sphere. This prominence was reflected last year in a new opening date, in October, that intentionally distanced the biennial from the commercial influence of the city’s art fair. This incarnation of the event bypassed “foreign” curators; it was curated instead by a team led by Gao Shiming, a young theoretician at the China Academy of Art and a cocurator of “Say Farewell to Post-Colonialism,” the final Guangzhou Triennial (the event is now defunct), in 2008. Gao’s thesis for the show was based on Brechtian notions of theatricality and the idea of the exhibition as a site of cultural production, facilitating multiple possibilities, with the ultimate aim of confronting the discursive dominance of global capitalism. The presiding metaphor of “rehearsal” lent the biennial its title.
[while these sculptures received no critical acclaim, they were prized photo ops]
The strongest feature of “Rehearsal” was, in fact, its theoretical basis—Gao’s earnest attempt to establish new ideas uniquely situated in an ascendant Asia. Also of interest were the preliminary events that took place across geographic-temporal boundaries, including installments in Vietnam and New York (via Performa) and projects with Indian artists and social thinkers as well as the Croatian curatorial collective WHW. The schizophrenic main exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum was arguably the Achilles’ heel of the biennial; here, the clarity of Gao’s curatorial strategy was diluted by incongruent inclusions that can only be explained as results of coexisting agendas less noble than his attempt to advance Chinese art theory in the international sphere.
The exhibition was divided into four “acts.” Act 1, the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, was treated like a star-studded miniseries within the biennial: It involved several artists—among them MadeIn Company (represented by their “CEO,” Xu Zhen), Wu Shanzhuan, Chen Chieh-jen, and Wang Jianwei—walking the historic trail with Gao, discussing theory and collectively examining their own artistic practice in daily struggle sessions. The group of artists presented their artistic-intellectual output in Beijing’s Long March Space last September, and they were allotted the entire first floor in Shanghai, where they showed new works, made for this show, spread across the floor; the surrounding walls were hung with blown-up slogans such as we have yet to thoroughly examine the essence of action and taking on the burden of history is not an act of retracing historical memory, but a restless attempt to position the present in history. Prominent among these works, MadeIn’s forest of found images transferred onto canvas and displayed on wooden pickets made the most sense for me when I spied a visitor smiling for a head shot in front of a canvas painted with a pile of US dollars. Elsewhere, the sprawling polyhedronic wooden armatures of Liu Wei’s Merely a Mistake II, 2010, continued the artist’s formalist aesthetic, although a more striking prequel had previously been installed at the Long March Space.
Raqs Media Collective’s Fragments from a Communist Latento, 2010, neatly encapsulated this biennial’s impotent thrust: In this work, light boxes showing fragmented statements, as an antonym to the manifesto, were displayed in tandem with texts and diagrams contributed by Chinese intellectuals and artists (along with an introduction by Gao), the most fascinating of which was a contribution from Chan Koonchung, the author of the 2009 dystopian science-fiction novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (The Prosperous Time: China 2013). It begins: “Irony with Chinese characteristics—not only could contemporary art play safe by playing ‘revolutionary,’ it could also conveniently become a public relations ally to the official ideology.” His remains the keenest critical observation on “Rehearsal” in any language so far, and it hung in plain view amid the curatorial imbroglio, in English only.
[And this student seemed eager to take notes as well.]
Last week, at a “regular news conference at the Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman, suggested that some reporters were trying to stir up unrest, not report on it. ‘Law-abiding people will be protected by the law,’ she said. ‘But people who are trying to create trouble in China, I can tell them that they have made the wrong plans.’” (via NYT, read full text here)
Veiled threats from the “ministry” hint that harmony threatens the free world. This means that you too, white journalist, will have to abide by the rules. Or at least appear to abide by them. Covering the career-boosting “China in unrest” story has become even more valuable.
Evan Osnos asked recently on the New Yorker blog, “Is China giving up on Western Rule of Law?” (link here) And physical attacks on foreign journalists in China also hint that this ain’t, and never will be, the proverbial “Kansas.” But while “strolling protests” and other news are afforded major coverage outside the Great Firewall, various ministries quietly assert their point of view through other subtle messages. Here, that point of view is literally with the prominent Pacific-centered political map as a background.
The white lines on a blue field contrast starkly with the red and yellow of the Chinese flag, and the stylized rendering of this map, as well as the unfamiliar projection (most common is the Mercator projection) seems to state the Ministry’s position perfectly. The image above seems the quintessential inclusion of the three primary colors, and against the blue, the flag’s prominent color seems distinctly non-conservative. The red logo on the very center of the podium also looks striking, it seems to be in the cusp of the “bending” African and South American continents. China has rendered itself as a supporter of the developing nations since the 1950s, the theme can be found in both “fine” art and poster arts since 1949. The image the Foreign Ministry projects here is not too different from what we might see at a US, or UN press conference, it seems to suggest we are looking at a power equal, but alternative, to the current world order.
I’ve written briefly on the mathematical symmetry and stern aesthetic in news images from the DPRK (link here), and the stark image above bears a certain resemblance. But to be fair, its symmetric composition should be credited to David Gray for Reuters. Thus, this image is not the product of any “propaganda machine,” although its staged element are surely homegrown. This fact also adds a new, more interesting layer to its analysis––how much of this representation is based on the photographer’s preconceptions of authority as stiff and dictated from the center? But, never having consciously seen other images of this “regular new conference,” I can only make limited comments.
If we take these types of background images seriously (and we have every reason to believe that ALL nations do), it is clear who’s projecting a unique world view.
Read more on journalist restrictions in the IHT here.
The following paper was for a class on contemporary art criticism in China. It discusses the two articles “Globalization” and “Observations on and Predictions for ‘After Postcolonialism’” by Gao Shiming. The conclusion includes some of my own analysis, but the content is generally the same as the previous two “Readings” on Gao. (Going along the Silk Route this summer, but if I get some time when I’m back, I’ll translate.)
英国的左派文化批评者特里·伊格尔顿（Terry Eagleton） 评论著名后殖民理论家佳亚特里·斯皮瓦克 （Gayatri Spivak）的新书《在俗丽的超市里》时，描述了后殖民话语的特征：“在某处，一定存在着给一本后殖民批评家准备的手册，里面的第一条是“以拒绝后殖民主义的整体概念为开始。”
作为大展背后的观念和理论的先行本，三年展的重要文章之一《读本一》，本人将对高士明与许江合编的文章《‘全球概念’与中国当代艺术的境遇——写在卡塞尔文献展艺术策划人访华之际》（2000）进行概述 。此文已在不同杂志发表过多次，并且在网络上广泛传播。 上述文章认为，后殖民主义并不适用于中国，中国的艺术家需要在多文化的平台上展示出自身的创造力。二人的争论围绕了2000年第十一届卡塞尔文献展艺术总监奥奎（Okwui Enwezor）和六位国际知名艺术批评家、策划人杭州的杭州之行进行了讨论。他们第一站是中国美术学院，第一天的讨论会上，他们就问道：“西方意味着什么？”
西方的“全球化”概念与艺术界对身份的认同和对独特性、本土性、差异性的重视不一定是本土艺术界所关心的话题，但是这些因素引起了西方艺术界对“身份”、“他者”以及多文化主义的讨论。 策展小组从来没有提出最相关的问题：后殖民的话语究竟是否适用于中国的文化语境？ (more…)
Gao Shiming and Xu Jiang’s “‘Globalization’ and Chinese Contemporary Art –– written on the occasion of the Kassel Documenta curators’ visit to China”
读许江与高士明的《“全 球概念”与中国当代艺术的境遇——写在卡塞尔文献展艺术策划人访华之际》 的一些感受
The following are some thoughts and some translations while reading Xu Jiang and Gao Shiming’s essay, “‘Globalization’ and Chinese Contemporary Art” (The Chinese title translates more literally as “the notion of Globalization” and the circumstances of Chinese contemporary art.”) I hope to outline the framework of their argument. This text was first published in 2000, and reprinted in the 2008 Third Guangzhou Triennial “Farewell to Post-Colonialism” reader No. 1 (读本一), a Chinese version can be found on the exhibition’s homepage. This text has been circulated widely on the Internet, and the question is, is this a work of “criticism,” or a manifesto of sorts?
Authors Gao Shiming was a curator of the Third Guangzhou Triennial: Farewell to Post-Colonialism” (2008) and is currently on the curatorial team of the 2010 Shanghai Biennial, “Rehearsal.” Xu Jiang is the Dean of the China National Academy of Fine Arts, and one very lively orator.
关键观念：全球化、后殖民主义、 身份、文化多元化、文化他者、“中国性”、“西化”关键词：非西方的西方化，反思着的现代性，沉默的声 音
Key Concepts: Globalization, modernization, Westernization, Post-Colonialism, Multicultural, Identity, Cultural Other, Chineseness.
Key Words: non-Western Westernization, introspective modernity, silent voices
For the sake of brevity, Postcolonalism has been abbreviated to Po Co. The general idea is that Po Co is not applicable in China, and Chinese artists need to creatively assert themselves on a multicultural stage.
“Globalization has caused the West to introspectively reflect on its modernity, especially the various universalisms that this includes.”
“But, amidst the multiculturalism promoted by ‘globalization,’ the strategic misinterpretation and use of Po Co cultural theory to interpret and Chinese contemporary culture and art still exists.”
“Chinese art is facing fortunate opportunities for development like never before, and is likewise experiencing cultural circumstances both of unprecedented complexity and full of paradoxes. In view of the present world’s cultural pluralism, Chinese artists must devote themselves to establishing a new Chinese art rich in imagination and creativity, and not the characteristic monotony of a cultural other.”
So Po Co theory is not applicable in China ( a sentiment that I’ve heard echoed from some students at CAFA, who have said, “why should we apply foreign theories to what’s happening in China?”), and likewise Chinese artists need to make new art that defines them on a multicultural stage.
My reading of this statement sees art creation endowed with a mission to promote a “new Chinese art,” one free from the Western gaze, or free from the “West” as a determinant factor in establishing cultural value. This argument is not new, but here is placed within a framework of Po Co theory and globalization. One valid question that arises is whether or not the same terminology in translation is being interpreted or understood in the same ways across contexts. Po Co as an interpretive model has been looked upon with suspicion in Chinese academia, I believe that it falls outside what ever may be called the mainstream of critical literature, film, and cultural studies in China.
Their argument centers around Okwui Enwezor and the arrival of the Documenta 11 curatorial team in China, a now China-art-world-legendary encounter. Their first stop was the Hangzhou China Academy of Art, where they met with authors Xu Jiang and Gao Shiming, among others. Their question to them was: “What is the West?” The authors are shocked and seem insulted that upon arriving in China, their first question is West-centric (and we assume he should have asked what is ‘China’?) (more…)
NEGOTIATING DIFFERENCE –– What is the Academic Context for Chinese Contemporary Art? As contemporary scholarship integrates art from China into a broadening notion of art history, the growing list of important reasons for its study in the west are plagued by methodological fissures, differences between contexts and backgrounds, and a host of competing interests contending for the roles of gatekeepers in the interpretation and writing the history “Contemporary art from China.” This was evidenced in the May “China Contemporary Art Forum,” where real-time translation was not enough to make up for the different value orientations of scholars present. (Read a review by participants Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg) Western/foreign/“outsider” scholars who approach the subject must contend with numerous language and cultural differences, and China’s culture of introversion that is often defensive when confronted with Western criticism, is almost always suspicious of Western interpretations, and definitely rejects negative attention. East-West negotiations (more specifically framed as China-West 中西 within China) are arguably the most important issue in Chinese art during the entire 20th century, and compose a comparative framework that unfortunately still pervades all discussions on art production, theory, criticism and art appreciation in China today.In this regard, the study of Chinese art across cultures still lacks an accepted framework for discourse, and as the field expands, the already vast pool of variables will only increase: frames of reference, academic training and background, language skills, cultural fluency, one’s stake in their research and incorruptibility, level of participation and mother culture all contribute to our various competing and fluctuating perspectives. How to situate our research in authenticity? How to present art from China in a global context? The conference “Negotiating Difference” attempted to address some of these questions last October at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, looking at “Chinese” art in an international setting, and adapting English as the primary language at the conference, the main focus was on questions of methodology. Unique in the sense that it was directed at young scholars and graduate students, more than thirty people from diverse backgrounds convened in Berlin for the event. As the introduction reads: “Whether considered from a discursive, institutional or object-centered perspective, contemporary Chinese art always involves aspects of a globally informed locality and a locally affected globality,” [italics mine] organizers hoped to critically examine the predominant existing research frameworks that emphasize an essentialist “Chinese identity” or locate art from China within an entirely “Western” definition of art.Hans Belting and Gao Minglu were scheduled to attend, but were in absentia, and thus the only “senior scholar” in attendance at the conference was Prof. John Clark from University of Sydney. In his keynote address, the art historian posited three questions that set the tone for the conference: 1) Are ‘Chinese-style’ and ‘Western-style’ twentieth century art practices and their interpretive structures autonomous? 2) If we avoid or defer the bifurcation ‘Chinese’ / ‘Western’, what kinds of historical time is implicit in the development of modern Chinese art? 3) How does Chinese modern and contemporary art look different if we use certain international comparisons from other Asian contexts?Below, in an attempt to introduce to the conference as well as recent scholarship in the field, I’ve provided very short summaries (interpretations?) of each of the papers presented at the conference. Please accept apologies in advance for any cursory reviews, there was so much to discussion that a full summary of each one of them would be beyond the scope of my abilities. The summaries are divided into the eight panels that framed the discussion over the two-day conference, beginning below with “art the transnational and transcultural context.” Comments welcome.I. Contemporary Chinese Art in the Transnational and Transcultural Context.Dr. Juliane Noth, a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin and one of the organizers of the conference, presented on the No Name painters of the late 70s and early 80s, (more…)
These past two weeks, every communication included something along the lines of “How are the Olympics,” or “hope you’re surviving the Olympics”. The answer: smothering, and just barely.
Now that they have concluded, I feel that ominous burden slowly melting from my psyche, and I realize that I was truly not “coping well” with the games. I was instead lying low, playing dead, unable to watch or even comment on this historic event. Instead, I escaped the steamy red and yellow fervor emanating from the Bird’s Nest stadium by flying off to Yunnan province, a necessary act of “self-protection” (a Chinese pun on “avoiding the Olympics” and “contraception”) but the fervor pursued.
The NYT headlines mocked me in my inbox, conflicting and paradoxical news “angles” from American and Chinese news sources accumulated, champions wept or chomped on their lead-tinged gold medals over the endless highlights montages that were repeating on televisions across China, on every CCTV station, in the airport, in the bus station, waiting for elevators…
From 29, 49, to 51 gold medals––this news tracked me down even at 2000+ meters above sea level. Perhaps it wasn’t altitude sickness at all that left me vomiting in the bathroom. The record-breaking conclusion of the games was a victory for the Chinese spirit, for which I extend my true congratulations.
After returning to Beijing, and while browsing one of my favorite stress-relieving Chinglish sites, the Century Online China Art Networks, my “unprotected” eyes were despoiled by an unusual, but seemingly Olympics related headline: “Why does so much ancient Greek art feature males with small genitalia.” An English article posted on August 22, 2008 and signed “CL2000.com.” Here, among Beijing exhibition reviews, a feature on Buddhist sand mandalas, and a piece on the Jewish Museum, was this seemingly out of place reportage on the heft and quality of ancient Greek genitals as evidenced in statuary. (more…)
In these heady days leading to the Summer Games, many “foreign friends” in China and would be visitors are perplexed be the sudden difficulties in obtaining and extending their visas. Indeed, China’s crackdown and imitation of the US Government’s visa policies seems an illogical strategy for a nation on the verge of her debutante ball, even more so when inflation seems almost solely propelled by lusty visions of foreign visitors paying 40 RMB (~5.50 USD) for a cup of swill-piss coffee. Nevertheless, there are rules and conventions in every culture and nation, and with China so eager to enforce hers, international friends should bone up on a more “native” approach to red tape and visa paperwork. Herein lies the soundest advice I can give for anyone who approaches one of the low, laminate countertops that shield the forces of the Chinese bureaucracy: you need yin for yang, something to slake the thirst of the inexplicable administrative madness going on behind those counters. You’ve accepted the mission, now your secret weapon? MY CLEAR BAG.
“Business. School. Home.
Collection Information. Communication.
Shopping. Driving. Playing. Presentation.”
Helpful suggestions for its use are printed right on top of this “simple” document folder. Your lucky amulet comes in five pastel colors, each one bearing a white printed grid, the above “poem” outlining its function, and that discriminating title, those three conspicuous words: MY CLEAR BAG.
If life were a video game, MY CLEAR BAG would be the weapon that you buy with accumulated coins, or the talisman you steal from some dead guy. But, thankfully, this is China, a peaceful nation with some special socialist tendencies, and there are plenty for all! In a nation that loves homogeneity and inconspicuous behavior as much as China, there is no better tool to help you blend in. You can––and you should––buy one from your corner store.
Traditional Chinese philosophy stresses balance: bringing down the heat, restoring harmony. My Clear Bag is your antidote, your leverage for confronting an incomprehensible and opaque Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Imagine the brutalist monoliths that are Beijing’s governmentbuildings, imaging what is tucked behind those endless rows of black windows; the bureaus and the leaders that survey them, the constantly changing rules they make and break. Imagine now My Clear Bag––it is in your hand as you approach one of the many service counters that breech the Ministry with the comparably prostrate public––you use it to approach the human face of this bureaucracy. Your face is forgettable, and probably not as symmetrically pleasing as the My Clear Bag you carry. Place it unassumingly on the desk and revel in its purpose and its methodology: it is transparent, and compact, its function is obvious, self-explanatory, intuitive. It stands in diametric opposition to all of the nastiness inside. Your officer picks it up for inspection. Nestled inside your Clear Bag, nothing can be lost, nothing will fall through the cracks.
Simply the sight of My Clear Bag unconsciously brings peace to whomever you encounter behind the desk, just as a cool cucumber soothes the fires of a spicy hot pot, it calms the soul of this officer. In contrast to their life “within the machine”, the rules of My Clear Bag are simple and easy to follow, and they do not change seasonally with campaigns nor with national holidays. Protocol is obvious and perfunctory. Of course, Everyone’s Clear Bag is exactly the same, with no exceptions. Unlike that Audi A6 with mandatory leather-seats and a quilted tissue box on the dashboard that may or may not be parked outside of the building, there is no “VIP” Clear Bag. No, there is one bag for all, at one price, and with limited variations––that Clear Bag of mine is a tested, true classic model of Marxist socialism.
Of course, the contents My Clear Bag can vary. At more “official” times such as border crossings their contents should include your passport, little stacks of I.D. photos paper-clipped together and––as any experienced My Clear Bag operator should know––photocopies of each document. These contents are stacked in ascending or descending order of importance, depending on your mission. Larger assignments (applying for a Chinese university) would do well to include a typed table of contents.
Approaching any counter á la My Clear Bag is to say in a nonverbal language that you are a law-abiding, trustworthy candidate. It becomes the missing semiotic link between your inevitable success and your visa officer. By toting My Clear Bag, you are demonstrating highly prized values of “healthy thought”: you revere simplicity, you are well organized and respectful of your opportunity to inquire about a little visa from the big bureaucracy. You don’t fly ahead of that flock, and don’t worry, no one’s going to sacrifice you to scare the monkeys. You also know the virtues of being economical, because you bought My Clear Bag for 1.5RMB. This bag can truly change your life.
The following artist introduction will be included in the forthcoming book, Looking for Me, a collection of writings and works representing the best of China’s young artists.
Yan Cong’s artistic career began in boredom and loneliness, a student wasting away in his dorm room, which he surmounted by drawing comics and illustrations and posting them online for a growing group of virtual friends. Thus the imaginary landscapes he retreats into and characters that inhabit them are a true blend of his psychology and quaint nostalgia for childhood, or perhaps his humble home in the countryside. His adopted penname, yancong, is the Chinese for “chimney.”
Yan Cong works in an eclectic mix of elementary materials: ballpoint pen, newspaper collage, low-tech digital illustration, even needle and thread. His choice of mediums reflects the low-tech modesty and longing for an uncomplicated world that color his personal world. In drawings and comics on paper of various sizes and quality, he invokes a lonely world of folkloric creatures, and dreamlike adventures unfold in a narrative voice culled over a lifetime of avid comic reading. Much of the detail, the compositional language and depth in his two-dimensional works was informed by his training as a traditional painter, although, this formal instruction is otherwise invisible. He shares new comics and illustrations online at his blog, Soda Pop Stand, and is a central member of the Green School Design Collective, curating shows and influencing the group aesthetic with his seemingly benign style.
Many of his drawings resemble children’s book illustrations, but tiny nuances betray the skill of their author––eyelashes, the twinkle in an eye, or the just-so buttons on a flowery dress. There are evil characters with bullhorns, and good boys with rosy cheeks, pig-headed or dog-faced children are everywhere, and characters tear out their heart (literally) for us; the moon smiles down on it all. His works might be small but his repertoire is growing, each artwork becoming a frame onto Yan Cong’s private mythology. As it once functioned for him, Yan Cong’s work shelters us in a simpler world.
The following texts were originally published in the 2007-08 Insider’s Guide to Beijing. They have been expanded below, and include content that is “not permitted” to be published within China.
With such a noticeably short history, the question of from where the Chinese avant-garde emerged is gaining more interest, especially with new developments and tourist-ready accessibility of Beijing’s art zones such as 798, Caochangdi and the Liquor Factory. In a steamy arts climate, social change, economic reform and policy are intertwined with art history, and are equally intertwined to the development of the avant-garde.
The long, potholed road to “success” seems to have paid off for some members of the avant garde, the incredible sums they now collect at auction seem almost like compensation for previous eating of the proverbial “bitterness” and years of marginalization and exclusion from both city limits and institutional art systems. An art world that was once “underground” has been exhumed and now features newly paved roads cappuccinos to go, and a firm position in the popular media. The shape of the new artistic vanguard––like everything in modern China––is changing, and at a racecar pace. Keeping the recent 20 years in mind as a foundation, where it will lead to, we can only guess, reminding ourselves that the “art districts” of today were simply unthinkable 15 years ago.
1979-1984 Shaking the Reigns
Even after the bans on individualistic perspectives or themes had been lifted, the political themes of the Cultural Revolution had still not completely disappeared. Realism reigned on the canvas, though there was a tangible rejection and knee-jerk reaction to the practice of socialist-realist art from the extreme left. Emotionally charged, personal subjects were creeping back into the artistic and literary milieu with “Scar Art” (伤痕艺术 shanghen yishu), perhaps today best represented by the almost confrontational oil painting “Father” 父亲. Completed in 1979 by Luo Zhongli 罗中立, “Father” featured an intimate frontal view of this sweat-dripping, sun-withered peasant’s face executed in exceptional photo-realism. Abstract forms, nudity and personal themes, although not forbidden, were still taboo in the mainstream.
Representing the struggle that many Chinese artists still debate, artist Wu Guanzhong 吴关中emerged at the forefront of a continuing movement of traditionally trained painters who struggled to integrate Western expressionist aesthetics with Chinese mediums such as ink and wash. Amidst a politically relaxed, emotionally charged atmosphere the group of radicals know as the Stars 星星 (the notorious Ai Weiwei 艾未未 among them) was busy acting on their bottled-up experimental impulses that were uncorked in a backlash to years of a silenced avant garde. (more…)
Below is a short piece inspired by the Chinese Literature Translation workshop that I attended last March. The whole week was filled with meaty content on translation and its woes, but this dialogue was a highlight. Jiang Rong’s bestseller Wolf Totem, is recently available in an English edition. The book doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. Thanks to Tom Saunders for the photograph.
A few weeks back, Penguin Publishing Group and the Arts Council England hosted the first ever Sino-British Literary Translation Workshop on a hazy bamboo mountainside in the historic resort town of Moganshan, just a few hours north of Shanghai. Translators of various levels and backgrounds convened to discuss the finer points of textual and contextual understanding when moving texts across languages and cultures. The workshop was timed to coincide with the English release of Chinese bestseller and Mainland publishing anomaly Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), translated by the uncontested king of modern Chinese literature in translation, Howard Goldblatt. The basic premise of the workshop was that the responsibility of the translator is not simply to convert text from one language to another, but that in the act of translation, he or she becomes a cultural authority in his or her own right.
Wolf Totem, rumored to be one of the most widely circulated books in China since Mao’s “Little Red Book,” is a non-traditional, allegorical novel that examines the character of the wolf through not only narrative, but collected parables and folklore. It grew out of the experiences of the author, Jiang Rong, a pensive, conservative-looking man who sports Jiang Zemin-esque glasses. His time in Inner Mongolia inspired the book, 11 years laboring on a farm during the Cultural Revolution. He eventually finished Wolf Totem after six years of writing; it is purported to be a muffled criticism of the complacency of the Han people, ripe with nationalist undertones. According to publishing insiders, the book sold more than 4 million copies in its legal copyrighted edition since its 2004 release, which likely amounts to less than 40% of the book’s total sales on the mainland (including pirated editions).
the piece continues here . . .
“Cynical realism—it’s the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.” - Aldous Huxley
In Beijing, October 2006 two monumental art world events coincided to the fanfare of endless camera shutters: the opening of the Today Art Museum’s new space in Beijing and within it’s walls, the first Mainland solo exhibition of one of China’s most archetypical contemporary painters and celebrated “cynical realist” Fang Lijun. It was a strange “debut” in his hometown––late by almost 20 years––yet he is one of the most recognizable Mainland Chinese artists in the world.
Fang Lijun’s baldheads on desolate landscapes have become an iconic symbol of contemporary Chinese art, and Fang the commonly accepted as the definitive “cynical realist.” The Cynical Realist school that he so roundly represents and its contemporary, “Political Pop” have become the two most identifiable and uniquely “Chinese” contemporary art movements from the mainland—they are also some of the highest priced works in the international art market today.
Cynical Realism at a Glance
Cynical Realist painting, which emerged in the early 1990s, was a step towards personal expression and away from the collective mindset that prevailed in the Cultural Revolution, it is often linked with the political events of 1989 that left a sour taste in the hearts and psychologies of artists and intellectuals in Beijing, the cultural capital of China. Although Cynical Realist works maintain an ambiguous relationship with society and politics, socio-political themes emerge in form and content; politics are seen from a distance and take no clear pro-con stance on issues. The result is a cold, realistic view of a Chinese society in transition, a “stylized ambivalence” and a form of humor––later coined “grey humor”–– transcending the political realm although its roots clearly lie there. (more…)