Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

The Second Situation: Looking Back on the History of Chinese Contemporary Art
Joni Low

There are reasons for looking back and contemplating the past to think about present values. Such was the case last autumn in Beijing, where several retrospective exhibitions focussed on the origins of Chinese contemporary art roughly thirty years ago as a way of measuring current trends in the presentation and circulation of this work.1 Along with the launch of U-Turn, a limited periodical about the past three decades of Chinese contemporary art, and recent books by art historians such as Martina Koeppel-Yang and Gao Minglu, these exhibitions revisit a key historical moment, which brought Chinese art into contemporary art discourse. This interest in the historicization of recent Chinese art coincides with worldwide anticipation of the Beijing Olympics and the attention it has bestowed on China, whose contemporary artists fetch soaring prices in the international art market while occupying a heavyweight position in the global economy.

There is no doubt that Chinese contemporary art has had a positive effect on China’s international image. But beyond celebrating and commemorating the past as it relates to national identity and prestige, revisiting the experimental art practices of the 1908s raises other questions. For instance, which art history or histories are recorded and who participates in that process? Which artists are recognized, and which artists are given the most attention due to the epic scale and spectacular quality of their work? How does the telling of certain histories empower particular institutions, and how might the “canonizing” of Chinese contemporary art overshadow more obscure, but equally significant histories? What are the intentions behind this historicization, and the impact of these efforts?

There seems to be an activism in the gesture of thinking historically about Chinese contemporary art, whose numerous art professionals and specialists, such as Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, Melissa Chiu, Lu Jie, and Zheng Shengtian, have emphasized a need for the development of a historical consciousness, and a more critical dialogue so that the market does not simply, nor overwhelmingly, determine its value. With the globalization of the art market and the trend towards art collecting as a portfolio investment—especially in emerging art markets—there is a need to strike a balance between the academic concerns of art history and the economic priorities of the art market, an equilibrium that might create a sustained interest in, support for, and legitimization of the activities of contemporary art in general.

One retrospective that sparks such questions is the inaugural exhibition of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). The Center opened last November in Beijing’s 798 art district with the exhibition ’85 New Wave, a comprehensive look at the origins of experimental Chinese art from the 1980s.

The UCCA is a foreign, private, non-profit institution founded by Belgian sugar tycoons Guy and Miriam Ullens, passionate collectors of Chinese contemporary art. Its mission statement, at the time of the exhibition, was “to engage a wide audience through exhibitions, public programs, and a contemporary art reading room, all of which will build an art-historical consciousness in a market saturated art scene.” Since then, the statement has been re-worded as: “to be a new kind of private institution, a place to really live and a platform for open dialogue for all communities in search of a new, vibrant exciting space to enjoy contemporary creativity.”2 This rewording follows a change in directorship and seems to extend its relevance. Scheduling the exhibition, and the Center’s opening, at such a key historical moment for China, causes me to wonder how such a gesture might assert their own, self-proclaimed place in history, not unlike the ways in which Chinese artists in the 1980s were conscious of how they might one day be historicized.

The history of art production in mainland China during the 20th century is fractured by its struggle with modernity, civil war, and the ideological triumph of communism in 1951. For decades art and culture functioned in service to politics before being completely debilitated by the Cultural Revolution. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the initiation of new policies by leaders like Deng Xiaoping, China entered a new era of political, cultural, and economic reform. Artists found themselves in a climate where they could express themselves more openly and engage with ideas and art histories outside of China, which had been inaccessible for decades. Imagine years of pent-up artistic expression suddenly released: this is the context out of which the ’85 New Wave movement arose.

Gao Minglu, who experienced ’85 New Wave firsthand, describes it as “a broad movement encompassing social activities such as performances, meetings, lectures, conferences, and village-factory visits as well as many self-organized, unofficial exhibitions.” Artists in China, many of whom received academic training, began experimenting with ideas like conceptual art, abstract expressionism, and integrated it with their own experiences and Chinese traditions in search of a “Chinese” modernity. These artists also felt a sort of social responsibility to enlighten society through art and ideas. Most of the exhibitions took place in the public sphere, and, as ’85 New Wave exhibition curator Fei Dawei is quick to point out, in an environment without galleries, and without the existence of an art market or any systematic support for contemporary art.3 The Chinese government, however, began to pull in the reigns on cultural and individual freedoms. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, many of these artists left China to live and make work abroad, with some—such as Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping, and Gu Wenda—building international careers.

The UCCA’s inaugural exhibition has its share of ironies, explicit and implicit. On the entrance walls to a room wrapped in timelines, a statement made by artist Gu Dexin from 1989 reads in bold green:

Aside from money and big studios, Chinese artists have everything they need / 我们认为中国艺术家除了没有钱, 没有大工作室, 什么都有, 而且什么都是最好的. Read with its historical context in mind, the quote captures a lot of the idealism and passion of the 1980s, of being fulfilled simply by ideas, making art for the sake of art. The irony, however, lies within the gap between the realities of then and now; before, Chinese artists made do with what they had, collaborating as much out of conviviality as economic necessity. Today, artists like Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Mingjun find themselves in the exact situation Gu Dexin described twenty years ago: not only do their paintings sell for record prices at Sotheby’s auctions,4 they own houses, expensive cars, and giant studios—with some even employing production teams to meet the high demand for their art. However, one has to wonder if there is a certain trap being set here, one of nostalgia and a certain fondness for the past, which venerates these artists and the “purity” of this period. I sense an underlying critique of the situation today, where many artists have forsaken their own critical voice in exchange for wealth and material success.

Another irony about the exhibition at UCCA is the fact that many of the works included in’85 New Wave had been part of China Avant-Garde, an exhibition held at Beijing’s National Gallery in the spring of 1989. China Avant-Garde was the first large-scale exhibition of contemporary art held at a government institution, but was closed prematurely by Chinese authorities. In a way, the re-appearance of these works in China’s capital—but at a foreign institution—is an estranged homecoming. Works that appeared in China Avant-Garde—such as Shen Yuan’s Fishbed and Huang Yongping’s History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Western Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes—are thus re-presented, somewhat eerily, in the cool, minimal design of a polished, museum-quality exhibition, twenty-odd years removed from the energy, excitement, and intellectual rigour that warranted government opposition and censorship originally.

Other significant works had not seen Chinese soil since the late 1980s, instead circulating internationally, on their own and in thematic and somewhat ahistorical exhibitions of “New Chinese Art” before re-appearing in Beijing at the UCCA. Xu Bing’s installation, Book from the Sky (1987–1991) flows dramatically from the ceiling of the gallery’s entrance in reams of scroll paper printed with false Chinese characters of the artist’s creation. In the main concourse is Geng Jianyi’s The Second Situation (1987), an iconic series of four, mask-like portraits of a man laughing hysterically (or cynically?) at a private joke that may well be at the expense of the viewer. Is this, I wonder, the “Second Situation” to which the work is now referring?

With no plans made by UCCA to travel the exhibition,’85 New Wave seems not so much about the international legitimization of such history as it is an introduction of such a history to a Chinese audience, one which may not be aware of this historical period, or have not had the opportunity to see these early works, but know about the soaring demand for Chinese contemporary art today.

To be sure, it was a rare opportunity for both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences to see over 130 works of painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and video performances, plus ephemera, and documentation, from this period. Earlier works by painters Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi showed how their artistic styles changed dramatically from the 1980s to the 1990s, as artists abandoned the utopian idealism that art could effect social change, instead focussing on current issues in China’s increasingly capitalist economy and society.

Zhang is best known for his iconic Bloodline series, somber portraits, sometimes of single-child families, whose faces bear only a small smear of yellow, suggesting perhaps a disappearing “Chinese-ness.” His earlier paintings display a versatility and experimentation with different styles—surreal, curious landscapes and rough, mixed-media portraits of haunted faces. Yet, one can begin to see how certain themes—the somber figures, for instance—have remained constant throughout his artistic development. Wang Guangyi, on the other hand, turned from an aesthetic of sublime existentialism in the 1980s—cool, distant colours and shadows of his Frozen North Pole series—to the critical social analyses of his “Political Pop” paintings, which juxtaposed heroic figures from the Cultural Revolution with commercial logos such as Coca-Cola in bright, bold colours.

It was refreshing to see the inclusion of several artist groups and collectives in the exhibition, and an attention to regional differences. A separate room was devoted to two groups: Fujian-based Xiamen Dada, whose activities included the burning of their own paintings to liberate the artist from attachments, and the Xinkedu Group, whose conceptual, non-object-based art experiments sought to eliminate emotion in art, using their own blend of rational, quantitative, and logical approaches. This focus added nuance to the historical narrative of a wider movement and emphasized the collaborations that are often overlooked in the midst of a hyperactive art market that privileges the celebrity status of artist as individual/genius. There were only two female artists included in the show, however: Xiao Lu, the artist who fired a gun at her installation in China Avant-Garde (which, in part, led to the early close of the exhibition in 1989) and Shen Yuan, one of four female artists who represented China at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Though still a male-dominated field—in China and the rest of the world—the change in representation between 1985 and 2007 is notable.

A final irony, not explicitly articulated, is that although the exhibition asserts that it is “taking a step back from the market” to look at this historical period, its very existence is owed precisely to the market (i.e., the exchange of art for money from collectors like Guy and Miriam Ullens, founders of the Center, and the government’s eventual embrace of contemporary Chinese art after it became clear that it was in their best interest to do so financially as well as politically). Here, censorship of contemporary art becomes much less powerful, less relevant, though it still exists. Though __’85 New Wave_ may have been a controversial exhibition, in the sense of its return to Beijing twenty years later, it was certainly a “safe” exhibition—a win-win situation where audiences, artists, the Chinese government, and art institutions all benefit. The market certainly benefits from the retelling of this history. But at what expense? Which histories are left out or overshadowed?

The UCCA certainly has the power, the connections, the location, and the human resources to launch a high-profile exhibition that generates international attention and is tailored to suit both Chinese and English-language audiences. Other private, non-profit, Chinese-owned museums, such as the Today Art Museum and the TS1 Museum for Contemporary Art, held retrospective exhibitions on a more modest scale and budget with a Chinese audience in mind. That there are other histories being articulated in tandem with the UCCA’s meta-history is exciting. However, it is much more difficult for non-Chinese speaking audiences to access these histories. Their locations, in southeast Beijing and the Songzhuang artists’ village, respectively, are also not as central and accessible to foreign audiences.

The UCCA’s role as “storyteller” is much more prominent, and its intent—to be a leading institution that acts as “a trusted platform to share knowledge through education and research”—gives it the potential to be extremely influential in the arena of Chinese art. How this might bring into effect a more varied and diverse historical voice is yet to be determined; the canonizing of art-historical phases may create a framework by which other, more obscure histories will be overlooked. The launch of this retrospective exhibition did create certain aftershocks in other Beijing exhibitions, where different, and more recent “pasts” were being reframed, though perhaps with less historical depth and distance. A recent exhibition in Beijing at Beyond Art Space, Post 70s Archives, documented the exhibition activities of a younger generation of Chinese artists with an installation of catalogues displayed in shopping bags. Soka Art Space featured a small selection of photographs and video footage from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art of the 1980s, which captured the “event” without turning it into a document or work of art. Is this increasing a historical consciousness? Or is it simply a recycling of culture, a re-presentation of history to different audiences? Perhaps a bit of both?

  1. Examples of these exhibitions are: A Retrospective of the No Name Group (1979), curated by Gao Minglu;_ ’85 New Wave: The Origins of Chinese Contemporary Art_, curated by Fei Dawei at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art; Origin Point: Star Group Retrospective, curated by Zhu Zhu of White Canvas Gallery for the Today Art Museum.
  2., accessed May 4, 2008. Since then, the artistic directorship has also changed. Fei Dawei stepped down after the first exhibition. In February, the UCCA announced that Jerome Sans, former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, would replace him.
  3. Fei Dawei, “Preface,” in ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2007), 7.

Image: ’85 New Wave, installation view. Courtesy of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

About the Author

Joni Low is a regular contributor to Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art and Ricepaper Magazine. Her writing has also appeared in catalogues for the Richmond Art Gallery, the Helen Pitt Gallery, as well for Centre A, where she was previously gallery and library coordinator.

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