An Overloaded History – Twenty-Five Years of Chinese Contemporary Art


Written by Carol (Yinghua) Lu

Our experience of history tends to swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. On the one hand, history helps us to recognise milestones and turning points, to put events and figures into context, even though they might not have been seen as significant at the time. On the other hand, history brutally reveals the pure fortuitousness with which things happen: it could be just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

The evolution of Chinese contemporary art over the past twenty-five years has been precisely such a history of chance and circumstance, the intermingling of social and historical laws with human arbitration. Visible and invisible threads run through its development, just as they affect the course of social transformation. They parallel, or at times clash, with each other, generating new energy and possibilities.

A review of this brief yet intense phase of history conveys the sense that it has been a period dominated by movements and guided by collective consciousness, whether in the fight against the old Revolutionary Realist art tradition in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, or during the 1990s, when Chinese contemporary art received increasing international attention and exposure, and even when enjoying its considerable commercial rewards today. While art practice is commonly recognised as a highly individualised human behaviour, it is important to examine the general historical, social and political climates that have shaped the overall character of contemporary art inChinaduring the past decades.

Its teething years from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s essentially saw a collective consciousness trying to break free from the confinement of another. The shared longing for freedom of expression among intellectuals and artists was at odds with the dictatorial and homogeneous ideology of the state, and brought with it the formation of a unified battlefront. In order to achieve this freedom, artists launched various group initiatives and movements, the political mechanism of mass movements originally championed by the Communist Party.

It is impossible to survey Chinese contemporary art without considering the two major cultural disconnections that took place in the last hundred years of Chinese history. The first occurred as a byproduct of the May 4th Movement in 1919. As Chinese territory was threatened by Western imperialist power, radical thinkers earnestly believed in the redemptive power of science and democracy in this ancient agricultural country. The Western art tradition of realism was introduced toChina, and would replace the Chinese literati tradition as an influential artistic principle widely applied to literature and visual arts.

While the Cold War between East and West after 1946 propelled China into total isolation from the modern art movements in the Western world, the Cultural Revolution that broke out in 1966 and continued until 1976 brought a far larger disruption to the country’s own cultural and social traditions. The impact of this nationwide, extreme-leftist and catastrophic experiment in social engineering and brainwashing carried out by Mao’s totalitarian regime was grave and wide-ranging. It promoted disregard not only for tradition, but also for knowledge. Schools were closed, and students and scholars were sent into factories and villages to undergo so-called ‘spiritual reform’. To achieve this aim, they were assigned to jobs side by side with workers and farmers, not only adopting their life style but also their visual preferences and their way of thinking. The prevalent indifference to knowledge, tradition and sophistication, as well as the widespread pragmatism and tendency towards a disposable consumption culture in today’s Chinese society, results from the dismissal of learning and art at that time.

Aesthetically, the ongoing implementation of Mao’s 1942 proposal of ‘art serving the people’ was maximised during those years. There was a consistent push to combine the practice of Western realism, especially Soviet Socialist Realism of the 1950s, with Chinese folk-art, to create a single art form: Revolutionary Realism. Three visual features, which have been described as ‘red, smooth and bright’, romanticised socialist achievements and enabled this art style to appeal to the larger population of farmers and workers. It smoothly evolved into a well-oiled propaganda machine for the ruling party. All the Revolutionary Realist works produced during this period had a uniform look, and in some cultural studies were considered as a massive collective artwork. Pragmatism and functionality in art gradually took root in the psyche of future generations of artists.

As the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976, the country was in ruins. The extended political and social wreckage had brought both material and spiritual deprivation to the population. Every aspect of life was ripe for a fresh start, but had to be rebuilt based on the remaining obstructions of these destructive years, some of which proved to be almost invincible to change.

In the field of art, the pent-up thirst to free art from political purpose and standardisation of expression provided the backdrop for a handful of groupings and events that are now considered the starting points for contemporary art in China. One of the earliest private artist initiatives after the Cultural Revolution was No Name Painting Group, founded in Beijingin 1978. A year later, the ‘12-man Painting Exhibition’ in Shanghai, the ‘New Spring Exhibition of Landscape and Scenery Oil Paintings’ and the ‘Star Exhibition’ in Beijing were all considered critical events of this period. The mission of the artists involved was to reject political content and the official art style by practising and promoting landscape paintings influenced by Western modernism, from Impressionism to Expressionism. In 1978, Li Xianting joined the staff of the fine-art magazine Meishu. He was to become a keen supporter and key voice for contemporary Chinese art, taking advantage of his involvement in this official art medium to discover young talents, to spot and push new trends.

In September 1979, the twenty-three artists of the Star Group showed about 150 works on the fences of a small park east of theNationalArt Museum. Their choice of presentation in a public space was a symbolic gesture, inspired by the Democracy Wall in the Xidan district ofBeijing. The wall came into existence at the end of the Cultural Revolution and was an important platform for the public to voice their political opinions and complaints through hand-written posters, a familiar propaganda tool during the Cultural Revolution. Few of the Star artists had received formal art-academy education. Instead, they had been privately trained by those artists who had studied modern art in the West and had returned toChinain the 1920s and 30s. They showed paintings that were not only critical of the Revolutionary Realist style, but were also socially critical in content.

A few hours into the opening, the police arrived, closing the show prematurely. The Star Group took to the streets and demonstrated against this outcome. Later the same year, the show reopened with official permission. It ran for one week in an exhibition space inside theBeihaiPark. But it was the political confrontation with officialdom that put this short-lived event in the history books.

Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policies, the 1980s became culturally receptive to outside influences. The decade has been called ‘the Chinese Renaissance’, an age of feverish cultural activity and idealism. The emotional level of this rebellious generation of Chinese was no less fervent than the religious fanaticism of those active in the Cultural Revolution, during which this generation had grown up. There was an overwhelming defiance of the old system, and many intellectuals expressed their resentment regarding the decade of their formative years that they had wasted labouring in factories and farms. Amongst intellectuals and artists, there was an extreme and single-minded determination to reflect on, scrutinise, criticise, resist, deny and reverse the standardisation and politicisation of art. Chinese people were more than ready to embrace with open arms the influx of Western ideas and information.

Around a hundred Western philosophical works were translated, introduced and widely read in China, with some reaching annual print runs as high as 240,000 copies; many were national best sellers. What attracted Chinese readers to this Western literature was its downright critical spirit. Many people turned their knowledge of these works into a tool with which to criticise the situation inChina. But it is worth noting that the works were written with Western modernism in mind, and were originally intended to analyse Western industrial civilisation.Chinawas still in the pre-modernist stage. Thus the theories were not necessarily applicable to what was happening there. But reading these works became a nationwide fad, as did being rebellious and critical purely for the sake of it.

Artists were not exempt from the fixation on Western conception, as its art theories and images began to seep intoChina. They believed in the promise of modern Western aesthetics and philosophy as an instrument to revive Chinese culture. Many Chinese artists believe that Western aesthetics and philosophy could be used as an instrument to revive Chinese culture. Until the early 80s, they tried to overturn the tradition of revolutionary realism both in content and in style. One of the noticeable outcomes was Scar Painting. Throughout the early 80s, they attempted to overturn the tradition of revolutionary realism both in content and in style. One of the outcomes of this was ‘scar paintings.’ Instead of dressing up and romanticising reality as the old art style had done, the artists of scar paintings who had lived through the Cultural Revolution longed to portray real life in its true light, to reveal the insignificance, pain and poverty of Chinese people. These were the scars they saw in society and felt in their own hearts. Some artists resorted to European realism in their attempt to shake off the influence of Russian Social Realism. This was just the beginning. In the following few years, Chinese artists took a crash course in Western modernism, trying to catch up all at once with art experiments that had taken a century to develop in the West.

Having been exposed to the political culture of China, these artists had acquired a group mentality that believed in the transformative power of ‘movements’. In more than twenty cities all over China, artists got together to experiment with new modes of art-making, formed over eighty collectives for psychological and logistical support, and organised art events and exhibitions in a variety of real-life settings, from factories to the streets and countryside. Most of the members were either recent art-academy graduates or students. Open-minded officials working in local museums and artists’ associations, as well as the art academies, were supportive of these initiatives. Editors and critics of the many fine-art publications at that time, such as Meishu, Jiangsu Fine Art Journal, Fine Art Trends and so on, actively championed and promoted the work of these artist groups. In 1985, Li Xiaoshan declared, ‘Traditional Chinese painting is best left dead and buried’, pointing out the inadequacy of traditional Chinese painting to meet the nation’s needs.

Robert Rauschenberg’s solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in 1985 was a catalyst for what was later termed the ‘85 Art Movement’. Rauschenberg’s Dadaist installations of readymades instantly hooked the young Chinese artists. They were impressed by the subversive spirit of Rauschenberg’s work, and launched Dadaism as a tool against the old cultural tradition. TheXiamenDada Group, for example, was formed in the southern Chinese city of the same name. Other works of the same period showed a tendency towards the rational and analytical, and were based on the artists’ direct experience of living.

The 85 Art Movement was crucial to the development of contemporary art inChina, opening the door to abundant possibilities of art practice and intellectual thinking for young artists. It was as much a social movement as a cultural one, but it was based on Western cultural and philosophical theories, while being deprived of the social and material conditions in which it was formally embedded. The interpretation and application of Western art and cultural theories by Chinese artists at this time was free, arbitrary, full of misreadings and misunderstandings, twisted or short-changed by the limited knowledge of the Western modern movement as a whole, and coloured by the social reality and ideological restraints ofChinaduring this period.

Despite the great diversity of art experiments and heated philosophical discussions that were taking place, participants of the 85 Art Movement were still conditioned by the discontinuity of their education during the Cultural Revolution and their disconnection from their own cultural tradition. As a result, an outstanding limitation was that the mimicking of Western modern art practices failed to go beyond technical or direct copying, and remained superficial. There was also the tendency among artists to translate philosophical readings directly into graphics, subscribing entirely to modern Western thought. Their devotion to studying and emulating their Western counterparts on face value was almost cult-like, as extreme as the blind loyalty of Mao’s Red Guards. It was fundamentally a grass-roots mass movement rooted in a revolutionary logic.

The 85 Art Movement had fallen into the trap of ‘art for art’s sake’, largely failing to produce long-lasting works. In the search for spiritual liberation and self-awareness, Chinese artists had paradoxically gone to the other extreme, immersing themselves in Western art theories and practices in an organised and collective fashion. It was an experiment that transcended individual expression.

The subsequent discontentment with copying Western art and philosophy caused some artists to a return to Chinese tradition for inspiration, or as the basis for reform with a modernist approach. The New Literati Painting innovatively expressed its cynicism through abstract ink-wash painting.

On the other hand, the 85 Art Movement had succeeded in establishing a network of artists’ groups from different parts of China. These kept in contact, and the opportunity to get together came about when Wang Guangyi took up a post at the ZhuhaiArtAcademyin 1986. Through his contacts with these artists, he initiated a symposium, with the official endorsement of China Art Newspaper, on which Li Xianting was working, who agreed to support the event. Many artists active in the 85 Art Movement presented images of their works, and it was during this slide show that the idea for the ‘China/Avant-garde’ exhibition arose.

After three years of lobbying for official approval and funds, ‘China/Avant-garde’ opened at the National Art Museum, a wall away from the aborted ‘Star Exhibition’ in the neighboring park, which had closed a decade before. The packed museum showcased the results of ten years of cultural awakening and hectic artistic experiments inChina, many of them provocative and unruly. At the opening, one of the artists fired an unlicensed gunshot in her installation, causing the immediate closure of the show by the authorities. The exhibition was reopened after a few days. A couple of months later, the doomed Tian’anmen Democracy movement erupted, ending in the massacre of the demonstrating students by the police. Thus, the artist’s gunshot accidentally became a highly symbolic act, signifying the closure of the large-scale social and artistic experiment that was the 1980s in a new post-Cultural Revolution China.

After 1989, the state proceeded to tighten its control over cultural production. Meanwhile, the effect of the country’s economic reform and reconstruction since the late 1970s was beginning to make itself felt. The Communist Party saw fit to dole out a new preoccupation that was guaranteed to take people’s minds away from unhealthy ideologies and political demands: the market economy. After Deng Xiaoping’s famous speech in 1992 that urged the further opening up of the country, consumption and the inflow of foreign capital set off a fresh revolution in the country. The economy was widely promoted as the new religion, while experimentalism was stigmatised and suppressed wherever possible. In the following decade, Chinese contemporary art was almost entirely kept out of official exhibition venues and was forced underground.

Growing economic investment and interest from the West inChinaspurred an emergent curiosity about Chinese contemporary culture. The works of the third generation of artists in the post-Cultural Revolutionary era quickly provided an answer to this desire. The ‘new-born generation’ produced a new wave of academic realist paintings, together with political pop and cynical realism. These three types of work were representative of the disillusionment felt by members of the art community after 1989. They mocked the ideological suppression and homogeny ofChina, portraying their families, friends and immediate environments, and conveying the confusion and helplessness experienced by those marginalised to the bottom of society.

As one door closed, another opened. While being kept out of the official art system inChina, these dissident artworks found sympathy, attention, exhibition outlets and support in the compounds and embassies of foreign diplomats, Hong Kong and Taiwanese galleries, expatriate-run spaces inChina, as well as international exhibitions. Chinese contemporary art, born as a borrowing of Western modern art, raised in the shadow of collective movements and political agendas, suffering from a perennial shortage of structural and systematic support, was now picked up and bought in the West, precisely for its ideological overtones. When Chinese artist Fang Lijun was invited to present his work at the Venice Biennale in 1993, he had no idea what kind of event it was. This demonstrates how isolated Chinese contemporary art was from the rest of the world. But it was the beginning of many presentations of Chinese art at major international art events, albeit as a side dish, in the subsequent decade. The emergence of a market for this art in the West, and attention from Western curators, helped shape its production. Once again, Chinese contemporary art was not being left on its own to grow and thrive. It found a new form of both dependence and salvation in being consumed by the West.

Chinese artists in the 1990s wished to carve out a space for themselves outside of the official system that had shut them out. Artists’ villages and small-scale rallies began to surface sporadically. Unlike in the 1980s, what tied the artists together was no longer idealism but downright practicality: strategies for selling their work, achieving fame, or both. From bohemian artists’ colonies such as Yuan Ming Yuan and the performance artists of the East village, all the way to the Big-tail Elephant Group in the southern capital ofGuangzhouand the Post-sense Sensibility group inBeijing, all were short-lived affairs, whose aim was to exercise the revolutionary tradition and political culture of mobilising a critical mass. As a collective rather than as powerless individuals, they were able to attract international attention as well as fighting against official pressure. However, conflicts of interest and the uneven distribution of opportunities and financial incentives could easily lead to the disbanding of such unions.

In a gradually commercialised environment, Chinese artists also became more and more enterprising, beginning to organise their own exhibitions, publications of artists’ proposals and concepts, as well as supporting themselves economically. Yuan Ming Yuan Artists’ village was the first group of contemporary artists to make a living from their art instead of working inside the official art system like their predecessors.

Quite a number of artists practised installation, performance and conceptual art, which were still very much outside of the academic training tradition. Much of the vibrancy and energy of the art scene at that time came from their constant conflict, negotiation with and independence from officialdom. The government frequently shut down shows, while the police interrupted performances and threw the artists into prison.

While striving to exist on the social margins, Chinese contemporary artists and a new generation of curators never gave up trying to legitimise the position of contemporary art in Chinese society. The 1992 Guangzhou Biennale, organised by Lü Peng, as well as the 1996 Chinese contemporary art auction initiated by Leng Lin, were intuitive yet premature and failed efforts to integrate contemporary art into the market economy. In the view of these curators, the commercialisation of Chinese contemporary art would be a key to official approval.

Their foresight was soon confirmed. The government’s acceptance of contemporary art came no more than a decade later. In 2000, the Third Shanghai Biennale was held in theShanghaiArt Museum. While the first two biennales mainly exhibited Chinese national paintings, the third commissioned Hou Hanru, a Chinese curator living inParisback then, to put together a major show of contemporary art. For many people, it signified much more than an inkling of the government’s gradual shift in attitude. Chinese contemporary art was finally back in the museum after a decade of exile.

Meanwhile, some curators and artists were sensitive enough to detect the potential danger that legitimisation might pose to contemporary art practice inChina. Would it also mean compromise, loss of independent thinking and eventually loss of any independence at all? The growing popularity of Chinese contemporary art in the West also began to alarm a generation of artists whose self-confidence was rising. It was with these concerns that Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi curated the legendary ‘Fuck Off’ satellite exhibition in Eastlink Gallery inShanghai. Unsurprisingly, the show was forced to close due to the use of foetus and body parts in some of exhibited works. The provocative title, which meant ‘No Collaboration’ in Chinese was an unmistakable appeal for and statement of autonomy. Some of the controversial works in the exhibition echoed the attitude of the show by challenging and questioning the ethical and legal bottom lines of society.

For Chinese contemporary artists, the 1990s was basically split between wanting to be recognised by the government and at the same time wishing to stay away from the consequences of such an affiliation. But after 2000, the government seemed to have no trouble at all in creating a complete alliance. Pandora’s box had been opened and the dilemma was over. Official museums and exhibition venues became wide open to contemporary artists and exhibitions. The Chinese government even decided to sponsor the first Chinese Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 2003. The municipal government of Chaoyang District inBeijingbacked the preservation of 798 Factory as a centre for contemporary art galleries, artists’ studios, fashion boutiques and design houses. In early 2006, Fan Di’an, a supporter and curator of contemporary art, became the new director of the National Art Museum of China, where the dramatic and pivotal ‘China/Avant-garde’ had been kicked out more than a decade before.

While more international galleries opened up shop inChina, local private money started to flow into the contemporary art market as well. Commercialisation is no longer a looming threat: it is a part of everyday life for everyone from the most creative to the most enterprising. The West, the market, the government, and the system – all those enemies of yesterday – are now friends of Chinese artists. Auctions, agents, art fairs, Chinese collectors, private museums: these words have contributed to a new vocabulary in Chinese contemporary art. We are now witnessing a more diverse range of art practices, a rising self-confidence, a better quality of presentation, and an increasing sense of individualism.

But the big question is this: has Chinese contemporary art itself become more interesting? Now that it is free of the external baggage and the road has been cleared, will it become its own enemy? How do we prevent these advantages from turning into new obstacles? As we congratulate ourselves and celebrate the development of Chinese contemporary art, it might be time ask, what is the next battle to be fought?

Address: Strandpromenaden 2, 0252 Oslo

© Astrup Fearnley Museet