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Eyes wide open: How Chinese contemporary art went global

The Guggenheim’s sweeping new exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, has provoked outrage in some quarters, but what it proves is that the divide between East and West comes down to a question of how to face a bold new era. Deb Wilk reports

The wealth of classical objects that have emerged from China over the past six millennia still tends to cause Western viewers to reduce the art of Asia to admiration of media and material, spiritual expression, and artful utility. All too often, it seems, the global concerns and conceptual investigations of much contemporary art remain the domain of practitioners from the opposite hemisphere.

The curators of Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World  have taken the latest stab at remedying that lopsided perspective. Opening on 6 October, this ‘fresh interpretive survey of Chinese experimental art’, as termed by the museum, encompasses some 150 works, created between 1989 and 2008, by 71 emerging and established artists and collectives. This group, selected from across the country’s five time zones, aims ‘to forge reality free from ideology... to define contemporary Chinese experience in universal terms’, according to lead curator Alexandra Munroe.

‘Our hope is to shed light on the intelligence and creativity of a group of artists who are seeing phenomenal changes with their eyes wide open’ — Alexandra Munroe, senior curator

Unfortunately, protests regarding three works in the show that feature live organisms led the museum to withdraw them from the exhibition. ‘Although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe and the United States,’ a museum statement said, ‘the Guggenheim regrets that explicit and repeated threats of violence have made our decision necessary. As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art.’

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World, 1993. Wood and metal structure with warming lamps, electric cable, insects (spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes), lizards, toads, and snakes, 150 x 270 x 160 cm. © Huang Yong Ping

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World, 1993. Wood and metal structure with warming lamps, electric cable, insects (spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes), lizards, toads, and snakes, 150 x 270 x 160 cm. © Huang Yong Ping

Among the three banished works is the piece from which the exhibition takes its title, Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993) — a collection of live scorpions, beetles, and other insects living in an octagonal, cage-like structure where they regularly devour one another. The irony that works seeking to expose the natural human propensity for violence are being censored due to threats of actual violence is surely not lost on the exhibition’s organisers.

Prior to these well-documented howls of protest, the show’s trio of curators — Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation; Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; and Hou Hanru, artistic director of MAXXI, National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome — answered a few questions about the exhibition.

Is the starting point of 1989 a reference to events in Tiananmen Square that year? Was there a marked shift in art practice in China triggered by the protests?

Alexandra Munroe: ‘A Western audience might identify the Tiananmen Square protests as the rationale for 1989, but in fact we chose this date because it marks the end of the post-war era and the start of a period defined by globalisation, in which China emerged as a global presence. It was a year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the development of the Internet at Cern, and the rise of cultural and intellectual movements in which Chinese artists were interdependent players. Within China, the student rallies of spring 1989 coincided with the culmination of the 85 New Wave movement. Our show focuses on the strains of conceptual art that developed among a community of artists in the aftermath, who used language and text to critique systems of ideological control.’

Chen Zhen Fu DaoFu Dao, Upside-Down BuddhaArrival at Good Fortune, 1997. Steel, bamboo, resin Buddha statues, washing machine, computer monitor, tyres, bicycle, fan, chair, household appliances, other found objects, and string. Approximately 350 x 800 x 550 cm overall. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San GimignanoBeijingLes MoulinsHavana

Chen Zhen Fu Dao/Fu Dao, Upside-Down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune, 1997. Steel, bamboo, resin Buddha statues, washing machine, computer monitor, tyres, bicycle, fan, chair, household appliances, other found objects, and string. Approximately 350 x 800 x 550 cm overall. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins/Havana

Philip Tinari: ‘Actually the protest and crackdown is the third of three major events that transformed art in China during 1989. The first was the National Art Gallery in Beijing’s exhibition, China/Avant-Garde, in February of that year. It was a sprawling, self-organised survey of the various 1980s movements that represented the culmination of an era.

‘The second was the participation, in May, of three Chinese artists in Magiciens de la Terre, an exhibition at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, which was itself the first explicitly globally conceived contemporary art exhibition. The real reason for using this date as our starting point is that prior to 1989, advanced art in China was mainly a Chinese affair. After 1989, it is globally implicated.’

‘For younger artists, the question is more whether they remain part of a specifically Chinese dialectic or if their work is better read in a global context’ — Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Hou Hanru:China/Avant-Garde  predicted the coming of many changes in China and across the world. And being a summary of a decade of the Chinese avant-garde movement, it marked a turning point, as well as the maturity of a movement that was a part of the collective struggle of the young generation for freedom of expression and the opening up of society.’

Huang Yong Ping’s installation, Theater of the World, seems to speak to China’s long history, encompassing everything from prosperity to poverty, war and peace, enlightenment and oppression, global outreach and reclusive insularity. How do artists keep that historic context from consuming contemporaneous global issues as well as personal expression?

AM: ‘The artists in our show are breaking through the divides between what is Chinese civilization, what is modern Chinese history, and what is contemporary life. They mix up temporalities in vivid ways, precisely to question the art world’s insularity from the past.’

PT: ‘This is a constant topic of debate among artists in China: which resources of tradition and history should be drawn upon and how. And for international viewers and readers of the work, how do we look at it in relation to this history without succumbing to over-determination or Orientialism? There are no easy answers.’

Wang Xingwei, New Beijing, 2001. Oil on canvas. 200 x 300 cm. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong, by donation. Photo courtesy M+ Sigg, Hong Kong

Wang Xingwei, New Beijing, 2001. Oil on canvas. 200 x 300 cm. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong, by donation. Photo: courtesy M+ Sigg, Hong Kong

HH: ‘Huang Yong Ping developed this project during his experience of migrating to Europe and encountering different forms of cultural confrontation. Through these he gained new insights into both ancient Chinese and “alternative” European thinking.

‘The artist's intention was to introduce a much-needed debate on the tension between alternative and mainstream, the periphery and the centre, the understandable (hence, consumable) and the incomprehensible (that which resists easy consumption) within the framework of modernity.

‘I believe the 21st century will be be a global century — not only Chinese, but multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-regional’ — Hou Hanru, artistic director of MAXXI

‘The way he linked ancient references with contemporary situations, imagination and social-political realities was so unique and inventive. Its impact is immense, and it has “naturally” become the general title of the whole project.’

Are contemporary Chinese artists, whose recent history has been one of cultural lockdown, still negotiating the principles of modernism along with 21st-century concepts? Is there a certain freedom that comes with not being mired in Western traditions and the attendant market?

AM: ‘In the last section of the show, we present several artists’ collectives active in the 2000s that explore utopian ideas. One of them is Lu Jie’s Long March Project (1999-present). He reminds us that Chinese communism, which shaped so much of China’s 20th century, was itself part of a modern international movement. Cultural styles such as Soviet Social Realism became integrated into the art system.

‘One reason for our doing this show is to open up our own views of what we think modernism or contemporary art stand for. We are showing these shared histories through another lens. The freedom many of the artists in our show convey is like the freedom of an atheist; having lost faith in any ruling ideology, including modernism, they have only their individual reality to stand by. For these artists, reality is their first and last resort.’

PT: There were multiple underground movements in China throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Suddenly, in the early 2000s, contemporary art, as such, becomes acceptable. By 2008 you have a thriving art market and a whole range of public art spaces. For many of the artists in our exhibition, this evolution was entirely unexpected, and they have stayed true to their interests and convictions while negotiating the new turf it has opened.

Song Dong, Stamping in Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), 1996. 36 chromogenic prints, 61 x 40 cm each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

Song Dong, Stamping in Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), 1996. 36 chromogenic prints, 61 x 40 cm each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

‘For younger artists, who have come of age with access to information and freedom and the means to travel, the question is more whether they remain part of a specifically Chinese dialectic or if their work is better read in a global context.’

HH: ‘The Chinese contemporary art scene has had a very organic and interactive relationship with the outside world — Chinese art is a part of the global scene and an active force within it. Before 1989, the Chinese avant-garde community — operating in a certain semi-underground manner — discovered and explored Western influences, especially modernist heritage and post-modern trends. And they gained new visions, ambitions, and strategies.

‘At the same time, this also allowed the art community to revisit traditional references. How to invent new concepts of artistic creation — combining or updating the traditional, the modern, the contemporary, the national, the international — has always been a part of the collective obsession. Chinese artists have a key role to play in inventing what we call the contemporary of today — and tomorrow.’

The 20th century is often described as the American century. Are we now embarking on the Chinese century?

AM: ‘The sheer scale and velocity of China’s economic growth into the 21st century has assured the emergence of China as a global presence. But India, Africa, and the Middle East are also shifting fast, and the West is in flux, too. A new world order is upon us. Our hope with this show is to shed light on the intelligence and creativity of a group of artists who are seeing these phenomenal changes with their eyes wide open.’

PT: ‘Having lived in Beijing for most of the last 15 years, I am constantly struck by the combination of confidence and reticence on the part of most intellectuals regarding China’s future. We know that China will continue to grow and change throughout this century, but what kind of ethos and values will this growth bring to the world? Let’s hope it’s the bold creativity we see from these artists — and from many other intellectuals and entrepreneurs in China — rather than the authoritarian platitudes of the Party.’

HH: ‘I believe the 21st century will be a global century — hence not only Chinese, but multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-regional. We need to learn how to face a new challenge: how to reinvent humanity and cultural production in a time when “post-humanity” becomes more dominant and provokes a major revolution in life. Artistic practices should become a significant field of experiment in this new negotiation — and artists of Chinese background should, and will, be able to play a meaningful role in this process.’

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World is on show at the Guggenheim Museum until 7 January 2018