New contemporary art from China made its first splash in the international art world in the 1990s. Following over a decade of burgeoning domestic art and cultural debate and the growing impact of market reform, the post-Tian'anmen Square Incident atmosphere compelled many artists into crystallizing and refining their artistic vision to respond to the tumultuous world around them. China's new avant-garde offered new and unprecedented interpretations and contemporary art practice, oblique critiques, cynical and satirical styles. For well-heeled Western collectors, having spent years chasing new exhibition openings, art fairs, and off-the-beaten path happenings, new art from China was not merely a matter of one or two exemplary artists, but rather the material manifestation of an entire culture in transition. These artists were reinventing Chinese culture at every turn, offering idiosyncratic interpretations of the world and culture they had inherited, and discovering new unexplored territory in contemporary art practice. In short, contemporary art from China appeared as a new and historic avant-garde, on a scale not seen in generations, captivating new audiences around the world.
This Important Swiss Collection of Chinese Avant-Garde Art was formed over a number of years beginning in the late 1990s, highlighted not only by several exceptional pieces but united by a holistic and comprehensive vision of this burgeoning art world, making connections between artists, visions, trends, and counter-trends. Through these eighteen works, spanning the ironic escapism of Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, the haunted nostalgia Zhang Xiaogang, the truculent idealism of Wang Guangyi and the whimsy of Liu Ye, we see the long-suppressed individual spirit finding its way back into Chinese art. Gone is the clarity and idealism that came with the strict aesthetic priorities established under communism. Instead the mess of life enters in, with all its pain, humor, loneliness, and confusion. In understanding this radical break with history we begin to see just how high the stakes were for this new generation of artists, and how - through methods of indirection, humor, metaphor, and fantasy - they engaged in a full-scale dialectical re-fashioning of their contemporary reality, re-writing the narrative of contemporary culture itself.
Zhang Xiaogang emerged as a leading figure of this new avant-garde through his singular vision and iconic Bloodline: Big Family Series. With this series, Zhang appropriated the imagery and format of formal family portrait photography, reaching back into the images and memories of the Cultural Revolution in order to explore the psychological character of his generation through one of their most formative collective experiences.
Throughout this series, Zhang focuses on individual fates as embodiments of the collective psychological character of his generation. In Big Family No. 21 (Lot 516), Zhang focuses on two young figures, their features remarkably detailed. In other works from the series, Zhang might have the figures pressed claustrophobically into the frame. Here he allows the two children a remarkable degree of space, an effect that renders them even more vulnerable. The young boy stands protectively before what may be his sister; her arm is in mid-gesture, a defensive move. They seem less like they are facing a photographer than something threatening and unknown.
Zhang employs the color gray for the emotional associations it elicits. He has stated: "Grey gives people the sense of a being unrelated to reality, a feeling of the pastK Grey represents my personal emotions and it is connected to my own temperamentKIt is a forgetful feeling that can also evoke a sense of dreaming". The photography format, too, elicits feelings of nostalgia and loss. The viewer senses that they are looking back into history at figures whose lives were on the brink of tumultuous change. In Big Family No. 21 from 1999, Zhang heightens the gravitas through his carefully painted details and references. The title of the work references the Cultural Revolution, a period of extended chaos during which the entire country was conceptualized as one "big family", an ideology often at odds with the obligations and responsibilities associated with the traditional Chinese family. The Bloodlines of the title refer to Zhang's break with photo-realism and the literal inclusion of tendon-like threads linking individuals to each other, emblematic of the extended systems of debt and obligation into which one is born. Zhang further adds a small red patch to each figure, a patch which has dual meanings, seeming at once like the worry marks of a photograph well-worn over the years, or quite literally as the physical manifestation of an experience, written into the skin as if into the genetic code.
Zhang has stated, "In this process of 're-ornamentation,' I consciously implement the 'painterly effects' that everyone sees in my works - such as my attention to colour and brushstrokes - with the greatest meticulousness, leaving only a piece of history and life that has been rendered vague and confused, souls struggling one by one under the forces of public standardization, faces bearing emotions smooth as water but full of internal tension, the ambiguous fates of life lived amidst contradictions passed back and forth among the generations." (Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004).
While Zhang Xiaogang sought images evoking the memories and emotions of collective experience, others, like Fang Lijun, delved into the deeply personal and subjective. Born just a few years later than his elders, a minor age difference could mean a substantial shift in experience, and Fang's generation felt considerably less trauma under the Cultural Revolution. The opening up of the 1980s and 1990s meant less a crisis of history than an existential crisis of meaning. Especially in 1990s, many artists fell into a kind of malaise, at once enjoying new freedoms but suffering from an evacuation of meaning and direction in their lives.
Fang Lijun's paintings from this period embody the contradictory sentiments of the times. He paints himself as a shaved-headed, brooding youth. A shaved head was typically associated with monks, soldiers, and prisoners, all communities where individual identity is denied. It also became an en vogue style for artist wanting to signal their outsider status. For Fang, it was the liberating gesture of an anti-social hooligan, refusing to fit into any normative social role. His ethos is embodied by his famous statement of indifference: "A fool is someone still trusting after being taken in a hundred times. We'd rather be lost, bored, crisis-ridden misguided punks than be cheated. Don't even consider trying the old methods on us, we'll riddle your dogma with holes, then discard it in a rubbish heap."
Images of swimming were central to his earliest works. These sensual and luxurious images of lone swimmers capture the feeling of generation quite literally adrift at sea. Images of escapism and solitude; there is no horizon line and no sign of land. 1994 No. 6 (Lot 517) is one of the most exquisite examples from the series, the waves of the Mediterranean blue softly delineated and expanding in rings around the figure. The title references little more than the year and an enumeration, as anonymous as a statistic, while the figure's head and shoulders barely emerge over the surface of the tide. As with the most poignant of these works, it is never entirely clear if the figure is relaxing or passively drowning.
This fantastic re-imagining of reality can be found in numerous artists works from this period, as with Guo Jin's crystallized and nostalgic visions of childhood (Lot 1067), Ma Liuming's self-portraits as a disturbingly self-aware, gender ambiguous newborn child (Lot 1077). Images of the self or images of childhood were common among many emerging Chinese artists, offering them a venue where any social critique could be launched indirectly. Yue Minjun was one such artist whose self-parodying self-portraits, begun in the early 1990s, allowed the artist to paint himself as a kind of everyman. In increasingly absurdist scenarios and contorted gestures, his self-portrait, smiling an impossible grin and eyes closed to the world, embodied a kind of collective disposition, driven mad by the world around him. In Red No. 1 (Lot 1064), his skull is cracked open, and Yue's figure laughs and raises his hands in delight, as his thoughts literally escape his mind like tiny red balloons.
The Chinese avant-garde discovered in this collection is not, however, merely driven by a critical escapism. History in many forms haunts Chinese contemporary art as well. Painters like Chen Guangwu (Lot 1076), Qiu Shihua (Lot 1069), and Zhou Tiehai (Lot 1075) all sought to find new directions in the traditional genres of calligraphy and landscape painting by pressing these into new media and techniques. The icons of communist history find their way into many works as well, and the unassailable image of Chairman Mao is assailed and rendered an artifact in the works of Pu Jie (Lot 1077) and Xue Song (Lot 1065). Wang Guangyi was one artist who felt especially embittered by the rapid transition towards a consumerist society and the evacuation of politics and idealism from everyday life. His historic "Great Criticism Series" captured this ironic turn of events. In it, Wang juxtaposes the imagery of communist propaganda heroes with the logos of international brand names, newly arrived on China's shores. In Great Criticism - Buick (Lot 1066) from 1999, a chiseled worker brandishing a book alongside a female worker wielding a giant pen attack an unknown assailant. An emphatic "NO" explodes across the top of composition, a possible reference to the controversial polemic published in the mid-1990s, "China Can Say No", which argued that China had embraced Western values too liberally. Here, Wang's contemptuous juxtaposition of these contradictory ideologies and aesthetics reveals their surprising compatibility, a bitterly ironic union befitting Wang's post-socialist world.