The property from the estate of John Bransten, featured here across the Evening and Day sales, encapsulates both a distinct moment in the evolution of Chinese contemporary art, as well as the final cap in a lifetime of collecting, study, and connoisseurship.
John Bransten was born into a San Francisco family that was already among the foremost collecting families of their era, acquiring works by the likes of Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, and Harry Bertoia, long before it was the fashion to do so. Mr. Bransten continued that tradition with his wife Rena, and, beginning in the late-1950s, sought out works by such mainstays of American and European mid-century art as Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, and others.
Even as Mr. Bransten moved between fields - including a late-in-life study of Irish poetry and embrace of post-War American photography and American conceptual art - Bransten's interests were always marked by in-depth lines of inquiry and study. In Chinese contemporary art, Mr. Bransten was captivated by the cultural transformation taking place in post-Mao China, and the works he selected in the last decade of his life reflect his appreciation of this nascent movement. Ranging from the early conceptual video of Zhang Peili and Qiu Zhijie, the analytical and deconstructive works of Xu Bing, the iconoclastic paintings of Wang Guangyi, to the transcendent works of Cai Guo Qiang, Bransten's collection embodies the ways in which artists grappled with their changing social and political environment on registers ranging from the cosmic and philosophical, the intimate and personal, and the bluntly material. True to his literary bent, the collection pays special attention to language and the slippery nature of meaning-making, truth and representation in a place like contemporary China.
The act of putting brush to paper (or canvas) must have seemed an extraordinarily loaded act in the initial years of post-Mao liberalization. Emerging from decades of, the sudden "opening up" under Deng Xiaoping's policies ushered in an enormous tidal wave of information and exposure to Western theory and contemporary art practice. Chinese artists were of course highly aware of their own history and traditions, bearing not only the burden of Chinese literary, poetic, and artistic traditions, but also the more recent lived history of communist manipulation of art, knowledge, and collective memory under the auspices of propaganda. As such, these artists were as much influenced by Western philosophers such as Wittgenstin or Derrida and their interest in language and power, as they were suspicious of taken-for-granted assumptions about art practice and meaning-making based on their own lived experience. The art that ensued represented a radical investigation into the illusory nature of meaning, the subjective aspects of experience, and the role of the artist in society, articulated across media as diverse as performance, video, photography, oil and ink painting. The Chinese contemporary art from the estate of John Bransten is unique for its sensitivity to this moment in the Chinese avant-garde - a snapshot of a movement at completely audacious, fragile, and unexpected.
Foremost among new lines of experiment in was an interest in language and writing, forms and practices which bear enormous weight in a culture with a literary tradition thousands of years old. Xu Bing's A Book From the Sky (Lot 1468) remains one of iconic works of this movement. The work presented here is from an editioned set of bound texts that were produced as part of Xu's groundbreaking deconstruction of the Chinese language. Dismantling the component parts of the Chinese written word, the artist carved nearly three thousand individual Chinese "words" that were composed of existing ideograms but which were completely devoid of meaning, Xu then used his new script to produce hanging scrolls, sutras, bound texts and exegetical texts based on his "texts", all using this nonsense language. Mimicking historical, religious, and secular literary genres, the work was first displayed in Beijing in 1988, a solemn yet overwhelming environment of that bore no meaning. It drew immediate attention from critics and from visitors, and was famous for the anxiety it produced, for repeat visitors, who seemed unprepared to relinquish the authority of the written word, and searched in vain for one passage, one word, that might carry meaning. The conceptual artist Gu Wenda's Mythos of Lost Dynasties hanging scrolls from the same era (Lot 1462) followed a parallel track. These works feature his appropriation of ancient seals and scrolls, an ironic invocation of "lost dynasties" and the mythologizing of ancient cultural traditions, using seal scripts so old and esoteric that they might as well be invented, whether they were or not.
A similar ambivalence towards inherited cultural traditions can be found in the ground-breaking performance-based video of Qiu Zhijie and Zhang Peili. In Writing the 'Orchid Pavilion Preface' One Thousand Times (Lot 1449), Qiu does exactly that. The "Orchid Pavilion Preface" is among the most beloved pieces of calligraphy in Chinese history, and it was frequently copied by admiring emperors and artists alike. The notion of "copying" in Chinese culture has multiple meanings; on the hand, it suggests the unexamined and rote memorization of classic texts, and for Qiu, is suggestive then of a culture that denigrates innovation and self-expression. At the same time, painters and poets maintained a long tradition of "copying" from ancient works, a practice that allowed them to honor the conservative aspects of Chinese culture, while simultaneously asserting themselves as artists who deserve a place in that history. Their "copies" might bear only superficial resemblance to the originals, and, like jazz improvisation, were often simply occasions for artists to display their own virtuosity. With this work, Qiu effectively does both. By copying the work so many times that the text itself disappears, Qiu offers a complex yet elegant metaphor for the role of the artist in contemporary society. He honors the beauty of the original calligraphy but denies its visual pleasure to the viewer, as the strokes disappear into the shimmering mass of ink on paper, almost as the artist himself is at risk of disappearing under this burden of China's great cultural history. The patience he extends to this seemingly absurd ritual became an important tactic, especially among performance artists, reflecting the influence of Western performance art but also Buddhist practices, and the notion that such nihilistic rituals might also function as a kind of spiritual self-cultivation.
More politically pointed are the works of Zhang Peili. Initially trained as a painter, Zhang soon gravitated towards video art as the medium through which to investigate his interests in power, truth and representation. In Water - The Standard Version from the 'Ci Hai' Dictionary (Lot 1454), Zhang enlisted one of China's best-recognized newscasters to read the dictionary definition of "water" over and over again, its mundane repetition over the course of xx minutes a direct satire of the state-controlled media and its news agencies. Similarly, with Mirror (sometimes listed as "Screen") (Lot 1469), Zhang shows a series of faces, and particularly eyes, in extreme close-up, a maze of reflections that confound the viewer's grasp of the "real" and the illusory and instilling in him a feeling of unease and paranoia. Both works were produced not long after the Tian'anmen Square Tragedy and presage the use of metaphor, satire, and indirection that would become increasingly common tactics in Chinese art throughout the 1990s.
Like Wang Guangyi, for Ding Yi, the act of painting begged the question of what constitutes painting itself, an investigation into the structures behind aesthetic responses to images and role of the artist in orchestration those images. For Ding Yi, his investigation into painting boiled down to his appreciation for essential component parts of mark-making, of horizontal, vertical and diagonal hatch marks. The unique painted folding fan featured here (Lot 1466) perfectly captures the way Chinese avant-garde artists sought to unsettle inherited and taken-for-granted aesthetic responses in all aspects of every day life.
This radical feeling for the arbitrary and mundane - a simultaneous assertion of the individual and a feeling of futility - runs throughout art of this period. Song Dong's Breathing (Lot 1455) features two juxtaposed photographs of the artist lying face down on Tian'anmen Square and on a frozen lake in central Beijing, installed with an accompanying audio tape of the artist breathing, suggests the dilemma of an artist who imagines he might have a better chance of changing the weather than in changing the course of history. Similarly, Zhang Huan's documentation of the performance To Add A Meter to an Unknown Mountain (Lot 1456) suggests the audacity of the artist to challenge and alter his environment, as well as his own fragile place within larger, seemingly immutable scales of history, time, and nature. The works of Lin Tianmiao, one of the few women artists to gain international attention within this generation, point to the intimate and domestic concerns conventionally associated with women. The work featured here (Lot 1470) is part of her extended series of wrapped and threaded objects, all common domestic items. Not unlike the expressions of Qiu Zhijie, Song Dong, and others at the same time, these works spoke to a consciousness and life experience often written out of heroic and masculine narratives of history and, for that matter, of art history.
As artists from the Chinese avant-garde became more active internationally, they became more aware of how signs and symbols of Chinese culture transacted in different contexts. This internationalization of Chinese contemporary art coincided with massive cultural shifts concurrent and the rise of a consumerist economy within China. As a result, artists began to delve deeper into Chinese traditions to explore how these might be extended to address contemporary circumstances and the relationship between cultural continuity and this new world order.
For example, as he became more active exhibiting outside of China. In his Square Word Calligraphy works, he transacts in the visual assumptions of both Eastern and Western viewers, demanding that readers of English not simply glance over the calligraphy but decipher its abstracted words, realizing that they are actually English - in this case a rendering of the rhyme "Ba Ba Black Sheep", while Chinese-readers are compelled to "appreciate" the aesthetic qualities of the English language. Similarly, Paris-based artist Huang Yong Ping engages assumptions of difference in his works in order to shift the perspective of his viewers and suggest alternative approaches to history, art, and culture - referencing divination, Chinese medicine, and other obscure mythologies - to suggest alternative approaches to understanding the difference between East and West (Lot 1458 & 1459).
Zhan Wang's large- and small-scale stainless steel rocks perfectly capture these shifting sensibilities. With these, Zhan enters into China's long philosophical inquiry into the relationship between man and nature. Traditional scholar's rocks were natural stones kept in studios of literati and other elite, and were meant to serve as objects of contemplation, microcosms of nature and the universe. Zhan Wang takes these traditional forms and hand hammers them in stainless steel sculptures. Rather than offering the viewer an opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of nature, the viewer's gaze is lost in the highly polished surfaces of Zhan's forms, reflecting instead an infinite variety of superficial surfaces (Lot 1452 & 1464). Zhan Wang also expanded the series into larger forms.
During a period of rapid growth and development, Beijing's skyline was increasingly dotted with hastily constructed high-rises, often capped with "traditional" Chinese architectural elements, such as tiled roofs; the courtyards of such buildings might also gratuitously include a traditional scholars rock. For the artist, these monuments represented a mockery of Chinese culture, reducing it to a fixed set of appropriations and symbols, but no long a site of contemplation or aesthetic engagement. For the artists, these elements revealed the responses of Asian countries when confronting the invasion of Western culture - a fear of "culture loss" that compels them to adhere inflexibly to tradition.
The large form featured here also holds a unique place in the Bransten collection. In a short essay published in 2001, Zhan Wang reflected on being contacted by an American collector of Western conceptual and Chinese art who was keen to add one of his sculptures to his collection. The artist was happy to oblige, but surprised by the urgency of the request, later learning that the collector was suffering from an advanced illness, and that this would ultimately be the last piece of Chinese art he would add to the collection.
As popular understandings of China's traditions shifted, so too did those of Chinese artists. In Wang Jin's classic 1997 work (Lot 1451), he faithfully reproduces an imperial robe, down to the dragon motifs and stitching, entirely in a green-tinged polyvinyl plastic, suggesting the ways in which mainstream consumer culture rapidly reduced the icons of the past to kitsch. In oil painting, Zhang Hongtu combines his study of Western oil and traditional Chinese landscape painting to explore these traditions' distinct approaches to representation (Lot 1447). Similarly, the photographer Hong Lei (Lot 1461) takes the iconic misty scenery surrounding Hangzhou, immortalizing throughout Chinese ink painting, reproducing its delicacy in fine black and white photography.
New media was especially appealing to avant-garde artists trying to capture the essence of China's rapidly changing social - and physical - landscape. Beijing-based Hong Hao reproduced the Northern Song Dynasty scroll, Spring Festival On the River (Lot 1465), famous for its early historical depictions of street life and commerce in the dynastic capital of Kaifeng, with a long-form hand-scroll photograph, depicting his own passage through the capital city of Beijing in the throes of development, demolition, and rebirth.
Similarly, Wang Qingsong appropriates the narrative and composition of the 10th Century handscroll, Night Revels of Han Xizai (Lot 1448). In a series of vignettes, the original scroll depicts a court minister suspected of corruption and decadence spied upon over the course of an evening's entertainment. Wang Qingsong reproduces the scroll in series of staged scenes, featuring contemporary "business men" enjoying Chivas, Sprite, Coca-Cola, and the entertainment and companionship of a number of gaudily dressed women. But in the Night Revels of Lao Li, an early curator and supporter of China's avant-garde, Li Xianting, takes the place of the corrupt minister and the artist himself as the spy, suggesting at once the place of the artist as a critical social observer, as well as the dubious value of these new private pleasures in contemporary China.