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HONG KONG — The M+ Sigg Collection, thought to be the most thorough and important collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world, consists of 1,510 art objects produced by 375 artists spanning 1974 to 2010. The collection was donated, as well as portions sold, to the M+ museum in Hong Kong in 2012. Although the collection’s owner, Uli Sigg, had been in China since 1979 as a businessman and diplomat, it was not until the 1990s he realized that no one in the country was collecting local art with an eye towards serious museum acquisitions. It’s an odd tension, a Swiss European buying Chinese art and handing it back to the Chinese. As it stands, there are pieces in the collection considered too political to ever be shown in the mainland, though any mainlander who is in Hong Kong will always be free to view it. There is one other significant body of contemporary Chinese Art, the Ullens Collection, though its trajectory differs significantly from that of the Sigg Collection. Baron and Baroness Ullens created UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing in 2007, but most of their art collection hit the auction block at Sotheby’s in 2011, selling for $54.8 million.
M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art displays 80 pieces by 50 artists in chronological order. It is the appetizer before the museum itself is finished, to show donors that their money has been well spent despite the delays that have pushed M+’s estimated opening (the most recent being 2017) to late 2019.
ArtisTree, a space in Quarry Bay at the east end of Hong Kong Island, is the temporary site for the show. It begins at the end of the Cultural Revolution, follows the Tiananmen crackdown and China’s switch to capitalism in the 1990s, follows the country’s joining of the World Trade Organization in 2001, and ends in 2012.
Chapter One: 1974–1989
The first painting on display is Feng Guodong’s “River of Light” (1979) depicting the sun. It is an impressionistic van Gogh “Starry Night”-like phantasmagasm of rainbow colors. It’s not a painting any collector would ordinarily notice or purchase, except for the fact that it was produced after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Despite its innocuous imagery, the painting’s clear rejection of Soviet-style realism could have lead to the artist’s punishment, exile, or much worse. The tyrannical vagaries of permitted and forbidden art in modern China serve as a constant, unspoken, but omnipresent theme in an exhibition that blatantly displays a number of images currently forbidden in the mainland. In so doing, the show calls on Hong Kongers to bear witness to what occurred during the 1970s, ’80s, and beyond.
The show’s senior curator Pi Li, though now comfortably ensconced at M+, had previously taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA), and was cofounder and director of Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing. Li’s roots go all the way back to the Courtyard Gallery in Beijing, the city’s first gallery of Chinese contemporary art, so he has been involved in the art world game for quite a long time. What is included in this show and what was left out must have been a delicate choice of how to represent, not offend too much, but remain true to the spirit of the times.
Each chronological category is worthy of an entire exhibition in itself, and one day will hopefully be presented with as much depth, similar to the Asia Society of New York’s Art and China’s Revolution in 2008, which only examined Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. It’s difficult to explain 40 years of history in such a tight exhibition space, and much of the work needs contextualization for those without a deep grasp of Chinese contemporary art history, especially the various movements and collectives, including the Stars Art Group, the No Name Painting Association, Pond Society, and others. The exhibition’s telling of this history is helped by the use of a timeline, but the emergence of contemporary art in China is quite a learning curve. The excellent catalogue essays help, but most gallery goers are just not going to take the time to read through them.
In 1942, at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, Mao Zedong had stated the role of art was to “serve the masses,” or serve the vision of the Communist Party. Stylistically this referred to Social Realism; anything else was considered bourgeois and decadent, and was consequently banned. With Deng Xiaoping leading the way after Mao’s death in 1976, a Beijing Spring arrived at the end of the 1970s, with a slight loosening of restrictions on speech and free assembly. The implications of this were profound. The work produced during that time is heady, brave, and optimistic. The No Name Painting Association, the first group of artists to stealthily make mostly en plein air, chiaroscuro ridden, quiet paintings emerged in 1974. One of the most touching artifacts, thoughtfully included in the show, is what appears to be a clandestine paint box that belonged to Zheng Ziyan, impastoed with greens and yellows from his outdoor excursions. It’s a sobering reminder of how something so innocuous could have, at the wrong time and place, proved dangerous on its own, and led to the owner’s arrest.
Another group, the Stars (Xing xing), a collection of nonprofessional artists, cofounded in 1979 by Huang Rui and Ma Deshang, took a more political tack. “April 5, 1976,” by the usually taciturn and cerebral Rui, depicts a female figure as a cross between Joan of Arc and Venus de Milo juicily arising with her siren song. Beneath her are protests of the Tiananmen Incident of 1976, attacking the Gang of Four. The picture was one among those placed against the garden gates of the then National Gallery of Art (now the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC)) by the Stars Group. As expected, the display was broken up by the police, compelling the artists to post a notice on Democracy Wall, and stage a march to the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee. The government later allowed the artists to remount the show in Beihai Park.
Liu Heung Shing, a photojournalist who originally came to Beijing for Time magazine, wound up documenting the Stars Group exhibition, including a short, rare film of the event. He also produced a riveting photograph of Ma Desheng, calling for artistic freedom, which is utterly iconic. And while Shing’s photo “1989 Beijing, Sending Wounded Students on Tian’anmen Square to Hospital” is a downright indictment in today’s politically fractious climate between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it’s a testament to Hong Kong that this photograph is so openly displayed.
In the first half of the 1980s, Western stylistic influences began to leak through, including American modernism, French painting, Italian Renaissance, and the works of Picasso and Edvard Munch. There were exhibits by Robert Rauschenberg, Christo, and in 1982 a rather low key visit to China by Andy Warhol, then unknown to the Chinese art world. The National Gallery mounted a revisionist exhibition of propaganda-style art, provoking a backlash that set the stage for the 85 New Wave movement, with its emphasis on abstraction, Minimalism, body art, Conceptual art, and Dada.
When 19-year-old Wang Peng drenched his naked body in ink, hurling it onto a sheaf of paper, he was viscerally throwing off the shackles of traditional academic constraints of depicting the human nude. Though Yves Klein might have originally used naked bodies as paint brushes in the 1960s, Peng’s performance was the first ever completely stripped down to the flesh in the Chinese art scene.
The academy, however, was not exactly tossed aside, as universities had just only reopened following the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, reinstating entrance exams in 1977. Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou was a particular hotbed of activity, and some of its graduates like Zhang Peili, Wang Guangyi Huang Yong Ping, and Wenda Gu, among others, played important roles in the new wave art movement.
Liberation was in the air, and artists deployed a bouquet of Western styles: Surrealism, Dada, and conceptual art. Harbin, Manchuria, Shenzhen, and Yunnan province experienced mini-art renaissances. Language was incorporated into works, and after Rauschenberg’s visit in 1985, readymade assemblages were adapted. There was an incorporation of traditional C’han (Zen) Buddhism, and with it a disavowal of ordinary logic and close parallels to Dada through the work of the Xiamen Dadaists and Huang Young Ping, whose piece “Six Small Turntables” uses the alignment of six turntable orbs to randomly determine the color, canvas, and brushstrokes of an anticipated artwork. Zhang Peili introduced conceptual art, when, in response to mass production’s stripping of individuality, he made a series of 10 paintings depicting utilitarian and anonymous latex gloves. Peili was also the one to form the Pond Society, together with Geng Jianyi, which brought these new art forms, including performance, into the public sphere.
The party, as it was, would soon be over.
On February 5, 1989 the first nationwide avant-garde art exhibition opened at the National Gallery, Beijing. China/Avant-Garde, included a total of 293 paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations by 186 artists. Black banners doubling as carpets depicting common “No U-Turn” traffic signs were laid down on the pavement leading up to the museum entryway to declare there was no going back to the old ways. The museumgoers were young and wildly enthusiastic. Performance art, intentionally excluded by the authorities, became the exhibit’s flashpoint, though some surreptitious performances did manage to sneak in. In the documentary film that screened at Broadway Cinematheque, Seven Sin: 7 Performances During 1989 China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant Garde Art, Xiao Lu and Tang Song’s installation “Dialogue” was turned into a performance when Lu whipped out a gun and fired two shots into a mirror. The resounding shots shattered glass, and wreaked absolute havoc with the authorities, who shut the show down just hours after it had opened. It was reopened a few days later, only to close again after anonymous bomb threats.
Three months later, in April, the pro-democracy student movements exploded, and on June 4, 1989 — a date which has been wiped from the collective memory of the mainland’s history — the Tianamen Square protests occurred. The crackdown was swift and irrevocable, launching the next phase of contemporary Chinese art, Political Pop, and Cynical Realism, discussed in part two of this article.
M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art continues at ArtisTree (1/F, Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, 979 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong) through April 5.