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HONG KONG — After the Tiananmen uprising and ensuring crackdown in 1989, the Chinese art world nosedived in a stark and different direction. Some artists left the country or abandoned their art practice, while others withdrew into self-imposed exile. The optimism of the previous years (discussed in part one of this article) vanished. The second section of the inaugural exhibition of the M+ Sigg Collection of contemporary Chinese art at ArtisTree concerns the post-Tiananmen era, when the government, while still maintaining control, encouraged urbanization and consumerism, and opened up to the wider world. Collectors in the United States, Australia, and Europe also began to slowly support artists by purchasing their works.
Some artists, like Fan Lijun turned towards Cynical Realism and others toward Political Pop, terms invented by art critic and curator Li Xianting in 1991 to explain the droll, existential, or gaudy styles that were appearing, alternating between expressing angst and sly mockery. These styles also cemented what Chinese contemporary art would look like for years to come in the consciousness of the international art market, an image that is still difficult to shake off. These trends had first appeared in the 1989 Chinese Avant-Garde show at the National Gallery in Beijing through Wang Guangyi’s series of Mao paintings, as well as his gray tableaux, “Death of Marat” from 1986. Wang, who had been trained in Soviet Social Realism, was later influenced by Western classical art.
Cynical Realism portrayed fragmented relationships and enervated families, either by making all the main characters look unusually alike, or by draining scenes of color and life. What is largely absent in the Sigg exhibition is the extreme self-mutilating or gory performances that were rife during that time, when swaths of artists turned inward with dismay, depression, and disgust. The names of various sub-movements from that time say it all: “The Wounded Romantic Spirit,” “Emotional Bondage: Fetishism and Sado-Masochism,” “Ritual and Purgation: Endgame Art,” and “Spirit Introspection.”
In 1993 the China’s New Art, Post-1989 show, curated by Johnson Chang and Li Xianting, opened at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The exhibit included more than 200 works by some 50 artists, and later traveled abroad, becoming the first show of Chinese experimental art outside of China to introduce its contemporary art as a significant cultural engine.
With the government strongly encouraging markets and consumerism (and Marxist ideology taking a backseat), video and performance art emerged, especially performances that tested the limits of the artist’s ability to endure extreme conditions. Many of these artists decamped to an area of Beijing referred to as the “East Village,” named after New York’s storied East Village. Ma Liuming and fellow artist Zhu Ming’s work (not on view) was so controversial that the two artists were arrested and thrown in prison for pornography. Zhang Huan, who had also created a number of body-numbing, masochistic pieces, such as “12 Square Meters” (1994) (not included in the show), was able to wiggle out of incarceration by proving he was still an art student, barely excusing his behavior to the authorities. The East Village performances, many documented by photographers Xing Danwen and Rong Rong, ended in 1994 when the police finally just tossed everyone out of their studios.
Artists continued using the body in performance, and the exhibit includes framed shots of Song Dong’s 1996 “Breathing, Tiananmen Square,” and “Breathing, Houhai, Back Sea,” where he crawls on the cold, bare ground as ice vapor steams from his breath. Zhang Huan and other artists piled naked on top of each other for the 1995 performance “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain,” adding one meter to the Miaofeng mountain’s height. Huang continued using his body in “Family Tree,” where cultural references from his country and ancestors were applied in calligraphic layers on his face with ink.
Zhang Peili, mentioned in part one of this review, produced the very first work in video art in China, titled “30×30” (1988), and served as the art form’s unofficial godfather by founding the first new media department in the country, at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Oddly, the show does not include his actual video works, but does have one of his early paintings, “X Series: No. 4” (1987), also showing in the first half of the exhibit. Video art was considered a much lower art form than performance art in China, but this did not stop Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun from curating the first ever video art exhibition, also at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, titled Image and Phenomenon in 1996. The M+ Sigg exhibit, however, does display an early work by Xu Zhen, one of the few performance works on view: enacted in 1997, “Rainbow” displays an actual body being flagellated. The sound of the whip is heard off-camera, as real welts develop and blood rises quickly to the surface.
In 1998, Inside Out: New Chinese Art premiered at the Asia Society Museum in New York and PS1 Contemporary (now MoMa PS1) representing the work of 51 Chinese artists. Contemporary Chinese art was now a global force, and this internationalization is the focus of the final section of the M+ Sigg Collection show.
China’s globalization, curator Pi Li concludes, was the inevitable result of joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, though the art world had already discovered China. Yan Lei aptly depicts the unstoppable stampede of the international curatorial crowd in his painting “The Curators.” Besides the nascent market frenzy, other concerns like rapid urbanization, the shift of the population from the countryside to the city, transient migrant workers, and unfettered growth were taking their toll. Artists began focusing on issues of social splintering, new interpretations of the body, and a yearning for earlier, classical times.
Screening in a side room at ArtisTree are excerpts from Yang Fudong’s drop-dead gorgeous, and rather wordless, though not entirely silent, black-and-white masterpiece Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–2007): a five-part cinematic saga that retells the story of third-century literati youth from the Wei and Jin Dynasty. The seven young intellectuals retuned to the countryside to resist political pressures from city life in order to write moody poetry, whoop it up, screw around, and plough the fields behind tail swatting and bellowing water buffalos, who utter the most dialogue in the excerpted scenes. The lush images could also double as a mud-soaked Prada ad for louche, neurotic urban youth, a style Fudong turned to his advantage years later by actually creating a doppelgänger ad for Prada, minus the mud.
Filmmaker Cao Fei turns her attentions to the compartmentalized, monotonous labor of Osram light-bulb factory workers by depicting them acting out their fantasies in the video, “Whose Utopia“? A haunting, wistful soundtrack accompanies the film’s poetic, sad question: “Part of your life had waned and waned, but to whom do you beautifully belong?” Cao’s portrayals dovetail perfectly with Weng Fen’s specters of awe and uncertainty stirred by the rise of special economic zones like Shenzhen, now home to multinational factories like Foxconn, with its well-documented rash of worker suicides.
Urbanization is also on the mind of photographer Xing Danwen, who created her own maquettes, those specialized architectural dollhouse-like models used to sell luxury apartments. In Xing’s models there are often tiny representations of people hidden amongst the architectural details living out lives of illicit passion and overindulgent squalor.
Chinese art in general is fraught with subtle and not-so-subtle political subtexts, which is not the case in the West where politics is just one of many subtexts. As a result, Chinese art has metaphors and allusions that can be lost on non-Chinese audiences. The creative class is in a constant state of tension between its most authentic self — like Yang Fundong’s self-imposed exiles in which his subjects search for their true soul — and its competition with and hypercriticism of the West. The art market is also important, since most of the newly middle-class and wealthy Chinese are enthralled with either ink art, or some type of romanticized portraiture (as evinced by lots of art hung yearly at the Guardian auctions for acquisition). Other savvy Chinese collectors are caching away the really valuable pieces of contemporary art in climate-controlled warehouses for eventual resale at a whopping profit at a later date, guided by a host of art world investment advisors. Homegrown forces now drive a large share of the domestic market.
The most telling painting in the show is, like the original photograph it is based upon, not that much to look at. But, the painting’s guarded and nuanced image is terribly telling about the interpretation of fact and history. Wang Xingwei’s “New Beijing” is an update on the photo by Liu Heung Shing from the June 4, 1989 Tianamen Square incident, shown earlier on in the exhibit — except instead of two wounded and dying students, the painting shows two wounded penguins. Penguins have no meaning, symbolic or otherwise, in Chinese culture, and that is precisely the point. A culture such as China’s can’t interpret the meaning of a representation it doesn’t know anything about, or an event in its own country’s history it has no idea actually happened, because China’s government officially wiped the memory from the nation’s collective consciousness. That is why the M+ Sigg Collection is so important — it lets art’s voice bear witness for Hong Kong, and the rest of the world, by allowing Chinese contemporary art to speak for itself.
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.