Thursday, November 23, 2006

Contemporary Chinese Art - Piecing it Together

Last Thursday we were privileged to have three active members of the contemporary Chinese art scene who live in Shanghai arrive and present our small class with a lecture on the emerging and evolving performance art scene in Shanghai and China today.
The first of these specialists was Yang Zhanzhong, who was the curator an exhibition “Art for Sale”, which was compiled over half a year in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The exhibit resembled a supermarket, offering up art in wholesale quantities. One could possibly imagine Wal-Mart adding an art arm, as it were. After discussing the “Art for Sale” exhibit for a short while, and presenting a film highlighting his role as an “employee”, he showed a short film entitled “I Will Die”, in which people are recorded saying, “I Will Die”. This work, like the rest of Yang Zhanzhong’s work is rather lighthearted, and simply asks us to examine death from a less morbid sensibility.
The next speaker was Philip Tinari, a writer living in Shanghai, although he also has extensive experience living in Beijing. Philip’s lecture highlighted “The Long March Project” (, in which various artists retraced the stops during Mao’s own Long March. These artists often created site-specific pieces along the way. In an exampled that remembered the violence that occurred in one stop, knives were used to highlight the events at that locale. The key element for the artist involved has been to keep a unique Chinese social tradition as an intrinsic part of their works, going back to the Chinese countryside to find “roots”. Lastly Philip brought up the Yan’An Project, which has set out to help future artists in China, as an adequate art education system is something that has been seriously lacking in China today. This education system will become increasingly important as China moves towards a goal of creating one thousand museums by 2015.
The last speaker, Liu Ying Mei, is another curator who has lived both in Shanghai and Beijing, and is well known for working with artists who push the limits of what is to be tolerated in modern China. Liu began by presenting us with a history of modern art in China, starting in 1750 with an Italian priest, moving towards the 1979 Stars Exhibition, the 1989 Modern Art Exhibition, and finally into the 1990s with the beginning of solo exhibitions as a way to present contemporary Chinese art. After giving us a general history of art in China, she moved on to discuss the creation of Shanghai’s first art school, an oil painting school in Xu Jia Hui. The Catholic Church can be attributed to the creation of the school, which was founded in 1860 as an orphanage, but was converted to an art school in 1864 by Juan Ferrerra. Shanghai’s first art school lasted around ninety years, from 1864 – 1949, ending with the accession of Mao.
Interspersed between illuminating us with the fascinating history of contemporary art in China, Liu presented us with pictures from the various art exhibits she has been associated with. Her most fascinating story comes from 2002, when during one of her works at a library, eight artists had to removed their works and offer less “offensive” creations, due to disapproval from the organizer.
Although these three speakers touched on different topics, all wove together to give an underlying presentation of what is happening today in contemporary Chinese art. Liu Ying Mei highlighted the history of the contemporary art movement, as well as serious issues facing the Chinese gallery scene, where an organizer has too much power over their sponsored artists. This strangulation of artistic creativity is a worrisome possibility in some of Shanghai’s new museums, such as the Zendai. This new building spree is also worrisome because of an acute lack of art education in China, upon which Philip touched upon, as well as the attempt by contemporary Chinese artists to find their own, indigenous inspiration with his discussion of the Long March Project. Finally Yang Zhanzhong highlights issues of China’s inflated contemporary art market with his work “Art for Sale”, which while being shut down shortly, also highlights the still restrictive nature of China in relation to allowing artist freedoms. These three artists brought together all of the critical issues facing Chinese art through their own personal experiences of working in China in a thoroughly thought provoking manner.

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