Thursday, March 26, 2009

A 'Domestic Turn'

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3 (1995)

This week's reading, "A 'Domestic Turn:' Chinese Experimental Art in the 1990s" by Wu Hung, offered remarkable insight into the world of 1990s Chinese experimental art.  His ample historical arguments were (thankfully and helpfully) grounded with an extensive, though manageable, list of key figures from this period.  

As the title of the article alludes to, Hung argues that "Chinese experimental art of the 1990s" underwent a "'domestic turn' that transformed experimental art into a powerful vehicle of social critique."  Much of this was related to the rapid political, economic, and social changes that occured after the end of the Cultural Revolution.  Artists were now unchained from making the obligatory propagandistic visuals that were so reminiscent of the Mao era; instead, more leeway (though still under an auspicious government eye) was granted to artists.  And as more rural Chinese found their way to the cities in search of work, artists too were migrating towards urban areas, primarily Beijing, for artistic growth.  This led to the development of "artist villages", residential areas inhabited by many experimental artists, that initially grew out of financial reasons (i.e. living in these communities were cheaper for the artists), but eventually, these "villages" became molded into their artistic identity and community.  However, Hung was quick to point of that these artists "rarely [formed] close groups based on common social or artistic causes", which begs me to ask why these artists failed to "inspire new ways of thinking and expression".  Based on my inferences from the reading, I would think that the commercial competition amongst these artists contributed to this, since the reading mentioned that "freelance artists" working outside the affiliations of government institutions often had to find other (economic) means to support his or her works.

One of the most interesting (and insightful) pieces of information that Hung provided concerning 1990s experimental art was the short discussion on Political Pop:

As an important trend in Chinese experimental art, Political Pop brought post-Cultural Revolutionary art to an end.  its radical fragmentation of Cultural Revolution images exhausted the source of its pictorial vocabulary and reduced it to a number of pre-conceived compositional formulae.  this interpretation corrects a misunderstanding often found in Western introductions to contemporary Chinese art, which tend to identify Political Pop as a "dissident" political art produced under a Communist regime.  In fact, most Political Pop artists were protesting against against any ideological and political commitment; their intention was to de-politicize political symbols--not reinvest them with new political meaning.  Although genuine social and cultural criticism existed in Chinese experimental art in the 1990s, it was related to an observation and representation of reality, not history.

Though what I've quoted is long, I think it's important to understand these works, their artists, and these artistic time periods from their perspectives.  I think one of the primary challenges for us as students is approaching the material in this class from a non-Chinese perspective (one that is rooted in Western ways of thinking and views towards China, American history, etc.).  For example, if we take Hung's above argument to be a good generalization of Chinese Political Pop, then what many in the class (including me) thought of works in this group (including Zhang Xiaogang, whom painting I've included above, and last week's presenter, Yu Youhan) is incorrect in comparison to the artists' own statements concerning these works.

1 comment:

Taliesin Thomas said...

Chinese contemporary art is still a fascinating field that reflects the glory, dynamism, and maturity of a civilization that has been creating art since Neolithic times. Certainly Chinese contemporary art has received a lot of hot press in recent years, but China is not going away, and neither are her important artists. As far as the market is concerned, it is timely that Chinese artists attain prices comparable to their Western and European counterparts. It is definitely an opportune time to be collecting in this field. Check out this interesting Q&A on collecting at the Yishu (Journal for Contemporary Chinese art) website: