“In the long run, China will endure the turbulent and unprecedented upheavals of urbanization and internationalization. Art inspired by these times is consequently sure to be especially engaging and dazzling”
- Speech given at An International Discourse on New Chinese Video and Photography, 31 January 2004, San Diego Museum of Art Curator, Betti-Sue Hertz
A current running through the discussion on the impact of new media on contemporary art has been a question of how art can engage in the issues and problems that pervade society in an age of desensitization, disconnection and image overload. For Chinese contemporary art, this question is especially important.
How can Chinese artists address what is going on around them in China and in the world, while trying to maintain a regional identity? How can their work engage with the issues that face contemporary Chinese society? Not only must their work respond to the simultaneous launch of China into the international scene and rapid domestic development, it must also grapple with the issue of how to do so in a world ruled by techonology.
The 2004 Shanghai Biennale, which opened on September 28th 2004, focused on this question and, more specifically, the influence of new media on Chinese art and international art. It was entitled Techniques of the Visible in English and yingxiang shengcun (Media Existence) in Chinese. This title was meant to show the complexity of the issues by illustrating the parallel between the two phrases and the shared interest in both the east and west. The show centers on two main questions: how does contemporary art reflect and evaluate the influence of technology on humanity? How may art use technology to enrich human experience?
In order to answer these questions the Biennale utilizes the Chinese concept of “ying” which encompasses all phenomena related to sight. Here “ying” can be used to mean the way in which artists can create work that engages and connects with its viewer, instead of only providing the viewer with something to see. “Ying” is where artwork can be transformed from merely an image (among so many others) to something truly “visible.” It is here where the visible and the invisible meet. The concept of “ying” is particularly useful in relation to an essay written by art critic John Berger entitled Small Steps Towards a Theory of the Visible. In the essay, Berger argues that as the world becomes more and more image saturated “appearances have become volatile” (Berger). Art does not provoke, it entertains. How can artists create work that puts “ying” into practice by engaging its viewer and bringing him or her on a journey with the artist through the work.
The Shanghai Biennale aimed to show that with the increasing relevance of this concern, attention is directed away from the “east/west dichotomy” and more towards “the relationship between technology and human existence” (Course Reader, Ying, Xu Jiang) As new media’s role in contemporary art becomes increasingly important, the conceptual understanding of art (What constitutes art? How can art be distinguished from other forms of expression?) is becoming more and more global. In an article entitled Ying by Xu Jiang, the President of China Academy of Art, a more in depth discussion of the role “ying” in Chinese contemporary art takes place. He writes that the 2004 Biennale also aimed to emphasize that for Chinese artists, this global issue must be addressed in the context of maintaining a regional identity. They suggest that perhaps the use of the concept “ying” can be the vehicle by which Chinese contemporary art can develop domestically and internationally.
When looking at contemporary Chinese art, especially in the past 10 years, we can see the rapid rise of a number of artists on the international scene. Particularly, we can look at Xu Bing who has exhibited in numerous museums and galleries all around the world. In an interview with Xu, he discusses the role of globalization in Chinese art. He states that “contemporary art” in China has become boring. Instead of creating what Berger would call the “visible,” it is wrought with themes and images that have become somewhat trite. To him, artists working within the contemporary Chinese art scene have taken on the idea that “you are an artist, so whatever you do is valuable.” In doing so, they forget the “ultimate goal of art,” which is to create something involving “creative superiority” (Course Reader, Interview with Xu Bing). In using the word “artist” in reference to themselves, they have allowed themselves to create “substandard work.”
According to Xu, artists today have become too narrow and have “increasingly lost touch with the times and the social context.” As art becomes more and more global, it has become easier and easier for artists to see what kind of art is valuable on the international market and create something to that effect. Young artists see the successes of older artists like Xu and try to mold themselves into a similar model. Thus, the scene is dominated by a huge influx of the same kinds of art work, much without any of what Xu would call “creative superiority.” Xu Bing sees the future of Chinese art, not in “contemporary art,” but in the world of “practical or commercial art” such as graphic design and typography. In this way, the use of new media can be looked at as a place for Chinese artists to create something fresh or something that is able to more genuinely connect with the current social context China is facing.
The idea that contemporary art in China has become “boring” echoes with many Chinese artists. Another such artist is Lu Jie, who has also risen to stardom in the contemporary art scene. Like Xu Bing, Lu Jie has become internationally recognized. Lu Jie and Xu Bing share similar views, although Lu Jie seems to be much more critical of the contemporary art scene in China. In 1999 he and Qiu Zhijie curated the Long March Project: A Walking Visual Exhibition, which was a five-month traveling art show that followed the route of the original long march. In the description of the Long March Project written by Lu Jie and Qui Zhijie, many concerns and grievances with the direction Chinese art has moved are expressed. They write that contemporary art has moved from 1. masses to elite 2. private studios to hierarchal structures (such as the biennale and blockbuster exhibitions) and 3. China to the international world. They also express apprehension about the future of the contemporary art scene in China, a scene that exists in an increasingly global spotlight. The aim of the project was to address these concerns by bringing contemporary art to the people or “peripheral population” of China through a moving exhibit.
In an interview with Lu Jie, he explains the aim of the project and his thoughts on the development of contemporary art. He blames the international market for inserting western intellectual jargon (issues like post colonialism and globalization) into Chinese contemporary artwork, standardizing a set of topics that all “Chinese contemporary art work” must deal with, but that most actually fail to truly engage with. Like Xu Bing, Lu also feels that contemporary art has lost a sense of “creative superiority.” Although it might have attained elite status on the international scene, its ability to engage with Chinese history and society has become “shallower and shallower.” He argues that a deeper understanding of the local context is necessary for the future of the art scene. He calls for subtle exploration of this “period’s traces, rescuing it from canonized discourse” (Course Reader, Interview with Lu Jie).
Perhaps Lu Jie would agree with Xu Bing in his conviction that the future lies in commercial art. After attending the typography lecture during the Shanghai Literary Festival, I have to agree that art forms such as graphic design have momentous potential. Maybe it will be in such art forms that the concept of “ying” can be utilized, creating art work that is able to maintain a cultural and regional identity, while still acting within a global context.