Thursday, June 04, 2009

Beijing vs Shanghai by Xiaoxia Zhuang

Xiaoxia Zhuang

Although Beijing is China's political (and arguably the cultural)
capital, Shanghai has quickly emerged from its booming economic growth
to situate itself as the foremost contender against Beijing in the
competition for being China's artistic capital. Gaining momentum
since the post-Mao "Reform and Opening" (改革开放, găigé
kāifàng ), artistic ventures in China has exploded into a complicated
panoply of expression—where history, political, economic, social, and
cultural forces collide and form a labyrinthine and intricate present.

The contemporary visual artscape in China is a complicated arena to
fully understand without a working knowledge of the history in which
it grew out of. Arguably, the most influentially damaging era for
many of the early figures in Chinese contemporary art was the period
from 1966 to 1976 known as the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命,
wénhuà dà gémìng). During this period of upheaval, Chinese
society was under the helm and whimsy of an ideologically narrow
political policy: one that brought educational institutions to a
standstill, that encouraged the deification of Chairman Mao (at the
expense of a traditional family structure centered around Confucian
interests), and finally, one that stressed uniformity in Mao-centric
ideas and punished any ideas that deviated from that norm. After
Mao's death, this previous imposition upon members of China's
intellectual and artistic contingency was left to tread the unknown
and untested waters of post-Cultural Revolution opening.

After the Cultural Revolution's decade of intellectual and artistic
suppression and oppression, breaking free from Maoist ideology would
have been inevitably difficult, especially since intellectuals and
artists emerging from this era would have been understandably haunted
by the antagonism that was once directed towards them. What emerged
from this era was a collective mentality of fear and isolation from
ideas of free speech and artistic attitudes. These ideas (which I
would assert come primarily from a Western paradigm steeped in
democracy and free inquiry) though not promoted in China even after
the Cultural Revolution, were nevertheless introduced in subtle ways
as the post-Mao economic reforms (the aforementioned "Reform and
Opening") brought in foreign investments into China. With the influx
of foreign investments inevitably came artistic ideas.

This influx of foreign artistic ideas primarily meant the influx of
Western artistic ideas; however, there were also domestic strides that
were undertaken with the reopening of educational institutions (such
as art academies) in 1978. Despite this, the artists who emerged
during these formative years (in addition to being amongst the first
to graduate from these academies since the closing of educational
institutions at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution) were often
faced with difficulties and underwent a period of "perplexing
struggle as they endeavoured to transcend a staunchly academic
training, which corralled all personal impulses to rigid principles
that placed absolute emphasis upon figurative realism"[1] Even in
the educational environment, rigidity reigned supreme and Socialist
Realism was held supreme as

"All students were taught that the sole purpose of great art was to
present the common people with an uplifting spiritual experience, via
an unambiguous expression of recognisable forms and emotions that
would leave no doubt as to the greatness of the socio-historical age
and civilization to which they belonged"[2]

Artists that emerged from the first few graduating classes of art
academies from the post-Mao era (including Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang)
sought to create an artistic dialogue that looked beyond the auspices
of the artistic confines that were promulgated by the government-
controlled institutions. Key to developing a discourse of
experimental and avant-garde art came from publications that were
"imported from the free world"[3] and the modernization prized by
the Chinese government when it came to technology and society was a
similar anthem sung by the emerging artists. The challenge that
undoubtedly came with this, however, was the fact that many of these
artists had to quickly brush up on "one hundred and fifty years of
Western cultural development from Modernism to Post-Modernism" and
"apply it to local conditions"[4]

This emergence of what one can consider "contemporary Chinese art"
was nestled out of the cocoon created out of this era's negotiation
amongst traditional Chinese thought, Cultural Revolution ideology, and
the introduction of Western artistic ideas and artists. The latter
created a disjunction as "the formative experiences of China's new
artists were at enormous odds with those that informed Western frames
of reference" and "this adopted lexicon sat awkward aboard the
willful determination of the avant-garde to embrace its tenets"[5].
This "awkwardness" is something that I personally have difficulty
digesting when it comes to interpreting the art produced by the
Chinese artists considered a part of the experimental and avant-garde
realm. Specifically, there seems to be an ambiguity in my mind
concerning the impetus that drives many of these artists.

However, the 2000 Shanghai Biennale gave me clearer insight towards
the driving forces that propel these artists and form the foundation
of their works. These driving forces, while important to
understanding the works that are produced, have to balance themselves
with the fact that the emergence of art in this contemporary artscape
has to take into consideration the specific ways in order to display
these works. The Shanghai Biennale raised dialogue concerning these
issues, but also, cemented its momentous importance by showcasing some
of China's most well-known and influential artists. Showcased at the
Shanghai Art Museum, the show was a testament to China's understanding
of its development in forces like globalization and also, of its more
tolerant attitudes towards newer forms of art. Not only does it
exhibit a more lax and welcoming attitude towards these newer forms of
expression, but the fact that the show was state-sponsored is a
tremendous milestone for contemporary Chinese art in that contemporary
art was then able to be a state-legitimized venture—receiving the
accolades and funding it deserved from what would otherwise be a force
of censorship. Also important is the fact that the Biennale invited
foreign artists to exhibit their works on a Chinese platform and
opened itself to non-traditional artworks (such as paintings).
Although the Shanghai Biennale was undoubtedly small compared to art-
house giants like the Venice Biennale, it nevertheless served as a
momentous occasion for the artists and art world here in China.

Insofar as I have delved into understanding the contemporary art
landscape here in China, I still find many issues surrounding this
topic to be problematic. So far, I have had the fortunate privilege
and pleasure to engage with the art community in Shanghai (as well as
Beijing), and have been privy to artists talks and studio visits—
despite this, I do feel that there is a distinctive disconnect that
China's contemporary art world has with the everyday Chinese culture.
Though, it might be that I might not have been engaged too much with
the local art culture (after all, going to galleries does not
automatically merit me the freedom to pass judgment on the totality of
the local contemporary art scene), but there are a few key problematic
points that arise whenever I start thinking of the contextual forces
surrounding contemporary art in China. One of the smaller (though
still nagging) issues that I have seen is that there doesn't seem to
be much in the vein of art education, especially art education for
children and young adults. More or less, what I have experienced from
the gallery visits is that they are almost a strictly economic zone—
primarily interested in promoting specific artworks for either
financial gain or fame. Even at the Zendai MOMA—a more "typical"
museum setting (as opposed to a gallery, which serves to function both
to display and sell artwork) that I have been accustomed to in the
United States—lacked the art education resources that make the works
in these spaces to be of vital, relevant use for educating and
inspiring youth. Part of the issue is that I think that Chinese
culture is still ardently proud of its long-standing traditions and in
this respect comes traditionalism in art. So while traditional forms
of Chinese art (watercolors or calligraphy) are practiced and
encouraged, newer forms or media and new artistic themes (many of
which might not be palatable, or even relevant, for contemporary
Chinese audience influenced by traditionalism) are often left neglected.

Also, I have noticed that within what I have seen, heard, or read
about contemporary Chinese art in these past two months, there is a
lack of vernacular art or art that serves as carriers of social
justice. As an example of the former, the quilts of Gee's Bend serves
as the most well-known American example. Made by black women in rural
Alabama, the Gee's Bend quilts—with their architecturally-striking
patterns that were initially made out of necessity out of old pieces
of fabric—have been a staple of the contemporary American art scene
and the quilts have been used for educational and historical
purposes. As an example of the latter, I have only seen a handful of
works that address social justice issues and have only seen one that I
think has an unadulterated and genuine stance towards contemporary
China's issues (Mo Chanlue's "Art Education, Damn It!", which I
wrote my first blog entry about).

However, by far the biggest issue that I have difficulty factoring
into my understanding of contemporary Chinese art is trying to
reconcile the financial disparities between audiences who consume said
art and those who do not have the privilege to participate in such
discourse. I strongly contend that the aforementioned influences
concerning how contemporary Chinese art is contextualized within the
turbulent history of the past thirty-plus years since post-Mao reforms
play an integral role in this. This being said, I believe that
contemporary Chinese society is largely a class-ist society, with a
privileged urban and foreign gentry versus the rural "have-nots".
And with this, I of course do not hope to cause offense or demean to
those who consume or produce contemporary Chinese art (especially
since I myself am implicated in this class-based inequality), but
still, I just wished that more of the artworks from Shanghai and
Beijing addressed these issues. Admittedly, I understand that
artistic censorship still exists in China, but the realm for
expression has grown by leaps and bounds since the closed doors of the
Cultural Revolution. Perhaps my desire for contemporary Chinese
artists to these address issues (by investing more of a social justice
bent in the works) is pitting my Western-influenced ideology at odds
with the psyche behind these artists; perhaps they view many of these
issues as "没颁发" (mei banfa, or "no choice") so they
choose not to talk about it. It could possibly be that these issues
are not allowed to be talked about, but then again, I still think that
the galleries and museums here afford these artists the privilege to
be able to display works that are critical of economic and social
situations in China. The lack of discussion and dialogue raised by
the works I have seen thus far concerning economic and societal issues
troubles me, so I hope that Chinese art can open itself to these
issues, especially since I believe that an open dialogue concerning
the China's present economic and societal concerns helps to draw newer
(domestic) audiences to the world of contemporary Chinese art.

In terms of dissecting the scope of the contemporary art world in
China, the process is exceedingly difficult, especially as a Westerner
just beginning to understand the vast complications of not only
China's relationship with the West, but also, how China's relationship
with its own past and present. Hermeneutic difficulties aside, I
fully the emergence of visual art in the past thirty-plus years in
China stands as a remarkable testament to the powers of the human
imagination a triumph against adversity and hardship against a once-
oppressive past and a still-difficult present. The realization of
future artistic freedoms and nation-wide legitimization of these works
will hopefully not be too far away.


"Contemporary Chineses Art and New Media" course-reader

Shi, Yang Y. China Gallery. 09 Apr. 2009 <

[1] Pg 25, "Contemporary Art and New Media" course reader

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Id. at pg 26

[5] Ibid.

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