The Cultural Revolution in China opened up a whole new world in which the people of China could more freely express themselves. In particular, much of the censorship placed on art other forms of media was repealed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, art flourished throughout China. Many cities in China, starting with Beijing, began allowing artists to put up their work in public exhibitions, parks, and buildings. Exhibitions such as the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, the first national Chinese art exhibition featuring works from avant-garde artists, gave aspiring Chinese artists and non-artists a chance to finally see artists’ works without the veil of censorship covering whatever the government did not want the people to see.
Many art exhibitions have popped up in China since then, especially in Beijing. Apart from being China’s political capital for the past few hundred years, Beijing has always been very cultural. Many famous and historical structures reside in Beijing, such as the Palace of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square amongst other historical sites. As such, it comes as no surprise that Beijing is also the art capital of China as well. However, Shanghai has recently become more and more involved with the art scene, and the art community located in and around the Bund has been expanding. But even though Shanghai is on its way to one day stealing the spotlight from Beijing, it may never truly be the art capital of China due to reasons rooted in Shanghai’s economy-oriented culture.
Shanghai is known for its lively nightlife and thriving economy, but the city’s art community is not something that instantly flashes to mind when mentioning Shanghai. For those searching for a more cultural and bohemian part of Shanghai, the Bund would be the best bet. The Bund is the place to go for people wanting to visit art exhibitions and galleries in Shanghai. But even though the Bund and the areas surrounding the Bund are pouring with art and culture, the rest of Shanghai overshadows the creative sector with its fast-paced metropolitan atmosphere.
Despite Shanghai’s overall atmosphere, the creative sector in Shanghai is still something to behold. Towards the beginning of the semester, I went to the “Intrude Art & Life 366” exhibit at the Zendai MoMA. Inside, I saw many works from various Chinese artists in the form of pictures, paintings, drawings, messages, sculptures, and videos. One exhibit that really caught my eye was the “Injured Angels” exhibit by Liu Jin. I suppose one of the main reasons this exhibit got my attention was because the angels in the exhibit were hanging from two ledges perpendicular to the entrance, but I was intrigued nonetheless. When I read the little placard that gave the description and reasoning behind the artist’s work, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. The angels had been displayed in public before they reached the Zendai MoMA. Liu Jin hung the angels from buildings across Shanghai to represent the fragility of Shanghainese people amidst the urbanization of Shanghai. In my opinion, I do not believe it is the people who are fragile; it is the culture that is truly at risk during this time of rapid change for Shanghai.
I did not know what to expect from contemporary Chinese art before I saw it on display at the Zendai MoMA. All I could think about when I heard Chinese art were those classic paintings of tigers against a mountainous background that many older Chinese artists paint on scroll paper. With this in mind, I figured contemporary Chinese art would be something that resembled artworks I’ve seen in New York, except with an Asian influence. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed to find that many of the pieces I saw in the Zendai MoMA did not have the Asian influence I expected. I suppose my sense of art may not be as sharp as some of my peers since I myself am not an artist, but I did not see anything in the artworks that truly set them apart from what I might find at an American art gallery or even a European one, for that matter.
More recently, I was lucky enough to visit the Propaganda Poster Art Center. There was a huge collection of propaganda posters from the Mao era in this gallery that Yang Pei Ming, the owner of the center, collected. Though the posters themselves weren’t created with the intention of displaying the artists’ creativity, I enjoyed it nonetheless. As I walked through the gallery viewing each poster and reading its corresponding caption, I could not help but think to myself about how I would probably never be able to find a gallery quite like this in the United States. Each poster portrayed Americans and other non-communist Western people as monsters or demons, while the Chinese and China’s communist comrades were drawn as glorious heroes. In the United States, it was much more likely to see the opposite. Even though the creative aspect of this poster art was suppressed by the censorship the government instilled at the time, I still admired each poster for its cultural purpose. The posters represented a time in China that was unique to China, and because the posters are physically from that time, they are that much more valuable as cultural and artistic works.
Fortunately, things have changed a lot since then. Though many artists continue to get censored by the government, censorship is much lighter than it was during Mao’s era. During Mao’s reign, nearly anything that represented independent thought that did not coincide with communist thought was destroyed. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao set up campaigns to destroy any type of art including literature, paintings, and sculptures. Intellectuals would be persecuted, and people were driven to the point where they would report their own family members to the government in fear of the government punishing the entire family for hiding something. Now, artists can enjoy the freedom of painting and creating nearly anything they want. The only limitation as far as censorship goes is censorship of works put on public display.
Despite the fact that censorship laws in China are much less severe than they were in the past, this selective censorship still creates some problems in the art community. Due to the selective censorship the government now enforces, some artists have been bullied into creating for the people as opposed to creating for themselves. Artists begin to think that the only way to become successful is to create art that can be displayed and that other people will like. Thus, these artists lose their potential by succumbing to the will of the government. Even so, many artists still create whatever they want regardless of what the government says.
During the “Fuck Off” exhibition, held in the Eastlink Gallery warehouse in Shanghai, many contemporary Chinese artists put up various pieces on display. The exhibition was notorious for the selection of artwork that went up on display. Many of the pieces had a very disturbing nature. One artist, Zhu Yu, submitted a performance entitled “Eating People”. The exhibit itself contained photographs of the artist presumably cooking and ultimately eating human fetuses. After one of the photographs leaked on the internet, the FBI and Scotland Yard began investigating the circumstances. Eventually, the Shanghai police shut down the exhibition before its intended closing date. The exhibition marked Shanghai’s first attempt at an international gallery of contemporary Chinese art. Though some may consider the exhibition a little dark, it set the wheels in motion for future international surveys to be held in Shanghai and the rest of China.
Art has come a long way in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Though artists now experience much more freedom than they did in the past, I still do not feel that contemporary art in China is quite up to par. I have seen few artists, let alone works that truly distinguish contemporary Chinese art from the rest of the world’s contemporary art. The only artist that I can really think of to accomplish such a feat is Yu Youhan, who made pop-art out of photographs of Mao Zedong. Though the pieces themselves resembled what Andy Warhol had done with Marilyn Monroe’s photographs, I felt that what Yu Youhan did was a step in the right direction for contemporary Chinese art.
Contemporary art in China is still young. Many artists in Beijing and Shanghai are still experimenting with different types of mediums to convey their ideas to their audiences. Though the cultural capital of China is currently Beijing, it may change someday. There has been a lot of recent growth in the art sector in Shanghai. Many artists have come to Shanghai to try and cultivate the art scene here, and hopefully they’ll make a difference. But I think in order for the artists in Shanghai to truly make a difference, they have to embrace China’s past and incorporate more of it into their works, including the parts of China’s history they may not particularly want to remember.