Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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Chinese Contemporary Artists--------------grow from single cultural
identity to multicultural identity

Catherine Qu

When we set the vertical timeline for Chinese art history into the
21st century, a lot of terms need to be newly explained, or you can
say, some of them have developed into further contents. Cultural
identity is exactly the one among them. With the increasing cultural
exchanges between the east and west, some of the Chinese artists come
to foreign countries to further their study while some of them, though
lived in China, come to develop a very good command of what happened
in the western art world.

Based on the above situation, we can start to talk about the
cultural identities of these artists. If we divide the dimension of
cultural identity into the following three kinds:

First of all, artists who based their lives and works in China can be
defined to live in the first dimension.

Secondly, artists who are foreigners who set their research branches
in China can be defined to live in the second dimension.

Thirdly, artists who have deep roots in China while migrate to foreign
countries come back to see China in a distance can be defined to live
in the third dimension.

Then we can apply the above divisions to contemporary Chinese art,
we can say that most artists are based on the third dimension. They
have both traditional Chinese and westernized education background and
switch their residences between foreign countries and China. So how do
they see China from switching themselves among being native Chinese,
foreigners, and overseas return group? And what happened during this

Let's take individual examples to find the answer.

Xu Bing, who got his MA from China Fine Art Academy, migrated to the
U.S. in 1990, had a grand individual show through which he rewrote
some of the Chinese characters by English letters. This seems to be an
excellent example. As is known by all, calligraphy had long been a
cherished art form in Chinese art history before the contemporary art
period. Nowadays, with the emergence of electronics, more and more
Chinese people have got used to type characters and show characters by
slide. What's more, few contemporary art works are done by calligraphy
as Zhang Jianjun said:" To be sure, Chinese calligraphy is difficult
for Westerners to understand. However, the Chinese calligraphy world
is very traditional, and has not expanded its own work into
contemporary art. So it is not that contemporary art does not accept
calligraphy, but that the traditional calligraphy artists have not
gone into the contemporary art world." Thus, the calligraphy market
seems to be shrinking. However, there are a few contemporary artists
that use calligraphy as a tactic to translate into their art works
recently and one of them is Xu Bing. I think Xu Bing knew this
situation well, and he himself might be a good calligrapher. That is
because he stood on the first dimension, so he got to learn the
situation. After this, he started thinking the reason for this
shrinking market in the position of a foreigner. He was supposed to
ask himself what was the reason that lied behind this phenomenon. The
answer was easy to find. For the contemporary Chinese art, the biggest
market is the overseas market, and the foreigners cannot read the
characters nor can they get to know the deeper ideas behind them.
That's the information which can be learned from the second demotion.
So Xu Bing developed this new style---------using English letters to
rewrite Chinese characters. This process can be divided into two
parts. In the first place, foreigners did not see the characters as
Chinese, but a mass combination of English letters which they were
familiar with. On the second place, they reorganized them and tried to
make sense on their own interpretation. Through this process, the
English letters turned out to be one tiny part of a Chinese Character,
after this process was done; they were not English letters any more.
It is interesting to learn how Xu Bing developed such a good idea.
Actually, he expressed in one of his interviews that he knew most of
the westerners have a lot of interests in Chinese Calligraphy;
however, they lack access to learn the meaning and content of behind
every character. So he got the inspiration to introduce Chinese
calligraphy to western countries by repacking them. This was for sure
a good transition for the Chinese calligraphy to enter the
international art market.

Gu Wenda, anther calligraphy artist also shared the same skill as Xu
Bing, they both created installations which surrounded the viewer
with facsimiles of Chinese script. By doing so they became tricksters
playing a double conceptual game. They forced their audiences to move
from one culture to another. Their characters were unreadable for both
the Chinese and non-Chinese viewers; it is also unknowable whether the
texts were real or fake for both Chinese and non-Chinese
audiences."The concept of an unidentified Chinese language could have
been interpreted by Chinese viewers to support a myth of lost culture
or history; it could also have been interpreted by non-Chinese as
misunderstandings of exotic beauty."

Another two representative examples can be defined into a different
group as compared to Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, they were done by Qiu
Zhijie and Zhang Huan. Zhijie's work was called Lan Ting Xu. He wrote
a very famous Chinese essay from Jin Dynasty again and again in the
paper until all parts of the paper turned out to be total black. Zhang
Huan's work, which I think can be defined as a performance show, was
done by painting Chinese calligraphy on his head again and again until
his head was all covered. I put the two examples together because I
think they share much of the similarity. Based on the same situation
as Xu Bing, they linked calligraphy to be the material of their
performance show. They liberated art from specific working space like
desk and showed that calligraphy can be a modern material for doing
artwork. Their works were a good transformation of calligraphy art as

Apart from calligraphy field, there are other fields where artists
stand on the third dimension and reflect they artwork on the content
of the first dimension.

For example, "the life of the peasants" is another long lasting
theme both in Cultural Revolution period and the contemporary art

During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution period,
peasants are always portrayed with PLA soldiers to show the harmony
between two parties as an illustration for Chairman Mao's so called
successful ideology.

In contemporary art field, the contents of peasants' life are
interpreted different. For example, Luo Zhongli's famous oil painting
"father" portrayed famers in such a realism and ugly way which was
attacked at that time for painting peasants into animal-like

In the year 2010, Cai Guoqiang, another overseas Chinese
contemporary artist, hold an exhibition on the content of peasants'
life in the newly-built Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. This is such
an unconventional exhibition that I want to spare some time to talk
about. On the first floor, it is an exhibition hall where fifty kites
were audio-video installed. Within the exhibition hall, the wind from
a fan sways gently in the air, and projected onto each kite is the
story of a peasant invention.

What's more, Cai Guoqiang did a good job installing the room with
the simulation sound from the farm where locusts are singing in clear
voice. He multiplies the forms of this art work.

On the Second floor, there is a bunch of robots created by peasant
inventors. They are painting, walking, dancing and doing jobs

On third floor, a lot of planes rested on a fine grass where you are
supposed to find birds flying here and there. As Cai Guoqiang:" I want
to find the creativity of individual peasants in China, their
contributions to modernization, and the reality of their situation
today." These planes also correspond to the slogan outside the museum
which says:"What's important isn't whether you can fly."

The highlight of the exhibition is its theme, Cai Quangqiang showed
a unique insight into peasants life. He not only found the unusual
parts of the peasants and transformed them into such unconventional
and fantastic art forms. In this exhibition, Cai Guoqiang also gave
response to the Shanghai Expo by linking the slogan "Peasants-Making a
better city, a better life." The slogan was right outside the museum
and gives every visitor a shock, which comes with a really impressive
art show.

If we analyze the story, we can found that he interpreted the story
on the third dimension as well. Westerns have interests in Chinese
peasants' life, but again, they did not have enough access to learn.
By giving a eternalized title of this exhibition, and all the
high-tech installations, Cai Guoqiang did a good job in making his
artwork trans-nationalism.

"National flags" is also a field which Chinese artists like to do
something on it. During the Mao Years, the national flag of American
was always portrayed as the enemy that PLA solders would like to
fight. During the first field trip of this class, we went to a
underground museum which was filled with the propaganda from Mao's
times. All the national flags painted in these propagandas showed
strong emotion of hatred.

This emotion was inherited into the contemporary art world. In one
of the exhibition called Supermarket Exhibition which was held in
Guangzhou, the nation flags of the U.S were made into towels. The
artist use this special form to demonstrate his political ideas for
transformation and communication in modern culture

The last field I want to mention is the "TV news program". The CCTV
news program started in the year 1978 under the control of the
communist party. According to this principle, all the news that
announce in the program, should served the party and the communist.
Even the news announcers are carefully selected. The faces of the two
announcers have become national symbols since then. They seem to
represent the governments' statement and orders. So when Li Jianhua
who is a video installation artist based in Shanghai came to our class
and showed us the installation of the CCTV news program. It was really
awesome. When the woman news announcer said:"good night" to the
audience., her voice was cut by the word "night"; the second time, she
voice was cut even shorter, by doing this again and again, Li Jianhua
made this serious news program becoming amusing and iconic. This
showed his rebellion of his original cultural identity and his unique
thinking to transfer Chinese traditional news program to a the world
art market.

To end this paper, I'd like to say that the progress the Chinese
artists made to the international world also made them reflect
themselves more and rebel or revise from their original cultural
identity, they can see their artwork and the process of doing artwork
from a third dimension and make new changes for Chinese contemporary
art. Thus, the Chinese contemporary successfully embodies the
combination of east and west, traditional and avant-guard.

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