Sunday, June 05, 2011

What is Contemporary Art’s Relationship with Society?

Caroline Liao

What is Contemporary Art's Relationship with Society?

"Contemporary art, at the end of the day, is about addressing the time
we live in. […] I think everyone [contemporary artists] is looking to
express something about the human condition. That is a general theme."
Arthur Solway, the director of the James Cohan Gallery.

An interesting phenomenon in China is demonstrated by the usual
audience at art exhibitions and galleries. The fact is despite
increasing interest in Chinese contemporary art, the shows are still
largely attended by foreigners.  When arriving at the Minsheng Museum
for the opening night of Trilogy, Liu Wei's Solo Show on March 20th,
2011, I was shocked at the number of Westerners in attendance.  In
fact, it seemed as though the number of foreigners outnumbered the
Asians here in China.  Even in class, we have discussed that in the
past, buyers of the contemporary Chinese art are usually Western and
non Chinese collectors. Only just recently have the Chinese
billionaires, or extremely wealthy Chinese, emerged onto the scene.
However, the Chinese contemporary art market has not yet embraced the
art lover and small scale collector.  Yet, especially when dealing
with topics relating to the human condition and modernization in
China, this narrow audience does not allow for a complete discussion
of the ideas in these artworks.

This is a problem that many people within the art world observe and
now are seeking to address.  Of particular interest to me are the
artist's own initiatives to have discussions about society and its
issues with a wider audience.  Increasingly, contemporary art is
moving towards becoming more inclusive towards the general population
of China.  But, this movement is not purely a factor of the Chinese
simply having more leisure time and disposable income, but also the
initiative of artists to reach out to those who might not ordinarily
attend an art show.  To do so, many artists have created special
projects using creative mediums to include more people into the
contemporary art scene and its discussions.

"Art for Sale" was one of these innovative art exhibitions pioneered
by Bizart.  It was held in the unique location of a supermarket on
Huaihai Zhong Road, a famous shopping district within the inner ring
of Shanghai.  This 1999 exhibition blurred the lines between art and
commercialism not only through its unique location, but also through
the mass production sale of contemporary art.  Each of the 30 artists
involved, including artists like Yang Zhenzhong, Xu Zhen, Liang Yue,
Zhao Bandi, and Yang Fudong, were required to create a commercial
product related to their contemporary art piece ("Art for Sale").
These products were then package, labeled, and recreated to sell to
the masses.

Even the layout of the exhibition was similar to that of an ordinary
supermarket, with the usage shopping baskets, store clerks, and even
aisles.  However, what makes this special is that the concept of a
supermarket is inextricably tied to the ordinary lives of each Chinese
individual, changing the usual relationship between art and the
community.  Attendants of this particular exhibit were not the usual
visitors of art galleries and museum. In fact, when surveying the
customers who were purchasing these contemporary art products at this
exhibition, it was discovered that most of the audience member did not
ordinarily attend exhibitions or museum.  From Yang Zhen Zhong's
video, we can see that this project brought contemporary art into the
lives of many different people. Even without previous knowledge of the
artists, these people are participating in the exhibits hinting at the
fact that contemporary art is simply not widely known.  Once the
opportunity is there, people will come because the ideas behind these
pieces contain a universal quality.

This exhibition was not purely a show to increase exposure
contemporary art, but it also discusses the issues of art ownership
and sale of art.  As the prices of these commercial products were not
extremely expensive, this art exhibition also made owning a work of
contemporary art available to a wide variety of people.  "Art for
Sale" brought up questions about "art as a commodity" and the reasons
behind creating and purchasing art.  What made this show special is
that this dialogue was occurring between artists and the ordinary
people, not simply those who have achieved a wealthy standing or those
immersed in the art world.  Furthermore, since these purchasers were
not traditional collectors, most of these people purchased a product
from "Art for Sale" purely for the enjoyment of contemporary art.

Another project that brought art to the people instead of simply
creating a stagnant exhibition was the Long March Project.  The Long
March Project, was a contemporary art collective based in Beijing,
that began in 2002 and was run by Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie.  Lu Jie, the
artist, curator, and founder of the project found inspiration from the
historical Long March, a six-thousand mile retreat of China's Red Army
from the Kuomintang forces.  The exhibition consisted of twelve sites
located along this historic route: Ruijin, Jinggangshan, On the Road
in Guangxi, Kunming, Lijiang, Lugu Lake, On the Train, Zunyi, Maotai,
Xichang, Moxi, and Luding Bridge ("Art and China's Revolution").  This
traveling art exhibition allows the artists to create pieces that
instigated conversations about "issues like the idea of the genius,
the role avant-garde art, the relationship between self and other, the
relationship between the Han Chinese majority and minority ethnic
groups. Issues like Christianity in China, sharing and distributing
resources, and the possibility of a new democratic society." More
importantly, it allows him to facilitate a conversation with those who
happened to be at the right place at the right time.  For example, the
site, "On the Train," involved holding exhibitions on a train car.
Guests were available to travel freely to this special entire
passenger train to display, perform, and discuss artist works.  The
issues previously listed have been issues debated since the time of
the original Long March, but have never been answered.  However, by
opening up these discussions with the people living around this route,
artists are one step closer to having a better understanding of
society and these issues.

What makes this art project so particular is that these exhibitions
traveled through the country to the poorer countryside.  Another goal,
stated by the Lu Jie, is to march "art to China's peripheral
population" ("The Long March Project").  The people that these artists
interacted with were perhaps less educated and wealthy, but they bring
a unique perspective and experience when participating in these
performances and observing the art works, whether they be
installations, photographs, or painting.  These people were able to
talk directly with the artists and get exposed to a wide range of
topics.  In turn, artists were able to learn about the thoughts and
ideas of this population, underrepresented in the contemporary art

While the previously discussed works involved exhibitions being held
in interesting locations, Dial 62761232, was not held in a particular
location at all.  Dial 62761232, also known as the Express Delivery
Exhibition, was organized by Bizart.  This exhibition ran from
September 10th to September 20th, 2006, from 10:00AM to 20:00PM.
Irritiated by the fact that contemporary art exhibitions were not
receiving the attendance that these artists wished for, many artists,
including Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong, and Kan Xuan, collaborated to put
together this art exhibition.  They chose to bring art to the people
in a manner that "all people in Shanghai use to attain their goods," a
courier system.  The exhibitions would be delivered to people's houses
and set up by specially trained messengers. Each caller would then be
able to keep the randomly selected exhibition for a day ("Dial

The idea of being able to have your own exhibition for a day is an
interesting concept.  Particularly because in this case, other than
the initial set up by messengers, the participant is free to interact
with this piece of artwork however they wish.  It brings contemporary
art into a more intimate setting, but at the same time increases the
availability of these works.  People who ordinarily would not have the
time to go to an art gallery would simply be able to enjoy the work of
art in the comfort of their own home.  Additionally, by sending these
contemporary artworks directly to the individual, it removes the
concerns and insecurities that many Chinese have, preventing them from
entering a gallery or museum.  Having talked to some local Chinese
students, I learned that many choose not to attend these museums
because they believe that they do not have the right background to
fully comprehend the exhibits and thus there is no point of even
attending.  Dial 62761232 creates a personalize connection with the
artwork allowing the viewer to build a closer relationship with these
pieces and enjoy the experience of owning a piece of contemporary. But
this exhibition did not solely benefit the viewer of art, but also the
artists themselves.  Artists were able to spread their ideas to a
wider range of people and phone calls came pouring in nonstop asking
for these exhibitions deliveries.

However, artists have not only spread their own ideas through these
initiatives to make art more inclusive, but also used these
initiatives to enable others outside the traditional contemporary art
scene to create their own artwork.  Cai Guoqiang's Peasant da Vinci is
a striking project that takes the act of creating contemporary art
from the professional "artists" and gives it to local peasants from
China's countryside. The pieces that Cai Guoqiang collected over the
span of many years accumulated into this exhibition displayed to the
public at the Rockbund Art Museum from May 4 to July 25, 2010.  These
works represent "the unquenchable universal desire to innovate in
pursuit of modernity and the influence of nature, society, politics,
and other cultural factors on invention" (Culp).

More than simply facilitation a discussion, it opens up opportunities
for the traditionally poor to present their works to the public.  The
show's catalogue stated, "The exhibition also intends to provide a
platform for discussions on the social transformation of hundreds of
millions of peasants in the modernizing process in China."
Modernization is a subject that touches the lives of everyone in China
and without this initiative, many of the ideas of these peasants would
not be heard.  Works presented in this exhibition range from planes
and submarines to helicopters and flying saucers.  Wu Yulu, claimed to
be the most impressive "Peasant da Vinci," was a maker of robots and
was given an entire floor of the museum to create a robot production
workshop ("Chinese Invention").  What is significant about this work
is that Cai Guoqiang utilizes the inspirations and ideas of others and
creates an opportunity for their ideas to be displayed.  By opening up
opportunities to create contemporary art, people of greater diversity
are able to create works of art and facilitate a more dynamic and
diverse discussion between the community in China and artists and art

Slowly, these artist initiatives to expand the audience of
contemporary art have lead to the opening of alternative art galleries
like Para/site, the Arrow Factory, and the Observation society.
Para/site is an non-profit art organization in the centre of Hong Kong
("Introduction").  Opened in 1996 and run by office manager Jenny Lam,
the mission statement of this gallery is "to establish and maintain a
platform for artists and other art practitioners to realize their
vision, in relation with their immediate and extended communities,
with the aim of nurturing a thoughtful and creative society"
("Mission").  The Arrow Factory, an "alternative outlet for
contemporary art production in Beijing," was founded in 2008 in a
hutong alleyway far away from the city's art districts. It focuses on
works that respond to the immediate local environment and the diverse
economic, political, and social conditions of the local everyday
experiences.  Similarly, the Observation Society is an independently
run art space in Bejing an independent space for the arts "set in a
former hair salon and with a distinctly perceptual bent."  Created by
artists Hu Xiangqian and Wong Wai Yin in 2008, the space has a goal of
creating exhibitions free from commercial, institutional, and
curatorial interventions (Yung).  The creation of these alternative,
usually non-profit spaces, have often encouraged artworks that further
pushed the boundaries.  By not being bounded by commercial interests,
these places free up opportunities for local and international artists
to express their thoughts and ideas to the community, without
requiring being driven by the market. Moreover, the unique locations
of these art galleries increase their relevancy to their local
surroundings.  All of these initiatives represent a push to bring
contemporary art to a wider audience of people and to bring the act of
art creation to a wider range of people.  Slowly with the increase of
these local artistic spaces, I think more people will be encouraged to
see and learn about what is happening in the art world.  Slowly more
of the issues that are currently being suppressed will be opened up to

In their strive to make contemporary art more inclusive to the Chinese
community, many contemporary artists have sought unique ways to reach
out to the 老百姓, or everyday people.  Most of these methods involved
stepping outside the traditional gallery and museum and implementing
aspects of daily life to display the artwork.  The result of these
movements is the creation of a dialogue between a larger portion of
the community and the artists.  By doing so, the works created better
represent the human condition and influence a greater number of
people.  The act of "bring art to the masses" creates a unique
platform for which people can discuss and ponder societal issues.  In
the past, this conversation occurred only between artists and a
limited group of individuals.  However, by making contemporary art
more inclusive, artists are better able to express their thoughts and

But most importantly, artist initiatives which make contemporary art
more inclusive bring the artwork one step closer to expressing the
human condition.  The conversations facilitated with those who might
otherwise not have been exposed to contemporary art allow for a
greater variety and diversity. These dialogues not only enhances the
experience of these new contemporary art participants, but also
enhances the works themselves. It takes contemporary art one step
closer towards comprehending and expressing the human condition.


"Art and China's Revolution: Long March Project." Art Society. 2008.
Web. 30 May 2011. <>.

"Art for Sale." ShanghART Gallery Shanghai. 1999. Web. 31 May 2011.

"Chinese Invention: Peasant Da Vincis." The Economist. 8 July 2010.
Web. 30 May 2011.

Culp, Samantha. "Cai Guoqiang's "Peasant Da Vinci's"." RedBox Review.
4 May 2010. Web. 31 May 2011.

"Dial 62761232." Arthub. 2004. Web. 30 May 2011.

"Introduction." Para/Site Art Space. Hong Kong Art Development
Council. Web. 30 May 2011.

"The Long March Project: Interview with Lu Jie." Long March Project.
Web. 28 May 2011.

"Mission." Para/Site Art Space. Hong Kong Art Development Council.
Web. 30 May 2011.

Yung, Anthony T. "Yishu Select: Observation Society." RedBox Review.
28 July 2010. Web. 30 May 2011.

Weekly Blog Posts

1. March 10th, 2011: Secret Propaganda - Response to the Shanghai
Propaganda Poster Art Centre (posted on blog, later date because
started class one week late)

2. March 10th, 2011: Paper, Water, and Ink - Response to the Shanghai
Museum (posted on blog)

3. March 17th, 2011: Of Gold and Jade – Response to the Jade Buddha
Temple (posted on blog)

4. March 24th, 2011: Lines III – Response to Trilogy, Liu Wei's Solo
Show (posted on blog)

5. March 31st, 2011: Meat and Satire - Response to Gu Dexin and Zhou
Tiehai (posted on blog)

6. April 7th, 2011: Fiber Glass Creations - Response to the Shanghai
Sculpture Space (posted on blog)

7. April 14th, 2011: WEEK OF MIDTERM – no blog post due

8. April 20th, 2011: Satirical Works – Response to Song Dong and Zhao
Bandi (posted on blog)

9. April 27th, 2011: WEEK OF SPRING BREAK – no blog post due

10. May 4th, 2011: Twoself – Response to Transexperiences (emailed)

11. May 12th, 2011: Response to "On the Train" (printed and turned in
to Professor Ayas due to trouble with Internet connection)

12. May 19th, 2011: Of Dogs and Cabbages – Response to Han Bing's
photography (emailed)

13. May 26th, 2011: Send in proposal for final paper

No comments: