The New Art of China
China is undergoing an unexpected artistic renaissance, with wary support from the government.
Special section on China, by Richard Vine, Barbara Pollack, Jonathan Napack, and Lisa Movius, in Art in America (June–July 2004), 575 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
Amid all the news stories about budding entrepreneurs springing up all over China, one phenomenon has largely escaped notice: Venues for contemporary art are suddenly all the rage. In Beijing, more than a dozen new galleries have opened, mostly operated by foreigners. Seven years ago there were none, and foreigners were forbidden either to own galleries or to trade in art. The Shanghai Gallery of Art opened in January, filling its mammoth 18,000 square feet with works by both homegrown and expatriate artists and catering to eager buyers, of whom 40 percent are mainland Chinese.
Chinese artists, particularly in the realms of photography and video art, are also beginning to gain international notice, with a major retrospective now touring the United States. According to Christopher Phillips, curator of New York’s International Center of Photography and co-organizer of the exhibition, as recently as five years ago local exhibits were being closed down without warning by Chinese officials. But when Chinese artists began receiving favorable reviews abroad, “the cultural ministry made a conscious decision to try to find ways to use this art to bolster China’s image.” Phillips acknowledges that the situation can put an artist in a delicate position, in “danger of seeming to be a government-sponsored ‘official artist.’”
Many of the new artists seem drawn to the scene, writes Napack, a Hong Kong–based writer, because of the potential to become “remarkably affluent, relative to their country’s average income.” Those who can sell internationally “profit from global market prices but pay low Chinese living costs,” while others can “moonlight in the booming design and media industries.” Those who transgress certain limits still face arrest, but the limits are expanding. Add to the mix an emerging moneyed elite, interested in collecting art, and the coming of age of a “sixth generation,” born after the bleak Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, and the ingredients are in place for a new wave of artists, some of whom seem intent on pushing boundaries.
A performance piece by Gu Zhenqing, Controversy Model, prominently featured
at the Beijing Biennial in 2003, displayed caged guard dogs chained to treadmills that were set in motion by the dogs’ frenzied attempts to attack each other. The same show offered Liu Wei’s Event of Art, a table of microphones under the legend “Everyone has the right to speak.” Those who accepted the invitation were rewarded with ear-shattering feedback.
Many artists seem drawn to video and photography, suggests artist and writer Pollack, because these media allow them “to keep pace with the cultural upheavals in their country during the past decade.” Christopher Phillips agrees: “Artists have realized that a whole way of life is disappearing and being replaced overnight by another, and much of their work represents a kind of stunned attempt to deal with this situation.” The only unifying sentiment of this art, in Napack’s view, is “a frustration with the moral bankruptcy of Chinese society mixed with a contempt for the hypocrisy of the West.” In one show, he saw nihilism more radical than virtually anything one would expect “in the history of Western modernism.”
Underlying it all seems to be a strange—at least to Western eyes—economic, cultural, and political dynamic. Many galleries are backed by real estate developers who, reports artist and critic Vine, use them “to attract high-end clients to new business or residential spaces.” Many entrepreneurial print and photo artists sell their work directly to customers—and perhaps secretly inflate supposedly limited editions. And all of this happens under the not entirely benevolent eye of the government. President Jiang Zemin’s “Theory of the Three Represents” address in 2000 named artists as one of the “advanced forces” of society. While Jiang’s remarks placed the work of Chinese artists in a new political context, it remains to be seen whether the government will continue to allow China’s contemporary art scene to expand in new and provocative directions.