Five years ago a man sat in meditation for a couple of hours in a stinking public latrine outside Beijing, his naked body smeared with honey to attract the flies. Now a photograph of the event hangs in two classy American exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art as the record of a work, 12 Square Metres. That’s the size of the toilet. By secluding himself in this way, the young performance artist Zhang Huan has become visible far beyond China. Such is the paradox of withdrawal and self-advancement for its belated avant-garde, and more generally in the late Nineties, for the country’s cultural élite. In Beijing’s dilapidated East Village, where urban bohemians live cheek by jowl with peasant farmers and other marginal groups, a small community of cognoscenti attended Zhang Huan’s original performance on 2 June 1994. Locals were concerned that it might be pornographic. In the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I saw the work documented this year, there was a warning at the entrance that the exhibit might not be suitable for children, and parents routinely led their youngsters away. Inside, the black and white image was pulling a crowd: the artist’s gaze turned inward, his lean torso gilded like a Buddha’s, his genitals discreetly obscured. The flies looked like decorative studs.
I was on the mailing list for another of Zhang Huan’s performances, again in 1994: this time he suspended himself in chains from the ceiling and dripped blood from his neck into a wok on a stove below. Such sado-masochistic exercises can be seen as metaphorical expressions of the suffering to which individuals are subjected in everyday Chinese life, or explained as the artist’s strategy for recovering his artwork – his own body – from subjugation by political and social systems. Perhaps Zhang Huan is occupying the only creative space left to him. There’s an old Taoist story about an artist who turned his back on a royal commission that every other artist was vying for. After calling on the King, the artist simply returned home, where he was found sitting serenely cross-legged and wearing no clothes. The King declared this man to be the true artist. ‘Why is it,’ asks Fei Dawei, ‘that even as early as two thousand years ago, behaviour and procedure were seen as “true art” rather than the technique of painting itself?’
A disproportionate number of those involved with the new Chinese art are, like Zhang Huan, graduates of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, one of two institutions at the top of China’s art education pyramid. ‘One of the best things the Academy gave me was confidence,’ an alumnus remarked. ‘I felt that because I could enter the best art school in China and could enter the most sought-after oil painting studio, I was considered among the best art students and I should have to paint well.’ The staff and students of the Academy were active in the democracy demonstrations ten years ago. (The terminology remains contentious: Chinese officialdom prefers ‘incident’ or ‘event’ for what is elsewhere known as the Tiananmen ‘massacre’.) It’s no detraction from the seriousness of what happened in 1989 to say that the protests were also performance art. Posters, street theatre and parades grabbed the attention of ever-expanding audiences at home and abroad. The lone citizen who brought a convoy of tanks to a standstill created one of the century’s most memorable images: a convenient shorthand abroad for China’s system of monopoly rule, though reinterpreted by the Chinese authorities as evidence of the Army’s willingness to negotiate. It was the art students who produced the giant plaster and styrofoam ‘Goddess of Democracy’ that faced off the portrait of Chairman Mao over the Gate of Heavenly Peace and became an instant icon. The foreign press sometimes described it as a Chinese Statue of Liberty, a misrepresentation that was turned back on the students in official propaganda. The makers of the statue were careful, at the time, to point out that she was not the Statue of Liberty but a divine figure who looked more like one of the heroines of Revolutionary opera.
In making art ‘serve the people’, Mao Zedong had drawn on older Chinese traditions in which intellectuals saw themselves as serving the Emperor. Sometimes that involved them in reckless remonstration. The Tiananmen protests began with a conspicuous show of mourning for the sudden death of a popular minister, accompanied by the slogan ‘the man who ought not to have died is dead, those who ought to be dead are still alive’ – meaning, of course, the central leadership. A few weeks earlier, a huge and unruly art exhibition had taken over the nearby National Gallery, gathering together for the first time the products of the hectic experimentalism nurtured in China’s art schools since the early Eighties and the era of Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policies. The art was lacerating, outrageous and sexy. Copious supplies of condoms and shrimps were distributed to the opening-day throng inside the usually drab museum. The refusés – those who had not made it through the argy-bargy of selection – chose to display their work on the Gallery’s doorstep in protest. Then an unlicensed gun was fired by one of the artists as a way of completing her installation and the exhibition was closed down almost before it had opened.
China/Avant-Garde, as it was called, proved to be canonical. Ten years later, many of those involved continue to occupy the foreground in contemporary Chinese art, frequently from vantage points outside the country. Among them is Gao Minglu, the exhibition’s chief curator. To those of us who saw it at the time, the show presented – with great flair – the solemn materialisation of a new, post-Cultural Revolution China. A large-scale social and artistic experiment that ‘transcended individual expression’ is how Wu Hung, another graduate of the Central Academy, and now a professor at the University of Chicago, recalls China/ Avant-Garde in Transience, the catalogue of the exhibition, in which he combines his exploration of experimental art in Beijing with oblique personal memoir. ‘Long black carpets, extending from the street to the entrance of the exhibition hall, bore the emblem of the show,’ he writes: ‘a “No U-Turn” traffic sign signalling there is “no turning back”.’
Rumour had it that a wealthy expatriate Chinese collector wanted to buy up the whole thing and restage it abroad. China had been off the international art map. Now, as the current of exhilarated opposition flowed into the pro-democracy movement, the art acquired potency by association. Inevitably, it paid the price for this. In the subsequent crackdown, experimentalism was stigmatised as having contributed to an unhealthy ideological environment, while elsewhere (most powerfully in pre-handover Hong Kong) avant-garde artists from the Motherland became freedom fighters, their work framed by political criticism for consumption by foreign audiences. Artists and critics who thought they were escaping from the Maoist politicisation of art chafed under the construction that was put on their work even as they benefited from it. Wu Hung argues that there need be no ‘general antagonism between experimental art and the contemporary socio-political system’ in China. Yet it remains awkwardly true that the association with dissent gave a new generation of Chinese artists their break.
Mao Zedong once hinted that China could do with a dose of upheaval every so often. The 20th-century quest for renewal can be seen as a series of cyclical revisions as each generation enacts its patriotic commitment in a different way. China/Avant-Garde took place ten years after the People’s Republic’s first ever show of dissident art was staged on the same site. On that occasion the show coincided with the Democracy Wall movement, which was itself echoed in Tiananmen. Both protests claimed descent from the May Fourth movement of 1919, when students rallied in Beijing against the humiliating terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. The heroic spirit of May Fourth pulled in artists and intellectuals of many persuasions and was repeatedly invoked by reformers, whether Nationalist or Communist, as China worked out a modernising destiny of ‘democracy and science’ through the ensuing decades of turmoil. Thus Gao Minglu on China/Avant-Garde: ‘avant-garde artists made the creation of art part of a cultural enlightenment programme rather than a formalist activity, a social activity rather than the representation of an illusory reality.’ For all their fevered interest in ideas from abroad, some artists around this time, he adds, ‘directly explored nationalistic themes and a quest for Chinese power’.
After 1989, with China’s economy welcoming foreign capital and consumerism becoming the engine of the new revolution, official propaganda began to warn against ‘total westernisation’. The late Nineties have been marked by cacophonous disputes about the present contradictory way forward, pitting so-called liberals against new leftists, Hayekians against advocates of the Third Way. Is globalisation the stalking horse for Western hegemony? In a dark irony this year’s 80th anniversary of the May Fourth movement finds resurgent neo-traditionalists willing to repudiate China’s 20th-century project in its entirety: democracy, scientific rationalism, modernity, the lot.
That’s not entirely surprising given the popularity of books such as Can China Win the Next War?, China Can Say No and The Demonisation of China. In 1989 the chairman of Sony, Akio Morita, and the nationalist politician, Shintaro Ishihara (the newly elected Governor of Tokyo), had a major success in Japan with their book The Japan that Can Say No, in which they urged a strengthening of the national ‘fibre’ and greater independence from the influences and pressures of the United States. A few years later this spawned China Can Say No, a punchy set of essays by four young freelance intellectuals which was such a seller in 1996 that it was accused of being covertly sponsored by the propaganda department. Xenophobic rather than merely nationalist, the authors demand recognition of China’s place in the world and insist that China must be allowed to pursue its own path in the matter of human rights, family planning, intellectual property, open markets, the Hollywood invasion and everything else that elicits Western concern. At once atavistic, populist and trendy, such attitudes are as likely to be found on the street as they are in the think-tanks, where people know their Frankfurt School. In one survey 90 per cent of China’s youth identified America as attempting to dominate China. I have heard the same views aired, admittedly in camera, by the stars of China’s avant-garde on tour on the international art circuit.
Inside Out is the most ambitious survey of contemporary Chinese art to date. It includes Hong Kong and Taiwan along with the Mainland, with contributions from scholars in all three territories and the United States. At its core is work from China/ Avant-Garde that was originally directed at cultural transformation within China. One of the pioneers was Huang Yongping, founder of ‘Xiamen Dada’ in his southern Chinese hometown of the same name, formerly the treaty port known as Amoy. Huang’s ‘A History of Chinese Painting’ and ‘A Concise History of Modern Painting’ Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987/1993) reduced two standard art-historical texts by Wang Bomin and Herbert Read, to a pile of pulp, which was then placed on the museum floor, as if to declare a parodic Year Zero for art. ‘In China,’ say the curators of Another Long March: Chinese Conceptual and Installation Art in the Nineties, a sparky exhibition at Breda in 1997, ‘20th-century art history seems to have been concentrated into the space of 15 years.’ Wu Hung adds that since 1979 Chinese experimental art ‘has produced four “generations” of artists, whose works responded to major tasks at different times, and whose activities were associated with four historical phases of contemporary Chinese experimental art.’ But this po-faced pseudo-history is Dada, too. Blink and you miss a generation.
The canonisation of selected artists from the 1985-89 period has entailed a division in Gao Minglu’s larger enterprise. The earlier works have the heroic aura of a continuing but defined revolution, although not all survive the journey: the loose irreverence of Huang’s ‘washing-machine’ installation, for example, fades into pathos when you see his paper pulp preserved as a museum piece a decade on. The later, mostly post-1994 works respond to more rarefied Post-Modern art discourse, showing, in the curator’s words, ‘a distinct shift from an avant-garde targeted on a local political and cultural reality to a neo-avant-garde visuality that strives to transcend local interests in favour of involvement in the international arena’. Where else can you go? It’s an uncomfortable fact that most of the recent work of China’s élite graduates has been widely disseminated through the international art circuit and gone largely unseen by the public in China.
This distorted situation was anticipated in one of the most important works of the movement, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky, created in the seclusion of his Beijing studio in 1987, shown briefly in China/Avant-Garde and in many foreign exhibitions since, but not again in China. Using traditional methods of woodblock printmaking, Xu Bing produced dozens of handmade books of pseudo-Chinese characters: non-existent ideograms generated from the component strokes of standard characters, every one of them unreadable to even the most educated Chinese. The books were then placed in wooden boxes in a shrine-like arrangement beneath a canopy of long paper scrolls printed with hundreds more of the same illegible language-signs. To readers of Chinese, Book from the Sky is a brain-scrambler. It is as if the Chinese script, the binding essence of the culture, had been turned into an impenetrable wall of mumbo-jumbo. Book from the Sky is a monumental act of disrespect for the written word – and was denounced in the grimmest terms. For most foreign viewers, it remains mute, a devoted revisiting of traditional practice by a contemporary installation artist.
A degree of Chinacentrism is expressed in the artists’ demand for inclusion in the most illustrious international venues. The saddest work in Inside Out is a bamboo birdcage entitled There is No Chinese Pavilion in the Venice Biennale (The Court for Art), 1993-96, annotated with applied subaltern theory, ‘an art standard is a cage for art.’ News that the Guggenheim in New York, the arbiter of the modern, would mount an exhibition to cover five thousand years of Chinese art up to the present was received as a long-awaited vindication. This project, drawing on collections from all over the world, predicates a complex, diplomatic continuity between classical tradition and the various elements of the modern Chinese world. In twinned exhibitions last year, the uptown Guggenheim splendidly covered most of the five thousand years, leaving the SoHo Guggenheim to cover the period from the 1850s. The 20th century was presented as a sinuous tango between tradition and modernity; until, that is, the moment of the post-Maoist break in 1979, when the show collapsed into a pale succession of academic works. I don’t know what went wrong, but clearly experimental artists are not yet authorised representatives of Chinese art. Perhaps the continuity between the last 15 years and the previous 4985 was in dispute.
In Chinese tradition, ink-and-wash painting and calligraphy are the highest forms of art – conventionalised yet open to endless reinflection and individuality. In the course of this century, they have been condemned as literary indulgence and promoted as the truly nation-building art. (Oil painting, by contrast, was a foreign import.) This story is painstakingly told in the Guggenheim’s catalogue, A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of 20th-Century China, by Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, which concludes with the consensual notion that artists of the Eighties and Nineties share with their predecessors the belief ‘that an art based on China’s native traditions is vital today, and will remain so in the 21st century’. This is drearily close to an official line on the promotion of what is intrinsically Chinese. It constricts tradition in the name of tradition. Elsewhere, Fei Dawei reminds us that the Tang dynasty ‘around the eighth century … saw the awakening of a longing for experimentation in painting. Dissatisfied with traditional painting methods, this new school of experimental painters began to paint with their tongues, hair, fingers, toes, and even their entire bodies. They also experimented using fire and water to paint.’
In 1985 one radical critic declared that traditional Chinese painting was best left dead and buried, implying that the national art was no longer adequate to the nation’s needs. The authors of A Century of Crisis would contest this, and their account of the ideological and artistic strangulation from which the current generation of Chinese artists has tried to escape provides the necessary background, as well as a corrective, to the avant-garde’s blinkered historical mission. Both ‘tradition’ and ‘avant-garde’ become tendentious notions when considered in a vacuum. Perhaps the strongest paintings produced by recent mainland Chinese artists are those informed by both impulses. Some artists manage to combine academic virtuosity with a subversive reinterpretation of the PRC’s complex visual environment, producing a generational portraiture of friends, family and self that descends directly from the revolutionary kitsch that shaped their personal and collective histories.
In Liu Wei’s double portrait of his parents, The Revolutionary Family: Dad & Mum, 1990, for example, the older generation are at once the heroes of the Revolution and its casualties, depicted in grotesquely ‘realist’ close-up, undented in their bright-eyed optimism. Their offspring are seen in the same artist’s New Generation, 1992, as startled identical twins displayed on a red floral cloth beneath a poster of Chairman Mao, lambently gazing out of an idealised naive landscape. In the huge oil paintings of Fang Lijun, like Liu Wei a child of the Cultural Revolution, skinhead youths float forward with mocking yawns while hunched eunuch cadres of their Revolutionary grandparents’ generation soft-shoe shuffle in the distance. In Two Comrades with Red Baby, from Zhang Xiaogang’s series Bloodline: The Big Family, 1994-95, wall-eyed androgynous parents glow with pride as they display their baby boy’s genitals full-frontally for approval. The generations and genders are bound together by a thin red line, like the wire of a Walkman or the tube of a blood transfusion, that moves across the painting from one figure to another. The concentration on biological, social and artistic reproduction in the work of all three artists is typical. It is as if, despite the generational chasms opened by the mutations of history, a way must be found to re-establish the connection between the ancestors and their very different descendants. Zhang Xiaogang has explained that the psychological dimension of his family portraits has its origins in the contrast between a photograph taken of his mother in her youth, embodying a modest ideal of feminine beauty, and the schizophrenic woman she has since become, endlessly needing to be reassured of her son’s well-being. For the Hong Kong curator, Chang Tsong-zung, writing in the catalogue of the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane in 1996, Zhang Xiaogang recapitulates ‘the collective experience of violated privacy’ by creating ‘convincing images of the suppressed psyche of China’s recent past’: images which are ‘intriguing because of the private histories that are being withheld’ – or unsettlingly disclosed.
With a kowtow to Homi Bhabha, Gao Minglu concedes a ‘third space’ to Chinese artists working overseas, who have learned to present ‘traditional materials as … bridges over which different interpretations can cross’. They are the ‘post-Orientalist transnationals’. Yet hybridity of this kind is neither new nor surprising. In Modern Asian Art (1998), John Clark places it in perspective with a series of diachronic case-studies of artistic Modernism, ranging through prewar Japan and India, Revolutionary China and South-East Asia in the Eighties and Nineties. Clark warns against the ‘acceptance of a type of transfer of cultural capital’ from Asia ‘to Euramerica almost on the terms that now govern economic exchanges’. He notes that ‘it was just when some Asian art discourses had begun to lose interest in any further reference to a Euramerican stylistic that Euramericans began to think of Asia as a typical example of the Post-Modern.’ This may be a managed deception, he hints, noting in relation to contemporary Chinese artists that ‘“Chinese” culture is sometimes highly oblivious to the politics of “self” and “Other”-naming.’ Which is to say, the move into a ‘third space’ as a way of negotiating global cultural politics may merely be another means of storming the headquarters, in the old revolutionary jargon.
Yet it takes two to indulge in ‘Other’-naming. I was amused to see Inside Out experienced as a species of trash and perversion in the museum’s comments book in San Francisco. One visitor said it was the first museum show in which he got ‘a woody’. Another wrote: ‘we were happy that the Chinese frontiers had been closed until now. We believe we are in a real danger.’ That same week came the panic over a Chinese spy in Los Alamos.
The artist who grasps all this is Cai Guoqiang. A native of Quanzhou, the southern Chinese port that once charmed Marco Polo, he has lived in Tokyo and New York since leaving China, pursuing his Projects for Extraterrestrials, site-specific events that use gunpowder and other rough materials to show how cultural conflict might appear to an imagined transcendant observer. In Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows (1998), a timber boat skeleton, excavated from Quanzhou, wrapped in straw and pierced with hundreds of arrows, hangs above the gallery entrance. Although its mast is down and sail furled, a fluttering red flag indicates that it’s moving steadily forward. The reference is to a Chinese general who, having run out of ammunition, sent a flotilla of empty straw boats into the morning mist to draw his enemy’s fire. The rain of arrows was then retrieved and used to defeat the enemy. According to the artist, the boat embodies ‘the perseverance and cunning of China’s traditional culture, which can turn disadvantage into advantage’: it may look crude, archaic and rudderless, but it has the capacity to absorb the opposition’s power for its own ends. Cai’s boat is a Chinese version of the wooden horse – a droll meditation, in this case, on how Chinese artists are using the weaponry of the international curatorium to expand their territory. It’s what the late Qing dynasty reformers hoped to do with their slogan xitizhongyong: Western ideas put to Chinese uses.
A related work of Cai’s, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, was shortlisted for the Hugo Boss prize in New York in 1996. It shows a dragon made of sheepskin coracles, symbolising Genghis Khan’s westward military incursions, and powered by Toyota engines, symbolising East Asia’s more recent economic advance. The Chinese avant-garde is another kind of ark, designed to conserve and translate important sets of cultural attitudes, experience and possibilities. But not everyone is on board. Wu Huong solicited proposals for Transience, and analysed the submissions. ‘Only 4 per cent of the entries submitted were from women,’ he notes without further discussion. The avant-garde is macho. It’s also centralised, mainly in Beijing. Outside China the diaspora tends to be constructed as a network of consular outposts of the northern capital. Taiwan and Hong Kong are included, at least in Inside Out, merely as anabranches of a PRC mainstream, which denies the fact that the influences have mostly flowed the other way. Nor is contemporary practice among the so-called ‘minority nationalities’ within China’s borders, such as the Tibetans, at all in evidence. There are, besides, any number of out-of-the-way individuals who are renovating Chinese culture simply by getting on with artistic disciplines of their own, private meditations beyond the eye of the camera.