The Avant-Garde Has Its Moment of Glory
By FRANCESCA DAL LAGO
There was a lot of weird stuff going on in that cavernous Beijing museum back in February 1989. A young man was throwing condoms to a group of people gathered around him; a guy in red was washing his feet in a basin plastered with images of Ronald Reagan; a long-haired man was selling fresh shrimps to a crowd of customers. Strange things were scattered around: lumps of gnarled plastic resembling human intestines; rotting surgical gloves preserved under glass; a poster announcing that a man's death sentence had been carried out was plastered on a wall of photographs. And then, suddenly, two gunshots rang out.
Inaugurated with fanfare at 9 a.m. on Feb. 5 in the China Art Gallery, "China's Contemporary Art Exhibition" displayed some 300 pieces by 186 artists. The police shut down the show at around 3 p.m. the same day, after artists Tang Song and Xiao Lu opened fire on their own work, paradoxically titled Dialogue. And yet, showing a degree of political flexibility rarely seen in China, authorities allowed the exhibit to re-open, twice, before its scheduled closing date two weeks later.
The historical import of the event, so clearly perceived by the participants, did not just derive from the nature of the works on display but also from the association of such extreme art with that museum. The China Art Gallery--a Sinified socialist-style building managed by the Chinese Artists Association and, at the time, only a few steps from the Ministry of Culture--functions as China's national museum of modern art. For the first time ever, authorities were allowing a prominent exhibition that openly broke with the fundamental principles of artistic creation laid down since the beginning of the People's Republic.
It was not, however, the first radical shift Chinese art had undertaken under communism. An even more momentous transformation had begun 47 years earlier in the guerrilla base of Yanan. There, Mao Zedong announced the official canon of Chinese Social Realism. In what would be known as the "Talks at the Yanan Conference on Literature and Art," artistic works were no longer meant for intellectuals and the refined literati, but for "the masses." For a culture that had produced some of the most convoluted forms of artistic expression, that meant a drastic U-turn in favor of clarity, simplicity and directness. It was, literally, a revolution. The mandatory new rules required artists to give up any form of individual self-expression, since every creative impulse was to be filtered through the tight grip of Communist Party orthodoxy.
In its first, euphoric stage, the ideological squeeze produced art that was formally powerful, graphically poignant and beautifully executed. Before Russian Socialist Realism took over as the new dogma in the early 1950s, the language of Chinese propaganda art drew its inspiration from folk tradition, an inexhaustible reservoir for Chinese art throughout the centuries. Art that had been considered "low" suddenly became "high."
In the process, creativity and artistic self-expression were locked away for more than 30 years, until the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution allowed for a cultural thaw. In 1979 a brave attempt to bring these issues out into the open took place next door to the China Art Gallery in a small public park. A group of experimental artists called The Stars, who proclaimed Picasso as their antecedent, organized two open-air exhibitions that would initiate Chinese art's movement back to the "self."
The 1989 "China Contemporary Art Exhibition"--whose poster poignantly displayed a simple "No U-turn" sign--grew out of these past movements. It hasn't been repeated: though relatively tolerant at the time, authorities aren't about to allow any similar events. Chinese contemporary art, meanwhile, has moved on. Many of the long-haired, odd-looking pioneers have become international successes, coveted by every glamorous curator in the new age of "artistic globalism." Zhang Peili had a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art last fall; Cai Guoqiang has shown at the same city's Guggenheim Museum; Xu Bing last summer received the prestigious MacArthur award, also known as the "genius" prize; Huang Yongping was formally selected as France's representative in its national pavilion at the Venice Biennale; Gu Wenda made the cover of Art in America last spring.
Back home, in the "official" art world, these artists are mostly unknown. Installations and conceptual art are banned from public exhibition spaces and can be shown only in minor, unofficial shows publicized by word of mouth. For artists, the lack of exposure is suffocating. Neither persecuted nor openly criticized, China's avant-garde is held back--or simply ignored. And for an artist, that's far worse than public criticism.
Francesca Dal Lago, an art historian and critic specializing in 20th century Chinese art, is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University
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