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Move over Mao: Do China's artists serve a new master?

Zhang painting
Contemporary artist Zhang Yajie portrays the Chinese youth in a 1995 untitled oil on canvas  

Critics see growing commercialism in art

By Cathryn Meurer
Special to CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- China has made a remarkable transformation to a diverse market economy during the past two decades, and nowhere is this change more dramatically expressed than in the visual arts that are booming in China today.

Mao Tse-tung's image still appears in contemporary Chinese art, to be sure, but the chairman is now painted in dark and cynical hues. And many artists may be dropping political or social themes altogether to create works pretty enough to lure wealthy buyers.

If Chinese artists can be said to serve any master today, it is more likely to be commercialism than communism.

 ALSO:
Interview with Zu Qi, guest editor of online magazine, Chinese-art.com

Such is the observation of critic Zhu Qi, who has followed China's avant-garde art scene closely for the past five years, curating several exhibitions. In a June 1999 article, "Why Has Art Become So Pretty Of Late," for the online magazine Chinese-art.com, Zhu writes:

"Prettiness in the 1990s is not simply a matter of popular taste but reflects a deep-rooted change in the cultural make-up of society." The phenomenon, Zhu says, "expresses the ascendance of the goals of wealth and economic power as well as the formation of white-collar culture and commercial culture."

An explosion of visual arts

If the Chinese art scene has become overly commercial, the trend comes only after an explosion of diverse and often political visual arts in the late 1970s, '80s and '90s.

When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world in 1978, artists eagerly experimented with Western techniques and daring political themes. Some artists began to address the damage done by the Cultural Revolution, albeit cautiously. The movement was called "scar painting" and "the art of the wounded."

Other groups formed to study Western oil painting; in Xiamen, Fujian Province, artists even founded a Chinese Dada movement, adopting the esoteric philosophies of a movement that mystified the European art establishment in the years before World War I.

By the mid-1980s, boldly experimental and political works were being created in several places around China.

Art critic Gao Minglu calls this explosion of avant-garde art the "85 Movement," and its aim was nothing less than social and political change.

"They [felt] a very strong responsibility for the social reform," Gao recalled. "This movement [was] not just for creating an art form or style, rather, the artists' concern [was that] their activity [be] a part of the social change."

Gao most recently curated the exhibit "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" for the Asia Society in New York in early 1999. He has been active in China's contemporary art scene since the late 1970s.

Gao was the force behind the controversial 1989 exhibition in Beijing, "China Avant-Garde." He worked for three years to prepare the show, battling numerous difficulties, including government censorship. Even after the opening, police twice shut down the show.

4,000 nonsense characters in Sung Dynasty style

One of the most remarkable pieces to emerge from the 85 Movement was Xu Bing's exquisite art installation, "A Book from the Sky." Xu is still a leader of Chinese avant-garde art, although he now lives in New York.

iconINTERACTIVE:
Click though the images to view Xu Bing's exhaustive scrollwork composition, "A Book from the Sky"  

Xu and many other contemporary artists began to draw on traditional philosophies such as Taoism to create distinctly modern, distinctly Chinese political comment. They also freely mixed traditional methods such as ink painting and scrollwork with Western techniques.

For "A Book from the Sky," Xu created 4,000 nonsense Chinese written characters, carved them into wood panels in the style of the 11th century Sung Dynasty, and displayed the work on a scroll. It took almost three years of boring work from 1987 to 1991.

"He suffered. It was like a morning prayer, the process was more important than the result," Gao recalled. The final work was splendid and monumental, but absurd. "He undermines this kind of monument," Gao said. Some critics called it Nihilistic, but Gao insisted, "The meaning is very deep. The piece itself is very sophisticated."

Another leading avant-garde artist is Huang Yong Ping, whose conceptual art was part of the "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" exhibit in New York.

Huang sculpture
Huang Yong Ping produced this sculpture by washing two books, "A History of Chinese Painting" and "A Concise History of Modern Painting," in a washing machine for two minutes  

Huang put the two leading textbooks on Chinese art into a washing machine for two minutes and presented the pile of pulp on a table. Critics interpreted the work as expressing both Buddhist and Dada concepts of destruction before enlightenment can occur. Huang adheres to both value systems.

A third artist who gained fame in the 1980s is Cai Quo Qiang, who won an international prize at the most recent Venice Biennale. He is best known in Asia for his art happenings using the ancient Chinese invention, gunpowder.

Photographs document Cai's performances. A typical one is titled, "The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Projects for the 20th Century." In this 1996 performance at a former nuclear test site in Nevada, a man stands amid the rubble while an ominous white cloud mars the clear blue sky.

From 'art of the wounded' to consumerism and leisure

The avant-garde movement quieted after the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. It wasn't just because of increased government disapproval and cultural changes. Some critics think artists also were responding to the public's shift in interest from ideology to money.

Students and ordinary people alike paid attention to contemporary art throughout the 1980s, Gao said.

"Since the '90s people start[ed] to think about money, think about how to earn money, how to deal with their personal, private lives ... the avant-garde found they'd lost an audience."

The rapid economic changes of the 1990s gave contemporary artists new themes -- the desire to get rich quickly, competitiveness, the widening gap between rich and poor, consumerism, leisure. The collision of capitalist and communist ideologies also led to Political Pop and Cynical Realism styles.

The black and white oil portraits of Beijing artist Zhang Yajie seem to portray the desires of many Chinese people in a society growing more commercial and more competitive. Zhang's work was included in "Urban Yearnings: Portraits of Contemporary China," an exhibition from early 1999, still on view at the Web site of San Francisco's Chinese Culture Center.

'Golden Wedding'
Liu Qinghe's 1994 "Golden Wedding"  

In the same exhibit, several works by Liu Qinghe focus on the emerging middle class, with mixed emotions. Liu uses the traditional medium of ink and color on paper to depict a middle-class couple in their comfortable home. The drawing style has a grotesque realism, the faces are mundane, and the couple seems emotionally isolated. Liu Qinghe currently teaches Chinese painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

A boom in traditional arts

Most art created in China now follows the traditional forms, such as calligraphy and ink painting, and sell briskly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, other Asian markets and the West.

Another school of Chinese contemporary art finding commercial success is what Gao describes as "academic art." Art professors lead this official style, which combines classical Chinese techniques with socialist thought and employs Western modern art styles such as impressionism and cubism. Paintings feature landscapes, peasant girls, exotic locations, and little social or political criticism. They've sold for up to $40,000.

As for cutting-edge contemporary Chinese art, it's easier to view in the West than in China, where the few museums are filled with more politically acceptable pieces. And there are still very few galleries willing to mount edgy exhibits that won't bring in plenty of yuan.

Calligraphy
Most contemporary art has returned to traditional forms such as calligraphy. This timeless work by Zhang Ruitu (1570-1641) is called "Expressiveness."  

An American resident of Beijing, Robert Bernell, launched Chinese-art.com, a photo-rich Web site, to showcase the new art coming out of China today. Bernell invites Chinese art experts to edit each issue of the online magazine. For now, however, it's available only outside China.

Observers of the avant-garde scene agree the works are gradually becoming more fashionable and prettier, more personal and private in subject matter, and more professional in technique.

"They've shifted from the grand themes, which the '80s avant-garde favored," Gao said. But he hopes China's artists will not turn away from social commentary.

"They have to make something to inspire or stimulate the society or the people, and give them fresh air, rather than just images that follow the economy."


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