Interview with Zhu Qi, guest editor of online magazine, Chinese-art.com, and current editor of "Sculpture Magazine"
Q. Other critics of the contemporary art scene in China have said it no longer has as much influence on society as it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. How do you feel about this? Do you think Chinese artists have separated into two camps as we have in the west, the large group who produce primarily decorative pieces with commercial value, and a very small "fringe" group which produces art as a social critique and is ignored by mainstream culture?
A. The art of the '90s is really not that isolated from the people in the urban areas of China. Admittedly, some of this art is "black" art in that it is not positivistic and for this reason is not what many of today's people want to see or hear. The basis for much of the avant-garde art being produced in China today is at least in part underpinned by "global" concepts. This is also a problem for the average Chinese, who are just now starting to understand many of these concepts. Lastly, I guess this problem of the gulf that separates art from society is a matter of time. To understand contemporary art, art-goers need to read, to make an effort to understand. Most of all they need time. As busy as everyone is these days, this might also be at the root of the problem.
Chinese avant-garde artists are just now starting to respond to new media culture and commercial culture taking place in today's mainstream society. Their attitude might be likened to that of the Frankfurt School, which maintains that commerce results in the sacrifice of artistic integrity.
The small group of avant-garde artists active today are not opposed to art that has commercial value, nor do they try to avoid making such art. I think what separates these artists from the so-called "mainstream" artists is that China's avant-garde artists will not sacrifice their point of view or artistic goals for the sake of commercial success. The intellectual ferment of the '80s is less visible in the '90s. People are looking for something that is both "material," something that has real strength or impact. I think this is probably the case in New York, too.
Q. Can you name three or four of the leading contemporary artists in China today? What styles or techniques or themes are dominant?
A. It's hard to point to any one artist as a leading artist in China. From content to technique, I cannot think of any artist that has really achieved a "breakthrough," so to speak. There are several artists whom I regard highly: painters like Shi Chong (Wuhan), Liu Dahong (Shanghai), Li Shan (Shanghai); photographers like Zhuang Hui (Beijing) and Hong Lei (Changzhou); and, sculptors like Wang Du (Paris). Of course, there are many more. These are just those that come to mind. I like them because they are very "visual" artists.
Q. How would you describe the political situation for artists in China today? Is there self-censorship? Government pressure? Complete freedom?
A. Politics poses a dilemma for most artists. In one regard, people like myself have been educated to be thinking, critical, modern intellectuals in this society. At the same time, we are patriotic in that we hope China does well. Thus, when artists and critics like myself look at art, create art we must do so with a view to both of these feelings. If this is what you mean by self-censorship, then I suppose you might call this self-censorship.
Of course, avant-garde art is not limited to criticism of the government. This is sometimes taken as being anti-government. So, this is a complex question. The question we all face is how can we give art and artists even more freedom than that which is available at the present. For this intellectual freedom to be institutionalized, this is a gradual process, not something that we can expect to happen overnight. What I'm referring to here is not simply the freedom to satirize Mao Tse-tung, but something more profound.
Q. Has the Internet helped the art community in China at all? Do you see a future role for the Internet in helping artists communicate with each other or publicize their exhibits?
A. Artists in the next century will work in electronic media. Of course, this means multi-media and Internet technology will provide the basis for both art and its communication/proliferation. In this next decade, the Internet will certainly help Chinese artists. Recently, I published an interview I did with William Benjamin of the director of New Media Art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I also recently translated Art of the Electronic Age. More and more art critics and artists are being approached about participation in international events or Internet events.