Chinese contemporary art

An interview with Paul Gladston. Part One

30 JUNE 2016,
Birdhead, Welcome to the World of Birdhead – For Passion, 2010, c-print, 47.5 × 57 cm. Courtesy of ShanghArt and the Artists
Birdhead, Welcome to the World of Birdhead – For Passion, 2010, c-print, 47.5 × 57 cm. Courtesy of ShanghArt and the Artists

From being a static rural society during the Maoist period, in a few decades China has become a dynamic world power hosting major international events including the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 World Expo. This extraordinary transformation has had a global resonance, attracting widespread attention in the media and among academic researchers. One of the aspects of Chinese life to have attracted most attention is the country’s contemporary art scene. In the West interest in contemporary Chinese art is often limited to the critical challenges it can be understood to have presented to official culture and politics in China following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976; for example, critical reworking of Maoist imagery by Yu Youhan and Wang Guangyi, and ironic commentary on the rampant materialism that now characterizes much of Chinese society by Xu Zhen, Feng Mengbo and Wang Qingsong.

The contemporary art world in China is however much more complex and requires specific expertise to grasp its nuances. To understand more, I put some questions to one of the leading experts in the field of contemporary Chinese art studies, Paul Gladston.

In recent years major international art galleries and leading art fairs have become established in China – for example, Art Basel Hong Kong, which attracted some 70,000 visitors earlier this year. The international art world has entered China. In addition, since the early 1990s, and much more conspicuously during the 2000s, Chinese artists, curators and critics have become major players within the international art system. The Chinese art world has entered the international art world. Is it correct to speak of "Chinese art" as something with cultural autonomy? Or is it simply a convenient geographical label applied as part of a now globalized art scene?

There’s no simple ‘correct’ response to that question. From a current western(ized) scholarly perspective we would tend to reject the C19th idea of an art defined by national-cultural boundaries. So-called contemporary art (dangdai yishu) produced by artists from and/or working within the People’s republic of China is characterized by intersections between localized ‘Chinese’ and westernized modernist, postmodernist and contemporary cultural thought and practice. For example, Ai Weiwei’s use of post-Duchampian ways of working to address social, cultural economic and political circumstances in the PRC. Indeed, many Chinese artists now work internationally – across national-cultural boundaries. It is also possible to reverse the trajectory of that analysis to acknowledge the culturally mixed nature of western(ized) modernist, post-modernist and contemporary art.

China impacted significantly on western cultural modernity from the C18th onwards. For example the assimilation of Chinese cultural thought and practice as part of artistic education in the US from the late C19th onwards, which impacted on the work of numerous artists there including Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin and Brice Marden. It is therefore impossible to think of a categorically ‘Chinese’ contemporary art. One might also ask: which China, or whose China? Economies of artistic production, exhibition and interpretation within the PRC are by no means uniform. There are also significant differences between mainland China and Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Modern and contemporary art developed in the latter three locations in advance of mainland China and under differing localized social, cultural economic and political conditions. Moreover, we cannot overlook art produced in relation to Chinese diasporic communities world-wide. All that having been said, within the PRC dominant attitudes uphold the idea of a culturally specific Chinese identity. This is part of a persistent anti-imperialist resistance to western(ized) cultural influences that has characterized the development of modernity in mainland China since the early C20th.

Recent Chinese Communist Party support for contemporary art in mainland China as part of the PRC’s international projection of soft power and the development of creative industries is underpinned by such thinking. President of the PRC, Xi Jinping reasserted the idea of a national culture in support of the political aims of the CCP at the Beijing Literature and Art Forum in 2014. Even if we reject national-cultural essentialist attitudes of this sort, we should acknowledge that contemporary art produced by artists from greater China (the PRC, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) as well as related diasporic communities world-wide is not simply a ‘copy’ of existing western(ized) models. The assimilation of western(ized) art in China always involves the refractive effects of cultural translation. So the short answer to your question, from my point of view, is: no, there is no specifically ‘Chinese’ contemporary art – in a national-cultural sense - but there is contemporary art produced in relation to differing Chinese cultural identities and within differing localized conditions referred to and thought of as culturally Chinese. Many in the PRC would disagree, seeing my answer as symptomatic of a continuing western imperialist desire to undermine the basis of civilization-specific Chinese identity. My view isn’t diametrically opposed to that disagreement, however. To understand contemporary Chinese art we need to traverse the differing cultural outlooks I’ve described, not reject one outright in favour of another.

Thinking about the art world, how has the relationship between China and the Western world changed in recent years?

The most pronounced changes began to take place during the early 1990s. Before then modern/contemporary art in the PRC was a largely localized, internally directed phenomenon. The development of modern/contemporary art in the PRC was very poorly understood by the international art world (to a large extent it still is). During the early 1990s increasing numbers of artists left the PRC to live and work elsewhere, sometimes to escape local political and economic restrictions on artistic production imposed as part of the post-Tiananmen crackdown and sometimes as part of government-sponsored relocation programmes. This brought Chinese artists into direct engagement with the international art world. The early 1990s also saw the emergence of an indigenous market for modern/contemporary art in the PRC, which over the last two decades has become increasingly synchronized with the international art market. Alongside of which has been the increasingly precipitous development of an internationally-oriented museum and private gallery sector within the PRC.

Artists from the PRC have benefited from these aspects of globalization in terms of the exposure of their work to local and international audiences and, in some cases, the high prices their works have attracted on the international art market. Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary world-wide fame is symptomatic of these developments. More recently, governmentally supported reassertions of a specifically Chinese cultural identity within the PRC have resulted in a resistance to the westernizing impact of globalization. This is evidenced by reassertions of traditional modes of artistic practice such as those associated with so-called ‘New Ink’ painting. Consequently, there is a significant tension between the growing internationalization of the PRC’s art world and a desire to maintain a certain civilization-specific cultural exceptionalism. It should also be said that while prices of contemporary works of art by artists from the PRC have risen significantly since the turn of the millennium, beyond the specific case of Ai Weiwei contemporary Chinese art is not always taken all that seriously by the international art world. Many see it as lacking in quality and/or critical significance.

What is Western art lacking that Chinese art has instead, and what is Chinese art lacking that Western art has?

The question of ‘lack’ is a tricky one. Lack suggests the possibility of some sort of fullness or completeness. I’m not sure there is such a thing when it comes to contemporary art – or anything else for that matter. Setting that observation aside, as I just mentioned there has been a tendency to view contemporary Chinese art from an international westernized perspective as lacking in quality and/or critical significance. This was certainly the case in relation to the exhibition The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2008-2009, which attracted very adverse reviews. It’s also a background noise to the recent placing of the Uli Sigg collection of contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong. A preview showing of aspects of the Sigg collection in Hong Kong this year has been widely seen as lacking in critical bite. This is understandable given the increasing authority that Beijing is now exercising on a politically recalcitrant democratically-minded Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it seems to reinforce a persistent sense that contemporary Chinese art is in some way critically compromised.

The effective silencing of Ai Weiwei within the PRC after his detention there simply adds to the impression that the criticality of contemporary Chinese art is more or less derailed by an acquiescence to political authority. There are artists from China who have produced works that more than match the technical expectations of the contemporary international art world; for example the Paris-based artist Huang Yongping, who has produced a diverse body of technically ambitious and highly spectacular museum-based installations during the last two decades, and, of course, the film/video artist Yang Fudong. Nevertheless, these and other contemporary works by artists from China often show an apparent lack of attention to technical finish as well as of sophistication in the formal use of visual languages.

Contemporary Chinese art can thus appear to be both critically bland and technically under wrought. Arguably, both of these ‘lacks’ are apparent from a westernized perspective rather than actual. There is certainly a durable tendency to resist overly slick production values in contemporary Chinese art, which arises partly in relation to a traditional Daoist-Confuciam desire for spontaneity in accordance with the ‘way of nature’. There has also been a tendency to measure the critical value of contemporary Chinese art in international art world contexts from the point of view of established western post-Enlightenment views of the critical relationship between art and society, thereby overlooking differing localized interpretations of that relationship in Chinese cultural contexts. Turning that on its head, from a Chinese cultural perspective, which continues to place great importance on aesthetic affect, western contemporary art can often seem to be lacking in beauty. I co-curated an exhibition of very recent video art from Shanghai and Hangzhou last year with Lynne Howarth-Gladston. Many of the artists involved asserted the necessity of art to be conspicuously aestheticized in order to be ‘art’. That’s not something always shared in a western(ized) post-Duchampian context.

Paul Gladston is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures and Critical Theory and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is author of Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists (2012), 'Avant-garde' Art Groups in China, 1979-1989 (2013), Deconstructing Contemporary Chinese Art: Selected Critical Writings 2007-2014 (2015) and Yu Youhan (2015). His monograph Contemporary Chinese Art: A Critical History (2014) received ‘Best Publication’ at the 9th annual Award of Art China (AAC) in 2015.

Continues the 30th of July.