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The Economist: How China’s artists made sense of their country

by Alexandra_Munroe on November 8, 2017

Chinese takeaway
Originally published in The Economist
| NEW YORK

A new exhibition focuses on art that was made in or inspired by China between 1989 and 2008

HANGING from the ceiling of the magnificent rotunda that Frank Lloyd Wright created for the Guggenheim Museum in 1959 is an undulating black dragon. Twenty-six metres (85 feet) long, it is made almost entirely of the inner tubes of bicycles. Its head is a sculptural confection of broken cycles, its rear a writhing excrescence of black rubber loops. The visual etymology is obviously and satisfyingly Chinese. Then you notice hundreds of tiny black cars crawling all over its underbelly, like head lice on a schoolchild—symbolic of the moment when the country, in the headlong pursuit of economic growth, swerved from pedal power to petroleum.

This work, “Precipitous Parturition” by Chen Zhen, a Chinese-French conceptual artist, is at once fiercely visual, emotional and political. It is the most grandiose work in the Guggenheim’s magnificent new exposition of art, by 71 artists and artists’ collectives, that was made in or inspired by China between 1989 and 2008, when the eyes of the world turned to Beijing as it hosted the Olympic games.

The kick-off date of “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World” has global significance. It was the moment the Berlin Wall fell, ending the cold war, when the South African government was considering dismantling apartheid and the world wide web was about to be made public. The world felt full of promise. But for artists in China, 1989 meant something else.

The relative freedom of the late 1970s and early 1980s had brought Chinese artists into contact with Japanese contemporary art, and also Western artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Gilbert & George, who exhibited in Beijing. Chinese artists began learning about the multiple art movements that had arisen after the second world war, particularly in America and Europe, which in turn inspired a wave of new work culminating in a groundbreaking show at the China Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China) near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in February 1989.

This exhibition, loosely known as “China/Avant-Garde” (or, as others called it, “The Great Leap Somewhere”), was advertised with crudely printed posters that were tied to the museum railings and showed the global road symbol for “no U-turn”. At the same time, a vigorous reform movement, initiated by students in Beijing and including many poets and artists, was gathering momentum. It ended with the military crackdown in June 1989, when the Chinese army sent in tanks to clear the square and arrest the protesters. Hundreds were killed. After that many Chinese artists went underground or left the country altogether.

Despite the political repression, life in China in the years after Tiananmen was chiefly characterised by the roiling economic activity that marked the country’s scramble to turn itself into a global power. Traditional art forms, such as calligraphy and ink-painting, were too staid and narrow to capture this tumultuous new reality. So avant-garde artists turned to conceptual art, experimenting with a range of techniques and materials, such as video, performance and body art, to try and make sense of the world around them. It is no surprise that the focus of the Guggenheim show, too, should be conceptual art.

The exhibition proceeds broadly chronologically, from “China/Avant-Garde” onwards, with Zhang Peili, the granddaddy of Chinese video art, obsessively soaping and rinsing a live chicken in a bowl in sly mockery of a government diktat on cleanliness; shows like “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies & Delusion”, which Qiu Zhijie, one of the two artist-curators, hoped would “strike the senses” and “harass the mind”; Lu Jie’s Long March Project, a vast curatorial experiment that tried to put on exhibitions and performances all along the route the Red Army took through the country in 1934-35; and Ai Weiwei’s “Fairytale” project, which brought 1,001 ordinary Chinese citizens to Germany in 2007 and turned them loose on the quinquennial Documenta exhibition in Kassel.

“Art and China after 1989” is not for the faint-hearted, as evinced by “New Beijing”, a satirical painting by Wang Xingwei that tries to convey the horror of Tiananmen (pictured). The show depicts shootings, contaminated blood, incarceration, obsessive scratching, drug dealing, butchering, two men burning a rat, infested jails, explosions and environmental depredation. Despite that, what comes through is the artists’ humour, irony, self-reliance and natural suspicion—and, most of all, the moral and physical courage of those who would brave any hardship to pursue their vision and keep making art.

Some works are more visually arresting than others. Mr Qiu’s massive imaginary map of recent history recalls Renaissance cartography as well as contemporary surveillance with its “No U-Turn Mountain”, its “Canyon of Globalisation” and its “Sea with Somali Pirates”. At the other end of the scale is “Sewing”, a delicate video on handiwork by Lin Tianmiao, one of the few women in the show.

The Guggenheim’s rotunda, with its lack of large, unfettered spaces, means that not every artist is represented here by his or her best work. There is no space, for example, for Xu Bing’s magnificent “Book from the Sky”. Cai Guo-Qiang’s two firework pieces are but a minute taster of these magnificent displays, and Mr Ai’s moving epitaph for the schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 is here squeezed into a small corner rather than being given the space it needs (and which it had when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 2015).

Despite that, this is the most important exhibition of art about China to be put on in America in 20 years, not least because of the depth of its curatorial research and the sweep of ideas that underpins its narrative. The curators—Alexandra Munroe of the Guggenheim, Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, and Hou Hanru, who heads the MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art and Architecture in Rome—are probably the three most knowledgeable experts working in the field. Visitors would do well to read their exemplary essays in the exhibition catalogue before seeing the show. The ten-week accompanying documentary film programme, by Mr Ai and Wang Fen, is also not to be missed.

Makers and magicians

In choosing 1989 as their starting date, the curators make an important additional point about how art history has evolved across the globe in the past three decades. This was the year when the Pompidou Centre in Paris put on a show called “Magicians of the Earth”, which brought together 50 artists from the developed world with 50 artists from countries as far afield as Cuba, Togo and Tibet.

It was the first serious attempt to question the 20th-century canon which held that modernism began in Paris before the second world war, and continued after 1945 in New York and nowhere else. “Magicians of the Earth”, which is still discussed today, showed how artists from Japan, India and Brazil, among other places, looked, learned, exhibited, and in some cases even lived alongside one another to create what has become the global art world.

The view that there were many modernisms is now commonplace. China is part of this. It is impossible to look at the works in the Guggenheim show and not make the leap to other artists interested in the effects of globalisation. Mr Qiu’s map makes you think of Grayson Perry’s maps, Xu Tan’s kitschy interiors of Tracey Emin, Huang Yong Ping’s broken aeroplane of the Algerian Adel Abdessemed and Cao Fei’s sizzling coloured metropolises of the work of Bodys Isek Kingelez from Congo, which was shown to such great effect in Paris earlier this year.

Exhibitions take a long time to bring together. One thing curators can never foresee is the public mood when a show is finally unveiled. “Art and China after 1989” will go on next year to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and then to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. No one who studies how the artists in “Art and China After 1989” responded to openly joining the global order, though, will miss the irony that the New York show opened at the very moment when the Chinese Communist Party’s quinquennial congress in effect anointed Xi Jinping as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Nor will they have ignored the fact that, just as China itself has become more repressive, these Chinese artists encountered a different repression—this time in the United States—thanks to the combined ire of social media and the Kennel Club of America.

Three of the proposed art works—a video of two raging dogs on treadmills and another of two pigs copulating, as well as a live piece with insects, amphibians and reptiles preying on one another—had to be removed before the show opened after protests and threats from animal-rights activists. All that remains of “Theatre of the World”, half of Mr Huang’s two-part installation which gave the exhibition its subtitle, is the insects’ cage—and a statement that the artist wrote by hand (on an Air France sickbag) in defence of the work. Culture should bring people together, and often it does. But not always.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “China syndrome”
Alexandra_MunroeThe Economist: How China’s artists made sense of their country

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