In China today, every imaginable aspect of modern life is unfolding simultaneously. One might cite numerous examples to illustrate the complex nature of this social change: the widening gap between rich and poor; the challenge of implementing a legal system; the surging force of materialism; the problems of regulating the professions and of heading off corruptive practices; as well as the positive growth in opportunities for individual members of society, and the economic benefits that are slowly filtering through to the general populace. All are the result of the unbelievable rate of redevelopment, and its kaleidoscopic impact upon existing ways of life, community values, and individual aspirations.
But that doesn’t help us understand how individuals are dealing with the need to adapt their mindsets and daily habits to the new world that these complex social phenomenon are directing. Nor does it explain the ways in which they are affecting personal experience, or how they currently inform contemporary art. Artists, whose choice of career largely renders them independent of mainstream society in China, still provide a good example of the contradictory nature of this modern macrocosm, and, of course, demonstrate in their work the various directions in which art is being lead.
Whilst his working practice produces some of the most challenging and arresting pieces of art to emerge from contemporary art circles in China, in terms of managing his art-career affairs, Gu Dexin belongs to the old school. He chooses to live entirely in the present moment with little thought for tomorrow–which is why all works are titled by the date upon which they were executed, and once completed are forgotten. You can call him to secure a meeting for a visiting curator a week in advance and he’ll tell you he’s not sure … that it’s better to call him on the morning in question to confirm. This is not because he’s busy, or because he needs to juggle his schedule, or because he likes to play hard to get. He is simply not used to thinking or planning that far ahead, and will certainly have forgotten. In this high-tech world of mobile phones–Gu Dexin is one of a tiny minority of urban Chinese people who does not own one–and email communication, this artist is perhaps an extreme case, but it was not so long ago that all Chinese people lived this way. Dinner invitations were regularly received at 5:30pm for the same evening, and, more often than not, in person as very few people had a phone line in their home. By 2000, technology would have changed that, but the majority of older generation artists–who emerged from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s–still largely adheres to such practices. It is almost as if the act of committing to anything definitively, of regimenting their days with scheduled appointments, infringes upon the personal freedom they fought so hard to secure.
The younger generation, these children of the reform era, whose experience and knowledge is tied to the modern age, operates using equally modern methods and mindsets that have no kinship with ‘traditional’ socio-cultural protocols. In contrast to Gu Dexin, Shanghai-based Xu Zhen prefers to have his time managed by a team of assistants who oversee his hectic schedule and order his priorities, as he shifts back and forth between his dual roles of artist and curator. Call him to make an appointment for that same visiting curator, and the response is much more likely to be “Xu Zhen can squeeze you in a week on Friday…”
So here, in a simple, yet telling example, we have a broad sense of the chaotic contemporary reality that the works in ‘The Real Thing’ attempt to address–the pace of life, personal ambitions and social pressure, demand, change, new navigating old. These are works created by artists who, in myriad ways, are successfully withstanding the tempestuous winds of change. Not least, the recent tide of commercialism which is currently peddling a wide array of highly attractive rose-tinted spectacles, all of which serve to distort reality to various degrees, but each of an allure that largely conceals the inevitable complications that accompany self-deception. Against the rise of such magnetic temptations, ‘The Real Thing’ is the vision of eighteen artists who thus far have refused or avoided the spectacles, preferring reality without enhancement no matter how coarse the view. As Shanghai-based filmmaker Yang Fudong revealed: “In our small circle, we are quick to throw cold water on anyone who looks like they might compromise their work.”
The force of change, then, is a true test of character, and ultimately of individual artistic vision. As the rule of ideology concedes ground to the practical politics of economics so, too, the Weltanschauung of Chinese art finds itself being undermined by commerce. The dramatic impact of the New York auction to which Simon Groom refers, encouraged a mass proliferation of auctions across China, each attempting to adopt a similar model. With the limited amount of works actually available in the marketplace–the number of contemporary artists is still surprisingly small–individual pieces are flipped from one sale to another with foolhardy audacity, and no apparent concern for appearances, or the possible long-term effect. But it is not commerce per se that is the problem. The great challenge to artists is in sustaining creativity. Contemporary art in China was forged in the intense climate of a culturally-specific framework that continued to be dominated by political ideology into the post-Mao years, little affected by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘opening and reform’ policy, until the late-1990s. Since 2000, the incremental dissolution of the absolute black and white parameters of the governing autocracy, which has latterly substituted harassment with a policy of laissez-faire, has begun to invalidate the type of ideologically-charged artistic expression that this climate had encouraged. The political paradigm had informed the majority of aesthetic positions in the 1990s, a time when, to engage in contemporary art represented a distinct realm of creative practice that was by definition in opposition to that sanctioned by the authorities, making it relatively easy to formulate an aesthetic strategy. For, if, as Chinese artists believed, contemporary art was about breaking rules, about challenging the status quo, about using art as a conduit to provide viewers with out-of-the-ordinary experiences that forced them to consider philosophical questions from unconventional angles, then the nature of their political framework, its conservatism and constraints, as well as its lexicon and motifs, was a powerful resource to invoke. Even though today it seems that some of these symbols were ultimately overplayed, for the greater part of the 1990s, the deployment of these elements resulted in a rich variety of artworks of a clearly daring nature and unambiguous stance. Furthermore, the fusion of all the above also importantly served to identify the work with its cultural framework: and again, by analogy, the artist’s defiance of it. It was this aspect of the art that initially fired the western imagination. Therefore, as politics began to take a backseat in daily life, and relaxed its grip on artistic expression, the contemporary art community lost a motivating point of reference that had long been an inalienable component of its character and identity. Addressing contemporary reality, articulating unfamiliar social issues, posing questions about the modern human condition, reflecting personal experience and engaging in general aesthetic debates, was far more problematic in the absence of an immutable authoritarian ideology. And without it, many artists began to look rather like the figures depicted in the water paintings of Cynical Realist Fang Lijun: adrift in an endless, monotonous expanse of water, with no clear direction, and nothing to orient themselves by, and nothing tangible to grasp on to in sight.
Adapting to new situations takes time. No doubt, the majority of artists will emerge from the struggle with which they are currently engaged to reassert their identity, although certainly not all will emerge triumphant. It is an interesting and challenging moment to create an exhibition that accurately reflects the mood of this art world since 2000, especially where seven years have already passed, which is a lifetime in China. For reasons of all the challenges indicated above, those artists whose work continues to go from strength to strength, whose agenda and expression has not been tainted by the commercial incentives dominating the local climate, rather identified themselves as candidates for participating in ‘The Real Thing’. The exhibition evolved out of a combination of existing works and the opportunity it provided to some of the artists to realise ambitious new projects. Where the goal was to focus on the innovative, dynamic face of art in China today, the additional imposition of a theme or curatorial theorem would have been superfluous. It was, in fact, the final selection of works that prompted the title ‘The Real Thing’, not the other way around. In short, the real commitment of these individuals to art, the powerful reality that underscores the content of their work–rather, their blatant questioning of what is or is not real, instead of a passive acceptance of the official line–and the quality real of the basic artistry they draw upon. Brought together in one exhibition, these works, as diverse as they are, confirm the one real thing about contemporary China that is beyond doubt: the fact of every conceivable aspect of modern life unfolding simultaneously, the mayhem that ensues, and the valuable role art can play in analysing and documenting it all.
Anyone who has attempted to work in China in recent years will confirm that regardless of all provision made for advance planning, of how meticulous the attention to detail that is applied, every project is ultimately executed in a frenzy of activity at the last possible minute. It was certainly a vital, if challenging, aspect of realising ‘The Real Thing’. Whilst this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the art world, as an example, it illustrates the root of the problem, as well as the contemporary mindset brought to dealing with it. Creative expression depends on a process of thinking that requires time to evolve, which means that the lapse between the instant an artist agrees to participate in a project and the moment when a work receives its finishing touch, can be unnervingly protracted. This is less unnerving for the artist, who at least in China always comes through in the end, than for the exhibition organisers who must deal with potential blanks to fill, also at the last minute, should any artist fail to deliver. But here, the amazing speed at which projects are realised in China provides an extraordinary opportunity to witness the pace at which the nation today is capable of moving. The obvious parallel is in urban redevelopment, which has been the subject of wide media attention abroad, but it equally applies to the emergence of a skilled force of industrial and manual workers, and how China has attained of a level of sophistication in manufacturing and construction that was inconceivable even in the mid-1990s. The process of industrialisation is relevant to the art world, because it has inadvertently furnished contemporary artists with a ready source of working materials previously beyond their reach, and no shortage of foundries, workshops and factories equipped with skilled technicians for whom, against the need to meet profit quotas, an artwork is as lucrative a product as any other. This permits artists to conceive of extraordinarily complex structures, such as Ai Weiwei’s monumental Working Progress (Fountain of Light), which required an enormous workforce made up of crystal producers, steel workers, and engineers across China. Equally, sculptural works that are simply monumental like Gu Dexin’s replication of the lighthouse boat funnel, the production cost of which would be prohibitive anywhere in the western world, where steel and labour command such a hefty premium.
Both of these works are also examples of how, in China today, highly ambitious projects are completed against impossibly short deadlines–Ai Weiwei’s dazzlingly complex ‘fountain’ was completed in just four months from concept to finished piece, which included finding resolutions to all manner of engineering challenges. Gu Dexin’s funnel proved even faster: a mere twenty days. But, as suggested previously, in China this is not considered unusual, for this same speed propels the nation’s programme of modernisation and reform, and is the guideline used to plot the timeframe required to complete dauntingly large scale projects: not least, the stages by which Beijing would be transformed into an Olympic capital. The astounding rate of progress in the construction of the new terminal for Capital Airport in Beijing, designed by Norman Foster, is a fine example of the accelerated drive. But it is not only in Beijing that people are having to adjust to the increasingly manic pace that modernisation demands; it is affecting the population nationwide, and is in evidence in artistic communities as much as those of the white-collar workers or the labour force. Which brings us back to the issue of time, for the breakneck pace of life, thrilling though it might be, contrives to deny artists the one thing they need most: time–time to contemplate, time to create.
Standards of living have risen dramatically in recent years, which on one hand frees most artists from the burden of working to live. (Most artists today are, in fact, able to live by art alone.) But the mental agility required to keep abreast of the times leaves little energy for contemplation and casual observation, for reflection, or thoughtful invention. Putting the doctrinaire nature of the Mao era aside–which entirely dictated what people were to think at all times–, this is a tragedy for a people heir to a long and fundamentally contemplative cultural tradition. Especially for artists. Freedom, they learn, comes at a price: artists might live somewhat independently, on the fringe of conventional society, but they too have parents, relatives, children, and are no stranger to navigating financial pressure wrought by tuition fees and healthcare. This inevitably has an impact on the type of art an artist is willing to create, and to keep on creating as personal circumstances change–as they become parents, and they themselves mature. In the same way that, in this era of ebullient economic growth, socialist doctrines are being replaced with materialist values, so the urgent need to achieve economic solvency finds the critical acclaim that formerly presided over judging artistic standing right up to the new millennium being usurped by market forces. More worryingly, the value of the aesthetic analysis and positions of China’s art critics is loosing ground to the power wielded by size of the price tag a work can command as an all-important indicator of artistic worth.
This phenomenon has everything to do with China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, for in spite of the economic reforms that were in operation in the 1990s, in political terms, where China remained relatively isolated transformation was slow. Accession to the WTO changed that: China had officially joined the global community. The nation was now ally, trading partner, and a monumental manufacturing resource. It is impossible to ignore this fact in any discussion of art in China since 2000, because it marks the radical shift in the focus of the national agenda from politics to economics, as mentioned earlier. This has exerted a tremendous impact upon the form and ethos of contemporary art, as well as the role ascribed to it. Especially where, in this blossoming cultural arena, contemporary art provides local business people with a wide choice of products to satisfy their appetite for modern trophies of status; a fact the artists also find hard to ignore. This further negated the old bi-lateral order of defiant artists versus repressive regime, for in the new millennium, as suggested before, due to the Government’s choice of laissez-faire approach, opposition to contemporary forms of art has, to a large extent, been minimal. China’s political framework continues to determine the dynamics of society, of personal relationships and individual careers, but increasingly from behind a veil of economic policies which, for reasons of national advance as opposed to democratic intent, have placed responsibility for individual lives and livelihoods in the hands of the people: not all of whom are adequately equipped to fend for themselves. This is illustrated in works included in ‘The Real Thing’ by He An, Wang Wei, and Zhuang Hui. These are examples of a positive seam of emerging concerns that give credence to the cautionary note signalled by Beijing-based curator Pi Li in his 2000 article ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis: The New Context of Chinese Contemporary Art and Its Creation Since 2000′: “…empty ideology cannot be a permanent reason for art … Grasping the gist of the new world situation has become an increasingly urgent issue…When ideological differences no longer exist, Chinese experimental artists will have a future only if they turn their attention to the deeper layers within Chinese society.”
A further example of this can be found in ‘The Real Thing’ in the series of paintings created by Yang Shaobin, which look at the grim reality in China’s unregulated coalfields. His interest in this social issue begins from direct personal experience as a child, growing up in a mining area, and this invocation of personal observation is another emergent trend in stark contrast to the guiding faith of the New Art movement, which from the late-1980s right through the 1990s, extolled emotional detachment and intellectually rationalised concepts as the first rule of ‘avant-garde’ artistic expression. This remains the approach taken by Geng Jianyi, a first-generation pioneer and, to a large extent, though for different reasons, by Ai Weiwei. In many ways, it is self-confidence that leads young artists to draw on their own experience–a level of confidence that was not widely felt in the post-Mao years when the New Art movement began, nor by ‘avant-garde’ artists in the 1990s who received regular, official reminders that their work went against the grain. Filmmakers Cao Fei and Yang Fudong, and the young painter Qiu Xiaofei, are proud of the personal experience they bring to their art because it is this that makes their artistic vision unique.
These younger artists also seem more able to deal with the pressures placed upon them by the hectic pace of modern life. This is where an ability to think for one’s self is essential: an ability that is taken for granted in democratic cultures, but that until very recently was actively discouraged in China–in recent history where perceived as a necessary construct of Communism, but equally an entrenched aspect of basic schooling in China, in which rote learning serves as the primary mechanism for remembering written characters, and the content of school syllabus’. The struggle to achieve and to exercise ‘independent thought’ is essentially the root cause of the ‘last minute’ approach to producing and completing artworks. Used to a world in which black could become white from one moment to the next, and the shape of tomorrow was always uncertain from one day to the next, artists have become accustomed to conserving their energies until the very last moment when there is absolutely no doubt that an event will take place. It is a habit that is apparently hard to break. This practice is compounded by the fact that the number of artists in China remains rather small–the number of interesting ones far smaller–and that the demand for their work has increased exponentially overnight. Artists suddenly find themselves grappling with extraordinarily packed agendas. It all results in a dazzling degree of last minute chaos. But again, whilst this situation is a major headache for curators, it injects an element of dynamism in the work that might just otherwise be absent. At the eleventh hour, with the pressure pounding adrenalin through their veins, artists have to decide whether to sink or swim. Most choose the latter, and in doing so switch into instinctual, intuited action. This is exactly the way in which the filmmaker Yang Fudong works, which is amazing given the consistent air of calm his works exude, but ‘last minute’ is means by which he operates, giving nothing away until the camera begins to roll. It certainly explains the subtle undertone of tension that suffuses his film works.
So finally, out of almost a year of deliberation, of discussion, and many, many proposals later, we have a selection of artists, a finite group that stayed the course through the fluid protean process of identifying artworks capable of mapping a diversity of concerns, and not as permutations of interpretations of a singular theme. These are artworks that are capable of standing up to close scrutiny on all levels. ‘The Real Thing’ presents but a slice of contemporary art from China today, what we perceived to be the most compelling cross-section of creativity from the era, and that further invoke the raw aspects of the local environment, which are integral to the work, and an integral part of the inspirations that give it form, content and direction. True to form, ‘The Real Thing’ came together at the very last moment of the eleventh hour, and at a speed that, although invisible in the works, was fast to the point of being reckless. Napoleon is said to have suggested that the world should let China lie dormant, warning of how the lion would roar should the country be awoken. Others have described China as an eight hundred pound gorilla, which should not be messed with lightly. Whichever animal one cares to take as a metaphor for contemporary China, today the nation is awake, roaring, and on the move. Whether that motion is fast, reckless, formidable, or exhilarating, is a matter of individual perception. In terms of the gorilla analogy, the recent pace of China’s forward motion suggests an unstoppable momentum. Whilst advance in primarily economic, culture is clearly now getting in its stride. Not only is twenty-first-century China demonstrably thinking for itself, and finding its voice–one that in the future might just become a roar–but the best of its contemporary artists are in the process of unleashing a real cultural revolution that might just one day demand as much attention in the West as western art enjoys in the lion’s den.
The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China
30 March – 10 June 2007