Between Scylla and Charybdis: The New Context of Chinese Contemporary... Creation since 2000 Pi Li

Between Scylla and Charybdis: The New Context of Chinese Contemporary Art and Its
Creation since 2000
Pi Li
Today, my paper will focus on the impact of the international art system on Chinese
contemporary art. My point of view is not as optimistic as that of my Chinese colleagues
because I believe Chinese contemporary art has become totally confused within this new
context, and many innate disadvantages have been exposed. Chinese contemporary art was
first accepted within the international realm at the semi-closure of the Cold War. Within this
perspective, Chinese contemporary art was recognized in the West as a symbol of the
existence of free individual spirit within the structure of collectivism. This, along with the overall
advance towards a market economy in China since 1992 and the changes in the world political
situation led to contemporary Chinese art becoming represented by Cynical Realism and
Political Pop, which was frequently exhibited in the West. Those artists who committed
themselves to "expose the suppression of human nature in China's society" won
commendation from the West. Though they illustrated suppression in Chinese society, the
abundant incomes they achieved enabled them to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. They became
society's nouveau riche. To Western tourists, such styles of art, which clearly alluded to a
non-Western ideology, were taken as the characteristic standard for contemporary Chinese art.
The art was then used, in turn, as the reference point for identifying Chinese culture. The crux of
the matter is that due to political and economic inequality, the West's understanding of Chinese
art was distorted from the beginning. The success of Cynical Realism and Political Pop inspired
artists to elaborate their "internationally best-selling" style and to add more political ingredients
to it. Equally, it encouraged younger Chinese artists to join the rank of "dissidents." This was
exemplified in the style of Gaudy Art that subsequently emerged in the mid-1990s. If the art of
the 1980s was too weak to support its own faith, and Cynical Realism and Political Pop gave up
their commitment to their ideal, then under the guidance of the West, the new art forsook
commitment to any faith. It danced hand in hand with cultural nihilism and in the end was
reduced to "roguish" Cynical Realism.
People may be confused as to why Chinese contemporary art has been able to change so
easily. Chinese contemporary art did not grow out of a modernist movement as in the West;
rather, it grew up under Socialist Realism. Prior to 1980, art in China was dominated by the
school of (academic) realism. This related directly to the prevailing ideology of the times. From
Mao’s “Talks at Yan’an” in 1942, we can see that it was realism alone that was able to meet the
demands of “Serving the People.” Thus, realism became the principal tool of the nation’s
propaganda. Another important concept that also related to Socialism was that of Collective
Spirit. Under this spirit, the individual was subject to the collective in all aspects of his/her life. All
Chinese were thereby brought together in working towards a much grander common aim.
Chinese contemporary art grew up against this background without many modernist resources.
Here, modernism is not equivalent to Western modernism but means the strong interest in
individuality and experimentation with language. Practicality was thus already in the blood of
Chinese contemporary art, manifested not as a style but more as an unconscious methodology.
These reasons can explain why Chinese artists chose such radical ways of making art, even to
the point of using the human body as a medium.
Information about Western contemporary art was neither learned in schools, nor introduced
objectively in the mass media, nor acquired by students studying abroad. It was spread by word
of mouth and was seen in catalogues brought back to China by artists travelling abroad. Upon
seeing a new issue of a foreign art magazine, young artists could only glean information from
pictures a few square centimetres in size; most could not read the text. Prior to creating any
work that might be construed as contemporary art, Chinese artists had scarcely any opportunity
to view an original work. In such a situation, young artists who don't understand the original
work unwittingly promote mass-media ideologies.
Such practicality not only appears in the art but also characterizes the attitude of the Chinese
government towards the arts. Since 2000, more and more Chinese contemporary art began to
be shown through the official exchange program. This would seem to indicate that
contemporary art had been already widely accepted by the government. But, to be honest, this
is not true. As evidence we can consider the fact that from 2001 to 2003, a work by the
Chinese-French artist Huang Yongping (his copy of an EP-3 spy plane) was three times taken
off the checklists of important exhibitions for diplomatic reasons. On the other hand, we will find
that Chinese contemporary art is shown more often overseas than in China. Contemporary art
has already been used as a diplomatic tool, with two goals: it is intended to demonstrate how
open the government is now, with the hope that this might bring economic benefits, or it is used
as a means in which to take the place of Taiwan—for example in the São Paulo and Venice
Biennales. But in China, nothing changed at all. The government does not focus on supporting
the art in China. It uses the art as a tool.
Within this context, we will see that in official explanations of contemporary art exhibitions, the
meaning of the work is changed—the original background information has been removed. With
more and more exhibitions, it seems that we already have a kind of official, harmless
contemporary art. The officially promoted art could logically include the more high-tech media,
such as new media, because this kind of exhibition could use the technology to hide the radical
perspective of the art. Officially promoted kinds of art could also logically make use of traditional,
vernacular codes in their styles, because these evoked China. For the museums and curators,
this would make them feel safe.
Judging by the external environment, the rendering "harmless" of contemporary art raised an
even more challenging problem. The problem arose in a re-examination of contemporary
Chinese art in a colonial context. Borrowing Jurgen Habermas's notion of "commonness," art
theorists had been looking for a way to bring art from international biennials back to the local
society. As the most widely exhibited contemporary art, the manner style of such artworks
raised doubts: When an artist co-operates with the ruling will of the society, what is the artist's
minimum morality? The essential nature of contemporary art is anti-establishment. Yet, without
support from an establishment, contemporary art is rootless and vulnerable to manipulation by
others. We frequently see contemporary art appear in public spaces, yet we know that it can
gain legitimacy only if it shuns sensitive topics. If artists shun sensitive areas, can contemporary
art exist? And if artists do not shun sensitive issues, what will happen to contemporary art?
On the other hand, we found that the international world had taken a new attitude towards
Chinese art. Outside China, during the entire decade of the 1990s, exhibitions of contemporary
Chinese art were usually organized according to two modes. One was the "impact vs.
response" mode, which held that the leading factor in the development of modern Chinese
culture was Western aggression, and that development and changes within Chinese culture
could be interpreted in terms of Western impact–Chinese response. Typical shows of this type
have been China’s New Art, Post '89 (Hong Kong, 1994) and Inside Out: New Chinese Art (New
York and San Francisco, 1998 and 1999). Such exhibitions largely focused on a politicized
perspective on Chinese experimental art. The second mode was "tradition vs. modernity,"
according to which modern and contemporary Western society provided the model for all
countries in the world and China was expected to make the transition from a "traditional" to
"modern" society according to the Western model. Following this logic, Chinese experimental
art became basically folk art, which was demonstrated in the exhibition China! Contemporary
Painters, held in Germany in 1996. It seemed to some people that Chinese society could follow
the well-beaten Western track towards a "modern" society only if the West gave China a stern
warning. Both modes represent Western-centric views, both believing that the industrialization
of the West had been a blessing and that the Chinese could never achieve conditions
favourable to creating) such modernization. Therefore, no significant historical change in
twentieth-century China could have been anything other than the changes experienced by the
West. It goes without saying that this guideline greatly oversimplified Chinese experimental art
and hindered its progress. It may be true that both artists and art in China had been distorted by
the impact of their own cultural framework, but if we focus only on a narrow and distorted picture,
this will become a new form of suppression that further harms Chinese art by limiting it to a false
and narrow political theme that allows it only an unreal, distorted existence.
Furthermore, the Chinese government devotes a great deal of money to promoting Chinese art
in order to build up a good political image rather than developing a system to support art
creation, and this has led to a situation where the foreign collector and commercial gallery have
become the controlling power behind Chinese contemporary art and profit from it. More and
more museums are using private money and collections to help put together their Chinese
contemporary art shows. It seems that Chinese art has already become the new hot field for
collecting as well as the new field for reaping profits. Under these circumstances, exoticism and
identity codes have become the most prominent characteristics of Chinese art. On this level the
Chinese government and foreign collections have the same interest.
I can say this is the new situation for China and its art. Since Chinese art has not gone through
the experience of modernism, its creation seems more and more to follow a policy of fitting into
the exhibitions, but without being rooted in the artist’s individuality and China’s society. This
leads to secondary effects, which is that in the international art world, the main function of
Chinese art is just to offer a Chinese image to prove the abstract concept of pluralism. Under
the image of pluralism, the value will not be important any more. This can also explain the why
foreign curators, when they come to China, always lower their original standards and use
another kind of standard to select artists.
Inside China, artists are now losing their position. Their position had been the underground. It
was not a good position, but it was a position. Now that they are widely shown, they are not
underground anymore. They can even sell their work very successfully. In the past years, most
of my colleagues and I have tried to build up an open position for Chinese art in China, but now
we have suddenly found that such work did not bring a good situation for China; on the contrary,
it made the art lose its energy. But, to be honest, we still feel okay about this situation. Even
where the relaxations are unstable or sporadic, they are effectively transforming the social
context of experimental art in China.
Rapid economic growth offered more opportunities for employment. Thus, many artists could
make a living without exclusive engagement in art and thereby they were not bound by a
relationship to a commercial gallery. At the same time, the development of the market made it
possible for non-profit or alternative art spaces running by artists to emerge, such as the Loft
New Media Art Centre in Beijing and BizArt in Shanghai. The ultimate motivation of these
spaces was to mitigate the artists' discontent with the general art system. Since the early 1990s,
the "export-oriented" art system made Cynical Realism, Political Pop and Gaudy Art dominate
most exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art abroad. In the view of new experimental artists,
the works of artists included in the 1999 Venice Biennale could not represent the achievements
of Chinese experimental art. The list of those artists chosen for the Venice Biennale was
controlled by commercial groups, which again revealed the drawback of "export-oriented" art.
In the meantime, there was a shortage of exhibition spaces in China and this gave rise to artists'
"self-managed spaces". From a macrocosmic view, these spaces complemented the
commercial galleries and state-run museums. As Chinese experimental art was repeatedly
exhibited internationally and the outside world learned more about China, more serious
research in China began to focus on such spaces. With the help of contributions from Chinese
individuals who had received some education in other countries, experimental art developed in
a much healthier direction.
Early experimental art styles like Cynical Realism, Political Pop and Gaudy Art might have
been shifted to the position of a "commercial avant-garde", but their commercial success
helped to give experimental art a public profile. The high market value of such art works
aroused the interest of local merchants and the mass media. A direct consequence was the
emergence of a number of galleries managed by Chinese people, and private galleries, like the
Upriver Gallery in Sichuan and Dongyu Gallery, in Shenyang. However, where China still had
no foundation system to support art or tax laws favourable to art sponsors, the existence of
these institutions remained rather precarious.
The most noteworthy change in Chinese society in the 1990s was the flourishing of mass media.
During this process, the lifestyles of Cynical Realist, Political Pop, and Gaudy artists became
the focus of fashionable journals, which gradually made experimental art "harmless" to society,
and somewhat helped to expand its living space.
In the late 1990s, as younger officials were promoted to important positions in government, the
living environment of experimental art became more favourable. In education, the most
noticeable change was that the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China National Academy
opened special courses on new media and a number of experimental artists were invited to give
lectures. At the same time, Shanghai Art Museum, Guangdong Museum of Art, and He
Xiangning Museum in Shenzhen held regular exhibitions of experimental art, such as the
Shanghai Biennale, China Contemporary Sculpture Annual Exhibition and the Guangzhou
Triennial. From 2000 on, experimental art was listed in cultural exchange programmes between
governments. Nevertheless, such relaxations were usually determined by the executives of a
special regulation, not by a specific mechanism. Therefore the situation continues to fluctuate.
We can be sure that the awakening of local museums and emergence of "alternative art
spaces" indicate a transformation from the "export-oriented" to "local-oriented" systems for
Chinese experimental art. Those phenomena not only signify a structural change within the
experimental art system, but will bring forth changes in the language of art as well.
Analyzed from within, the art system of the 1990s led to a logic based on the manipulation of
ideological differences and antagonisms between China and the West. Those differences and
antagonisms obviously cannot serve as the basis for the existence and success of experimental
art in China, otherwise China's experimental art would only interpret Western values and
standards, and it is also a certain kind of practicality. If we take a lesson from the experimental
art of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we will learn that empty ideology cannot be
a permanent reason for art. With China's expanding entry into the international world, Chinese
society will undergo great changes. As the process of globalization continues, ideological
differences will be altered too, and the narrow-minded Cold War ideology will disappear, giving
way to conflicts between different values caused by different ways of perceiving things.
Grasping the gist of the new world situation has become an increasingly urgent issue.
Therefore, Chinese experimental artists must prepare for an era in which pressure from
different ideologies gradually disappears. 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.