SPEAKER: The following is part of Cornell Contemporary China Initiative lecture series under the Cornell East Asia program. The arguments and viewpoints of this talk belong solely to the speaker. We hope you enjoy.
ROBIN: This evening we're very happy with us Mr. Phil Tinari. Phil has quite an impressive resume in the field of contemporary Chinese art. He is currently director of UCCA-- that's the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which is widely considered the best of its kind in the [INAUDIBLE] art district in Beijing. Very well-known art center there. He's been director there since 2012
Prior to that, he was the founding editor of a magazine of contemporary art, Chinese art, called LEAP, and so has had a big hand in that, as well. Just to mention sort of a couple of recent things that he's been involved with. Currently, he's curated an exhibition that's in Paris now called "Bentu-- Chinese artists in a time of turbulence and transformation." And he's also currently co-curating a new exhibit that will open at the Guggenheim. These are just a of the important exhibitions that he's been involved with other the past several years.
He's going to talk to us today about this transition of Chinese art from a Chinese thing to a global thing. Please all of you help me in welcoming him here.
PHILIP TINARI: Thank you so much, Robin. It's really a great honor and pleasure to be at Cornell, where I've never been before. And thanks to Eli Marshall for introducing and putting us all together. And it's great to see people like [INAUDIBLE] and other familiar faces here. And this is the alma mater of our former chief curator, who was a sculpture student here many years ago. So apropos of nothing.
So I'd like to start today from the basic paradox of the name of this emerging field, which, as Robin has just mentioned, I've become rather involved in. Contemporary Chinese art, a designation as fraught and problematic as it has become axiomatic. Its very nomenclature evokes a persistently irreconcilable dichotomy-- how to be at once a participant in a global contemporary conversation, and still somehow always nationally delineated.
And many semantics games have been played over the question of whether contemporary Chinese art sounds better or worse than Chinese contemporary art, and in the end, the two designations appear with more or less equal frequency. I prefer the former, just because it's easier to typeset because the word "contemporary" is about as long as "Chinese art."
It's a designation with a particular etymology. Artists in the 1980s didn't talk about the contemporary. They instead understood themselves as modern. And the widespread use of the term "contemporary art," or in Chinese, [CHINESE], only occurs in the early 1990s in reaction to what more experimental practitioners saw as the hijacking of the earlier term of [CHINESE], modern art, by cultural conservatives, who were looking, in the wake of 1989, to realign this with a particular vision of Chinese modernity. Think, kind of, ideas of modern ink painting retooled for the [INAUDIBLE].
Abroad, it emerges as a concept after 1993, which is the year that saw numerous named surveys of recent trends in Chinese art, foremost among them two exhibitions which I'll speak about in a little bit more depth later-- one called China Avant-garde, and the other called China's New Art, Post-1989. But also including things like the first inclusion of Chinese artists at the Venice Biennale, which happened in June of that year, and a major New York Times Magazine article by a writer named Andrew Solomon that offered a more in-depth overview of the scene in English than anything that had yet been written. And, in fact, than anything that was written for the subsequent decade.
If the idea fermented throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, provoking no small amount of skepticism from both Chinese artists unhappy to be thus reified and foreign interlocutors who understood the limits of the term, it seemed to be nearing its expiration date by the mid-2000s, only to be re-inscribed and with force by the auction industrial complex that emerged, and which always needs to sort production into easy categories that fit on the spines of catalogs.
By this point, it had become an easy hitch for a whole generation of Chinese collectors, journalists, and officials who were by then-- and this is in the lead up to 2008-- no doubt influenced by emergent discourses of soft power. And another decade later, today, we find ourselves looking for a way out of the prison of this term and its pretenses, however false they may be, to the monolithic.
We've arrived now at a place where a single narrative holds immense sway, and it's what a critic by the name of [INAUDIBLE] has dubbed the 79 Narrative, the [CHINESE]. And it dominates nearly all of the historiography of the field. And the 79 Narrative, named for the year 1979, will be familiar to anyone in the room who has worked on contemporary China in any field, from demographics to architecture to business administration. It postulates that art in China resumes with the beginning of reform and opening, a set of policies promulgated by Deng Xiaoping in late '78, early '79, and more or less tracks the developments of the reform era year by year.
This narrative historically begins with the Stars Group, who you see here, a fledging collective of untrained but privilege Beijingers who came of age while the schools were closed during the culture evolution, who had gotten their hands on just a few untranslated catalogs, and were part of the same social scene as the Democracy Wall protesters-- a group that included a young Ai Weiwei as one of its very junior members. And they hung their works, as you see here, formerly a mash-up of yet unprocessed styles, gesturing toward everything from primitivism to Cubism to pop, on the fences outside the National Gallery, the building that's come to be known as the National Art Museum of China, like so many theses nailed to the cathedral door just days before the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic.
When the exhibition is predictably closed by the local police two days later, they unite with the Democracy Wall protesters and March peacefully on city hall under banners proclaiming a march to uphold the constitution, as you see in this line, and on the back, to defend artistic freedom. They arrive at the stairs of city hall, which is a former European legation, seeing the internacional together, and dispersed peacefully.
This action comes exactly a decade before the events of 1989, which begins for art with another gunshot, that fired by the artist Xiao Lu, into her work, into her own work, at the China Avant-garde Exhibition, better known by its No U-turn logo, one morning in February of that year. This is of special relevance here at Cornell as one of the best collections of material on this period, compiled by the curator Wen Pulin, resides in your libraries. And Xiao Lu's discharge comes to stand as the shot heard around the world, presaging events to come.
By the 1990s, we are in the land of overtly symbolic and political art, often spun by an eager Western journalistic and critical establishment, as post-traumatic reactions to Tiananmen, and explained by more knowing scholars like Jeremy [INAUDIBLE] as quote unquote "packaged dissent" or by commentators like the blogger and podcaster Kaiser Kuo as mixed struggle.
In the new millennium, as China wins the Olympic bid-- there's a brief interlude as Chinese artists begin to move abroad in the early '90s and settle in places like Paris and New York, and participate in artistic establishments there. But then in the new millennium, as China wins the Olympic bid and joins the WTO, we get things like the first-- actually the third-- Shanghai Biennale, represented here in this piece by Huang Yong Ping, a sand castle in the shape of the HSBC building on the Bund that's left to crumble as the exhibition goes on, in an official space, which is itself the colonial racing club. Or [INAUDIBLE] fireworks display for the Apex Summit that happened just a few weeks after 9/11.
By the end of the decade, we have sprawling arts districts and departments of experimental art, [CHINESE], a term that the party has always preferred to "contemporary art" for its etymological proximity to the early reform era axiom [CHINESE], which means "praxis is the only standard for verifying truth." You combine two characters and you get this word that means "experimental." Was popularized in a May 1978 editorial in the Guangming Daily. So you now have departments of experimental art in all of the major academies.
Today, in 2016, we inhabit an art world of Art Basel Hong Kong, the Asian branch of that leading fair, of private museums like this one funded by wealth of ambiguous origin, and with the in-kind support of the government. In other words, this narrative very easily becomes a cipher for China's social and economic transitions, and ultimately, the political resilience of its one-party system since the onset of reform. It's a history of emergent neoliberal subjectivity and of adaptive authoritarianism. Or that's what we need to say now, as we know this is not what people thought it might have been all along, which is a story of democratization.
And while this narrative is simplistic and risks alliding the specificity of artistic production in favor of broadbrush progress, it is also still better than another alternative currently being pedaled by the state system, in which all art since 1949 is conflated as variously glorifying the state and the party. That sort of narrative not only allides the distinction between work created on either side of the 1979 watershed-- and I think here of a juxtaposition in a National Art Museum of China exhibition a few years ago on the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, where work by the painter [INAUDIBLE], associated with the scar art movement of painters who were using the tools of Socialist realism to interrogate the legacy of Maoist struggle, was hung amidst various masterpieces of high revolutionary propaganda with no explanation. Or upstairs-- and a juxtaposition I've tried to recreate badly in this side-- where a Zhang Xioagang Bloodlines portrait, worked at for all its later commercial success, was at least initially understood to have grown out of a historical critique, next to a hyperrealist and similarly valued portrait by Wang Yidong-- and that's just one of infinite airbrushed pictures of girls standing in front of trees or playing violins or whatever-- reducing both works to little more than variant strains of post-realist taste.
So the question is how can we transform our understanding of contemporary art in China from this Sinocentric mirror of larger events to that of a more multivalent and globally constituted field? How might contemporary art serve as a way of looking at what [INAUDIBLE] has called of the question of China and the world? And how might such a history focus instead on the moments where this unique and bizarre combination of advanced artistic practices and the social realities in China draw attention to moments of instability and possible fissure, rather than shore up dialectical thinking about some inevitable national future?
So these questions have been a driving force in the program that I've tried to present over the last five years at the Ullen Center for Contemporary Art, which is a nonprofit, non-governmental, non-collecting institution situated at the heart of Beijing's 798 art district. That was a plug.
It was my driving motivation in my previous job as editor of the magazine LEAP. The titular, sort of, reference to the Great Leap Forward hidden just below the surface is intentional, and also, kind of, a slight mocking of the idea of dialectical progress. It was fully bilingual and hopefully cosmopolitan, although circulating mainly in China.
And most recently, it has been the impulse at the heart of an exhibition that I'm hard at work on now with a woman by the name of Alexandra Monroe at the Guggenheim, and [INAUDIBLE], as well, which opens, as Robin mentioned, in 2017 under the title "Art in China, Theater of the World," which is-- the subtitle is the name of a work by the artist Wang Yongping in which various insects and reptiles eat each other inside of a panopticon. It is attempting to argue that the myriad developments of the Chinese art scene in the two decades between the student movements and the Beijing Olympics are actually quite fertile ground for thinking about how these advanced cultural practices from non-Western areas might help to stage a more complex narrative of how a global discourse and field of contemporary art came into focus, and not just China, but everywhere else, in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
So what I wanted to do this afternoon, rather than offer a singular thesis, is to stage a series of moments between the dates highlighted in the title of talk, which will hopefully shed some light on how future histories of contemporary art in China might be written. And I thought that one way of doing this might be to focus on four specific encounters or moments, respectively situated in the '80s, '90s, 2000s, and 2010s for which other kinds of narratives might be possible.
The first of these is the rather foundational, and is the exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg in China in 1985, or should we say the exhibitions, as there were in fact two-- one in Beijing and one in Lhasa. Although for Rauschenberg, those counted as two countries. The Beijing exhibition drew 300,000 visitors in an 18-day run-- great numbers for any museum director, even today-- effectively introducing an artistic community to an entirely new set of aesthetic possibilities.
On view were 113 works made between 1970 and 1985, which showed something like the full range of his famously expansive practice, definitively introducing the notion that could can be made not just using the academic media of cops, [CHINESE], Chinese painting, oil painting, printmaking, and sculpture, but from the stuff of everyday life. As the critic Li Xianting has written, "For the Chinese audience who had just emerged from 70 years of realist aesthetic education, Rauschenberg's solo exhibition caused an earthquake that sent shockwaves through China."
Talk to artists through China belonging to the generation now in its 50s, which is to say at the height of its influence, and you get a litany of stories of taking trains on hard seats through the night to be able to see this exhibition. Indeed, even more than, say, the shows of French impressionism from state collections-- actually, French landscape paintings from state collections-- that happened in the late '70s or that of the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which happened in 1983, and certainly more than those of artists such as Gilbert and George or Jorg Immendorff, who showed in the years that followed, this encounter with Rauschenberg seemed somehow monumental. The question for this exhibition then becomes how to think it outside the context of the old impact response paradigm so familiar to historians of modern China, and instead as a mutually constitutive, inherently global encounter.
Perhaps the most interesting element of this exhibition is that it was not, as it is often remembered in China, naturally, a one-off bilateral interchange or exchange, but rather one in a long series of exhibitions under the rubric of ROCI-- Rauschenberg oversees cultural interchange-- named after Rauschenburg's pet turtle, which would see Rauschenberg throughout his 60s take his art to something like 12 countries between the years of 1984 and 1991, many of which were undergoing urgent transitions. Countries that included the USSR at the very last days at the Tretyakov, Japan, East Germany, or still East Germany, but again, just a few weeks after the wall fell, Venezuela, and Cuba to name just a few. ROCI was tolerated at the time by an American art world who already thought that the self-finance project rang a bit too earnestly of imperial ambition. But interestingly, the concept for ROCI itself grew out of Rauschenberg's first trip to China in 1982, which he made to work at the [CHINESE], which is the [INAUDIBLE] paper mill in [INAUDIBLE] province.
It was through this prolonged effort of creativity inside the confines of an official cultural enclave-- all his travels were organized by the Ministry of Culture and the [INAUDIBLE] Artists Association-- that got Rauschenberg thinking away from his initial concept of a straightforward touring exhibition and on to this idea of ROCI, which was based on what he called the idea of promoting peace through the cultural communication allowed by art-- of using art to bring people together in a very utopian way. This, of course, does not mean that the encounter was not fraught with misconceptions and uneven power dynamics.
And if you see this image at the right, the scholar Hiroko Ikegami has written about this visit in terms of what she calls cultural timelag and of the misconceptions on either side of the encounter. Particularly one evening, pictured at right, when Rauschenberg was taken to see an apartment art exhibition of seven Chinese artists at the home of a Western journalist, who, in the wake of the Boston show previously mentioned, had begun to work in ways that channeled the abstract expressionists. Needless to say, Rauschenberg, who had spent his early career attempting to forge a different path forward from abstraction through prodigious appropriation and experimentation with material and form, was not impressed.
And Ikegami recounts a poignant moment at this makeshift show where Rauschenberg asks the artist Zhang Wei, himself one of the key protagonists of the No Name Group, which was the first group of, sort of, Sunday painters to emerge in the late '70s, even before the Stars. Rauschenberg asked Zhang Wei, have you seen my show? And Zhang Wei replies, yes, every day. And Rauschenberg's response is to say, you should come back with me to the United States and help tell everyone in America how successful my show in China was. They then proceed to get into a shouting match, and [INAUDIBLE], who was this Taiwanese woman, Taiwanese immigrant to the US, who was the, sort of, go-between throughout, and probably the most interesting figure in the whole story, refuses to continue translating. Rauschenberg then goes on to boast that he has just been commissioned by Time Magazine to do a cover to celebrate Deng Xiaoping's appearance as Man of the Year in 1986, not realizing that the artists present harbor completely different political loyalties.
And yet, one thing that is interesting about Rauschenberg's visit is that it-- this is great. "Certain Beijing Theorists' Reactions to Robert Rauschenberg's Work"-- great headline writing. One thing that's interesting about the visit is that it did not provoke a wave of stylistically proximate imitation, but rather it set off a wave or contributed to the setting off of a wave, which was later dubbed the '85 new wave, of different kinds of experimentation.
Rauschenberg was portrayed to the Chinese art community as a neo-Dadaist artist. And one of the outgrowths was this collective founded by the artist Huang Yong Ping, whose work I showed you-- the sand castle-- a moment ago, and we'll come back to. And another work of whose is the subtitle for the Guggenheim show. And this was the [INAUDIBLE], a collective that he established in his home city of Xiamen, which involved creating work and then burning it after it had been exhibited by way of introduction.
So just to fast forward to today, and what this all maybe could mean, because we're actually working at the moment on an exhibition called Rauschenberg in China that will open on June 11th. If anyone's planning summer travels to Beijing, advance tickets can be purchased at ucca.org.cn. Please let me know.
This exhibition organized in close collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the entity that manages his estate and promotes his legacy, and which includes many of his former studio colleagues, centers around a presentation of something called "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece," which is a mixed media painting, you might understand it as, 305 meters and 191 panels of long, made between 1981 and 1998, the years which bracket his encounter with China and the entire broader ROCI project. And while we will exhibit some documents and ephemera related to the 1985 exhibition, we're most excited to be able to present this monumental work, "The 1/4 Mile," of similar scale and dynamism to those presented in the original show, testing the power of this work to affect audiences 30 years later when so much else has changed.
And we've decided to pursue the exhibition along a number of strategic lines at once, first as a blockbuster geared, again, towards a mass audience, which even now, mass audiences being what they are, still doesn't have an intimate familiarity with Rauschenberg and his position and his methods. But secondly, interestingly enough, from Beijing now, we can do the show as part of this larger global reassessment of Rauschenberg's work and contribution and that seems to be in the offing at the moment. There's a major Tate/MoMA retrospective opening later this year. He was on the cover of Art Forum in February with a body of very little-known work made in collaboration with Susan Weil.
And so somehow, we're at a moment where an institution in Beijing can revisit a moment from Chinese art history 30 years later, and by doing so, participate in this other kind of global conversation. And hopefully, at the same time, bring a new group of people and a new body of interest to the work in a different kind of comparative framework. So that's just the, sort of, example of, kind of, where we are.
So the next moment that I wanted to talk about is the mid-1990s, which is the period I mentioned earlier in my, sort of, run through this stock narrative, and the period during which the field really attains its mature form. And we look to this period not with the same romantic lens that we often train on the 1980s-- this was after political idealism had come and gone, and as all forms of new markets were arising-- but with the resignation of examining adolescent output.
And two figures in this moment, which we could date from, say, 1993 to about 1997, tower above the fray. The first, a man by the name of Hans van Dijk, who you see on the left, a Dutchman who lived between 1946 and 2002. And lived in China from his arrival there to study Mandarin in Nanjing in 1986 through his death in Beijing in 2002. Van Dijk was a curious character, a trained artist, and peripheral member of the Amsterdam conceptual art scene of the 1970s, who worked a day job as an industrial designer and became so obsessed with Chinese furniture that he decided at age 40 to move there and learn the language. And he did that by translating the manifestos of artists like Zhang Peili and [INAUDIBLE], publishing what are now classic pieces by those artists in relatively obscure journals.
He left briefly after 1989, but returned soon afterward with a commission from a museum called the House of World Cultures, a museum in a newly reunified Berlin who were looking to organize an exhibition of new art from China. The show he put together was titled China Avant-garde, an homage to the 1989 show, which was also titled China Avant-garde, with slightly different punctuation, working together with several other curators including [INAUDIBLE], Wolfgang Pullman, and Andrea Schmidt. It became something of an instant classic, traveling to five further venues, its catalog first published by the House of World Cultures in three languages-- Chinese, English, and German-- and immediately picked up by Oxford University Press and published for further circulation.
By 1994, van Dijk had relocated permanently to Beijing, where he set up an entity called the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy, which went on to fill the hybrid role of curatorial research office, dealership, museum liaison, and spiritual mentor to various artists in the coming years in exactly the interstice before the first crop of commercial galleries-- places like ShanghArt in Shanghai, Courtyard and Red Gate in Beijing-- were established. Van Dijk saw himself as a tireless advocate for a field that few yet cared about, but also as a kind of scholar-as-artist, and he went on to devise-- these are images from the '93 showing by Huang Yong Ping and [INAUDIBLE] "Melting Plastic," among others.
He went on to devise a number of classificatory frameworks for analyzing the range of artistic production which he was encountering. This one, for example, groups all output into the category of new socialism, which he further divides into realism, concept art, and new traditionalism. His work brought him to a position of absolute centrality for those few years before his health began to decline, and new commercial and curatorial ventures began to populate the scene.
And van Dijk, for his part, went on with his final project to co-found an exhibition and research space with Ai Weiwei, which they titled China Art Archives and Warehouse. And the particular breed of geographically diverse conceptualism from places all over China, which they championed, became, through a long and indirect series of influences, the backbone for assemblages like the Sigg Collection, put together by the former Swiss Ambassador, and recently donated to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for its seemingly permanently delayed museum M+.
What Hans stands for is an entire strand of interaction and encounter that goes somewhat beyond the simple understandings of how the art system functioned in the '90s. And just to gesture at that, because we don't have time to get into too much depth, this painting by Yan Lei-- actually, this painting and this poster are both by Yen Lei-- an artist who worked very closely with van Dijk is indicative of the trend. And the painting at left bears a headline that says, [CHINESE]. It translates, "Are you in the exhibition going to Germany?" Below you see the flags of the Kassel documenta, which is an exhibition that happens every five years in a tiny city in Westphalia.
And you see this figure in the clothing of a fencer, as if a, sort of, Olympic athlete representing the nation. This was made in 1996 in the lead-up to Catherine David's documenta 10, and it is just many works by artists of this period that gestured directly to the bizarre combination of authority and indifference held by key Western institutions of the art world vis-a-vis Chinese artists and their work.
The second work is a portrait of a number of inventors of a famous spy camera taken from a history of espionage, asking this question of, may I see your work? And this is the period when artists in China started to understand the inherent power dynamics of the studio visit, for example. And to ask these questions, mainly because this was a period when, where in the 1980s, you had this very elaborate system of discussion of contemporary art through a series of nationally circulated journals, so many of those were closed after '89 that you have, in the '90s, actually no institutional infrastructure for contemporary art inside of China. And so [INAUDIBLE] kind of very elaborate dependence on the outside.
Nonetheless, this brings us to the second figure who was in that picture, Li Xianting, whose thoughts on Rauschenberg I quoted earlier. And what Li Xianting represents-- and I would, again, recommend the article by Andrew Solomon that I mentioned earlier, which has just actually been reprinted in a new volume of his travel writing that's come out only this month-- is the absolute authority that certain local figures had in light of this system in shaping the conversation inside of China. As Solomon wrote, "It's hard to explain exactly what Laoli--" which is his, sort of, honorific title-- "does. Though he is a fine writer and curator, his main role is to guide artists gently into their own powerful history. He gives them a language in which to experience and discuss their own work."
Li had attained this authority through his work in the 1980s as the editor of the newspaper of Fine Arts in China, which ran that wonderful headline I just showed a moment ago, and as co-curator of the 1989 show. But this authority grew significantly in the 1990s as many of the artists and critics of this generation, his fellow curators, emigrated to Europe, Australia, and the United States.
Not Li-- he would stay in Beijing where he remains today. And his first international project was to co-organize with the Hong Kong connoisseur and dealer Johnson Chang an exhibition titled "China's New Art Post-1989," which opens in Hong Kong literally just a few days after the Berlin exhibition just mentioned, a few weeks into Clinton's first term. And which would popularize two key terms which he had first developed in an article the previous year.
And if you know anything about contemporary Chinese art, you may have heard these terms political pop and cynical realism. They refer respectively to a mode of art-making which attempts to blend symbols of political oppression with those of economic reform, and to another, which attempts to destabilize that once grand tradition of realist painting by focusing on ordinary characters and unlikely avatars. of
These modes proved immediately catchy-- as we see, they're used again and again for invitations and posters and the like-- and form the basis 15 years later of an entire emergent auction market. Many Chinese intellectuals believed this work to be pandering to foreign expectations. But what is actually interesting is that for Li Xianting, that's the opposite of what they represented in his, sort of, narration or elaboration of these concepts. He says repeatedly that the idea behind them is to turn away from what he saw in the 1980s as an excessively Western-focused conceptualism a la Huang Yong Ping, [INAUDIBLE] and the like, and back towards this very powerful if amorphous concept of Chinese reality. Getting ahead of ourselves. Sorry.
So interestingly, throughout this entire period, van Dijk was in conversation with Li Xianting, and sort of covertly or quietly at work on his own Clavis Sineca, a compendium of names, dates, media, publications, and education for some 5,000 artists active in China since 1911, an index of a very specific vision of an artistic modernity. So that you had these two figures kind of active at the same time is very interesting.
And "5,000 Names" was the title of an exhibition that we mounted at UCCA and 2014, curated by a woman by the name of Marianna Brower, and dedicated to van Dijk's particular legacy, sort of, in relation to that of people like Li Xianting. It contained the work more than 60 artists and attempted, as all exhibitions we do do, to position this work in a context of global exchange and conversation. And it failed miserably, leading to a huge PR crisis when Ai Weiwei contested his designation in various of the exhibition materials and then proceeded to convince a number of other artists in the show to join him in withdrawing their works in protest.
And as you might imagine, being on the wrong side of the Ai Weiwei social media juggernaut is not fun. But what this encounter actually spoke to was the intensity of the feelings that still around this very fraught and very distorted era, and the very real pressures that still exist regarding display of these works, and speak to the fact that actually, it's still a difficult place to make exhibitions.
OK, I'd like to skip forward now to the late 1990s and early 2000s, and to speak about a moment of strange optimism that, in retrospect, seems almost on par with that of the '80s. For me, this story begins with one figure, the artist [INAUDIBLE], and unfolds most poignantly in one place, the 798 art district, which is where UCCA is situated, where I've worked for many years.
First on the figure. [INAUDIBLE] was the youngest artist included in Li Xianting's and Johnson Chang's "Post-1989" show, and indeed was the first to have finished his training at the institution now known as the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in the wake of 1989. By the late 1990s, he finds himself firmly ensconced in Beijing, making his own work, but also writing prolifically about the situation of contemporary art in a China on the cusp of globalization.
And in 1999, he organizes with his then partner [INAUDIBLE] the exhibition Post-Sense Sensibility," [CHINESE], subtitled "Alien Bodies and Delusion," a gory show that evolved pieces like this one by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, which comprises a human specimen of a head from a cadaver and another of a fetus, unfolding in the basement of a residential building just a few kilometers from where the Olympic stadium would eventually rise. A few very interesting things to note about this exhibition, starting from its awkward English title-- It's not "Post Sense and Sensibility." Rather, it comes as a sort of deliberate mistranslation or reaction, in a feat of what Lydia [INAUDIBLE] might call translingual practice, to an exhibition that had happened just slightly earlier at the Brooklyn Museum and had drawn the ire of then Mayor Giuliani. And that exhibition was called "Sensation-- Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection." So another, kind of, monolithic formation of artists backed by a powerful advertising magnate collector, which would actually become the role model for China in a way that people didn't quite realize yet.
And while much of the debate around this exhibition inside of China revolved around a predictable outrage over some of the more radical material used and strategies adapted, the reaction of the Western media outlets, including the BBC and The Wall Street Journal, was even more confused, at once censoring these artists for their inhuman choices, and condemning them for plagiarizing folks like Damien Hirst. So clearly, this critique would not be long-lived.
And what instead happens is that by the early 2000s, a short-lived avant-garde magazine called Next Wave, co-edited by Li Xianting and [INAUDIBLE], finds its editorial office space in a remote area outside of the city known only by a three-number code, around the corner from the studio of sculptor [INAUDIBLE], who had, in one of those moments that suggests the unintentional omnipresence of the state throughout this entire narrative, discovered this area, which is, of course, the area that would go on to become known as 798. During an interval between campuses of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, which was predictably moving from downtown to the suburbs from Wangfujing to [INAUDIBLE], at the moment when he was awarded a commission for a monument to the anti-Japanese resistance, and needed larger studio space, and so found this incredible Bauhaus factory. And within a few months, artists and art workers were moving in, including [INAUDIBLE] and Li Xianting, who put their offices in the former basketball court. Which a year later was the headquarters of a fashion magazine conglomerate.
So UCCA opens-- sorry. And this is a moment of intense another kind of canon information on capital formation, as a market pops up and as a more homegrown and, kind of, locally international discourse around what contemporary art might mean in the context of the society is taking place. And the story of 798 is kind of a microcosm of that because it begins as a sort of squatter settlement, quickly becomes a kind of fashion idea of loft living, and almost immediately thereafter is not necessarily co-opted, but enfranchised by a government who is suddenly under the sway of all these new discourses of creative industry and cultural industry.
And this is from another city, but this is, in Guangzhou in 2005, a new apartment complex, now home to the Times Museum, which is another actually some very good institution in Guangzhou, you know, explicitly using a small museum and kind of residency facility incorporated into this commercial development, residential development. And this billboard that says "Run into artists while you take out your trash."
So we come to this moment where, within the course of a few years, we've gone from these radical basement experiments like I just showed to a place where contemporary art is not only accepted but kind of championed. And finally, to-- you know, for me, the founding of our institution is a part of this phenomenon, and this is the opening show, which is itself a recapitulation of the '85 new wave that I had just mentioned earlier. So you see this narrative that begins the fold back in and over itself again and again like the CCTV building.
And this kind of strain in a way comes to its logical conclusion by around 2009. And these are two exhibitions that are mounted on exactly the 20th anniversary of June 4, one by Sue Yuan and Peng Yu, the artists who created that rather gory piece I just showed, the other by [INAUDIBLE], who was present burning plastics in the '93 show. And the one on the right is simply titled "Freedom," and it involves a fire hose like the kind that would be used against rioters, moved only by the weight of its own head. And the one on the left, by [INAUDIBLE], is the combination of these signs that just repeat this litany of almost [INAUDIBLE] like sentences. "We have killed people," "We have eaten people," "We have beaten people blind" in this very obvious fun that refers to signs you see outside of government offices, combined with these TVs showing unthinkably white clouds against unthinkably blue skies installed in these, sort of, clerestory windows above this cathedral-like factory space. And this is in exactly the space that [INAUDIBLE] had discovered 10 years before, where he had had the studio to make this monument to the Japanese resistance in the beginnings of what became this art area that is now where we find ourselves.
So that's that part of the story, and then we'll talk about the very last piece now. And I'll do this more by way of a specific exhibition that we presented in 2013 called "ON OFF," including some 50 artists who were born at the dawn of opening and reform. And it was, in a way, the first comprehensive attempt to map this group based not on nominations from senior colleagues, but in response to the shared concept that is the basic intellectual and social reality of this generation, and remains so-- the pervasiveness of the internet and all things, and the specifically Chinese embrace of the internet with all of the limitations and possibilities that it implies.
The title "ON OFF," subtitled "China's Young Artists in Concept and Practice," comes from the graphical interface of the software so many in China use to scale the so-called great firewall. A VPN, a virtual private network, is a simple way to log in-- everyone knows what a VPN is. Sorry.
The curator who coined the title [INAUDIBLE], an editor at the magazine LEAP, and whom I actually helped to install this software shortly after he began there, is one of the many whose lives have been changed by the proliferation of this add-on technology in recent years. But the underlying condition that it makes apparent is one that goes back far beyond the conceptualization of this exhibition, deep into the childhoods of these curators and the artists they have selected, and this current moment in which we can simply toggle between two orders-- the Chinese system with all of its constraints but also comforts, and the international system with its easy access to information, albeit at such volume that it often obscures as much as it enlightens.
And as the curators put it, [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE]-- [INAUDIBLE] also the coiner of this idea of the 79 Narrative-- Chinese artists born after 1975 have grown up in a society and culture beset by binaries constantly toggling between extremes. The title "ON OFF," which comes from what it comes from, represents this binary condition at its simplest and most direct. This series of tensions intensified noticeably in 1999, just as the internet was becoming implicated into everyday life. Since then, it is precisely this generation of artists that has surfaced and begun to attract attention. Chinese contemporary art as a whole has moved away from the underground scene of the 1990s and is finally integrated into the commercial art market.
And coming from this kind of background, as one young artist has said, this generation must confront numerous, at times conflicting, concepts and systems. They must make quick adjustments to function within new frameworks. They strive to create a new sort of self-awareness, which is reflected in their artistic methods. China's youngest generation of artists is defined by this widespread feeling of difference. And those are their words.
Yet it was not an exhibition about the role of new technologies in making art-- rather, the basic metaphorical conceit of on/off-- the binary idea that we are either connected or disconnected over the firewall or inside it-- functioned more as a kind of intellectual structure through which to process the experience of this generation. Perhaps, the curators posit, this is a generation defined by such binaries. A generation that grew up as the transition from a planned Socialist economy to a capitalist free for all affected massive change in various sectors of Chinese life.
And while their education still stressed the importance of collective action, pressures to define individual identities became all the while more apparent. After they began their careers as artists, a similar binary confronted them, this time between the commercial pressures of the art world and its market and more activist impulses towards self-organization and conceptual practice. Does a duality of systems produce a schizophrenic subjectivity? Or does the constant back and forth become a kind of dialectic of its own?
The notion of the binary is only half the story, though, as the real import of this concept and title lies in the effortless, yet somehow still absolute, toggling that happens between its two sides. One can switch the VPN on or off with the click of a button, but this does not diminish the vastly different worlds available on either side. In the end, it highlights the fact that for all its increasing resemblance to the rest of the world, China still retains its distinctive operating system. Contemporary art in China, in turn, while resorting now less to outright symbols and signifiers of identity and politics, remains deeply structured by this underlying condition.
And just to give an example of what that might mean, the kinds of comparisons that are now possible-- we see things like in 2011, this show by Maurizio Cattelan that opened up the Guggenheim in which he hung his entire output from the center of Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda and left the ramps blank. And then just a few weeks later, the Shanghai artist [INAUDIBLE], who also works under the name of [? Maiden ?], in a show in Shanghai erecting a white cube in the center of a white cube and throwing sculptures from the center of it, of course, powered by huge quantities of human labor, in a kind of knowing riposte to a show that had happened really just a few weeks before. So we've gone from a situation with Rauschenberg, where you have artists recapitulating abstract expressionism 40 years later, to one in which the communication is instant, and the critique is real and poignant.
And then the other thing-- that's another image of [INAUDIBLE] that we did-- that I wanted just to end on is this idea of what all this means for artistic output and artistic practice today in China. And one thing that is hard to dispute is that the increasing centrality of China's place in this conversation has actually allowed a certain discursive freedom to its artists to make art that actually has nothing to do with the question of China or the questions of China, and that's what these images by the artist [INAUDIBLE], in an exhibition simply titled "Colors"-- there are actually not that many colors in the exhibition-- which we mounted last year, 2015, bringing us to the bracketing date in our space-- gets to. And this is simply this idea of what is contemporary Chinese art? Or what must we imagine it to be, and how might it respond to that imagination and those expectations?
And for me, this kind of forest of a field of sculptures made from mirrors that are part of construction materials, and if you look very, very closely, have, sort of, markings that might identify them as coming from the industrial outskirts of Beijing, but you'd have to really be looking quite closely. And canvas stretched over, kind of empty, geometric forms-- [INAUDIBLE], of course, being a major key figure in this "Post-Sense Sensibility" generation just discussed, but in a much more convincing way, I think, also a model for this "ON OFF" generation that follows-- enjoys this freedom that I think Chinese artists throughout these 30 years were aspiring to, which is simply the freedom to make art and to show it, and to have it discussed in a whole range of different possible terms, of which the ones that I've just taken us through are simply one set among, hopefully, very, very many others. So that's where I'll conclude. Thank you very much.
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Philip Tinari, Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, China, highlights three watershed moments in the development of the contemporary art scene in China. Co-sponsored by the Johnson Museum of Art and the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies. Recorded April 25, 2016 as part of the East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative Lecture Series.