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Letter From BEIJING

Dragon Eats Tail
China’s Post-Olympic Art Conundrum

A maximum-strength firefighter’s hose spews voluminous blasts of water, uncoiling and smacking against the insides of a sealed room. The hose, powered by a hydraulic pump and suspended from a thin ceiling cable, obliterates the view from the special double-paned observation windows with a whacking, cascading torrent. Once the expulsion peters out, the hose collapses into an impotent, somnambulant heap. Freedom by artist couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at the Tang Gallery in Beijing is a frightening, lugubrious work and a metaphor for China’s post-Olympic art world. Like a dragon consuming its own tail, whether from hunger for change or hybrid neurosis, the current scenario is vastly different from the previous years’ frothy fervor.

Du Yi “Open” art installation, June 21, 2009, Beijing, China. Photo by Ellen Pearlman
Du Yi “Open” art installation, June 21, 2009, Beijing, China. Photo by Ellen Pearlman

Despite all the hoopla, China is still a highly controlled society. Information is parsed out according to a patchwork of Federal, State, and local agencies, especially with regard to the Internet. Censorship is constant and random, and files are kept on everyone. Market forces, operating without the noncommercial ballast provided by foundations, state funding, private philanthropy or university galleries, triumph in sometimes sickening ways. Artists outside the official system can produce, exhibit, and sell their work abroad, but if they want to make art as well as work inside an institution, they have to be much more careful about their content. If they hold key positions in areas such as education or state museums, they are monitored and subjected to

weekly political education meetings. Plum assignments are given only to those who are approved by the Communist Party apparatus (although this is not to imply their art is second-rate). One teacher at the most famous film institute in China confided to me, “We don’t tell Westerners about this, we are too ashamed.” A very famous curator who holds two foreign passports pulled me aside and counseled “Whatever you do, and I say this to you as a good friend, never, ever criticize the government.” The only artist who seems to get away with sticking his finger up the authorities’ nose is Ai Wei Wei, who is too famous to fail and such an international bad boy that all they can do is disable his blog.

Chinese authorities are pitting their country directly against the West in a race to become number one in aerospace, finance, and ownership of essential natural resources. But when it comes to becoming number one in the creative industries, things get sticky because monitoring quells innovation. There are directives written in China’s official “Blue Book” to pour millions and millions of renminbi into creative industries, especially “creative thought”. Schools are investing heavily in up-to-date computers and related infrastructure, but many art department heads have commiserated with me over cups of coffee and tea that they don’t know how to get their students to come up with original ideas. Mandated to build 1000 museums over the next ten years, these buildings spring up like dandelions with extravagant opening ceremonies and lots of officials cutting ribbons. After the first show the building lies fallow, staffed with security guards, janitors, and receptionists. There is no money for curators, exhibitions, administrators, storage, shipping or any other essential content-generating operation. Within a year it usually closes. These two poles—party control versus creative industries—are headed towards a stalemate.

The ennui/malaise of the I-don’t-give-a-shit-about-anything group of younger artists from second-and third-tier industrial cities like Wuhan, Chendu, Hangzhou, and Sichuan is gaining momentum. These children of the 1980s have watched the art market soar, then crash. They make work about boredom and hopelessness. WAZA, a group of four filmmakers from Wuhan, (known to as the “furnace of China” because of its intense summer heat) has teamed up with ChART Contemporary, run by New York ex-pat sisters Megan and K.C. Connolly, and staged a hit-and-run installation in an abandoned apartment for just four hours. Projecting vacuous images onto bathtubs, ceilings, floors and inside closets, their films have a tinge of late California conceptualism without its cheery veneer. ChART Contemporary also presented “Open” with Du Yi, another young artist from Wuhan who made a site-specific installation from the remains of a peasant home demolished to make room for monolithic apartments blocks. The wrecked home became a simulated underwater environment for sea creatures descending into obscurity. Red Gate Gallery’s solo exhibit of the artist Xie Guoping from earthquake-ravaged Sichuan combines a slacker’s view of earthquake devastation with Ben Day dots and Pointillism. There are also alternative spaces popping up all over the country, like the Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA) started by Yam Lau and Michael Yuen. They load an art installation or video on a donkey’s back as he meanders through alleyways, hearkening back to the days of the itinerant peddler.


The Harvard-trained art historian and critic Gao Ming Lu has a forthcoming book from MIT Press on Yi Pai that aims to distinguish contemporary Chinese art from Western Modernism and Japanese Monoha. Yi Pai, derived from Li, Shi, and Xing, or “principle, concept, and likeness” from the 9th century Tang Dynasty, is a continuum from the ancient period of synthesis using a methodological perspective of yizai yanwai or “meaning beyond language.” Ming Lu is the curator of the breakaway “No U Turn” China/Avant-Garde show that launched the Chinese avant-garde in 1989. Yi Pai was hotly discussed this spring at the first conference on Chinese Contemporary Art Criticism and Art Theory at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the top art school in the country. Western critics Hal Foster of Princeton University/October Magazine, James Elkins, who developed the notion of Visual Studies, Hans Belting, who penned “The End of the History of Art?,” and Brita Erickson, one of the foremost scholars on contemporary Chinese art, all participated. It became clear at the conference that most Chinese have no idea of the criticisms the West levels at them, mainly that their work is derivative or lacks innovation, and that their images of Mao and Communist symbols are nothing more than cash cows. One Chinese professor was so incensed by this idea he stood up and yelled how Mao rescued his family from a lifetime of poverty and he would never slander the great leader’s memory. He was then ferociously criticized by most Chinese conference participants as sounding like a Cultural Revolutionary, laying bare old scars hidden beneath the surface.

Gao Ming Lu believes Western artists decode all phenomena in order to find accuracy, while Chinese artists look at the inherent integrity of a work. He critiques Western theories of classicism, modernism and postmodernism. Western representation, he posits, regards art as a substitute for human reality and therefore it is inherently fragmented. This Western flaw is the foundation for realism, conceptual art and abstract art. Chinese art of the last hundred years, however, embraces representation, Marxism and modernism.

Many Chinese artists I spoke to think Gao Ming Lu is old hat and irrelevant to today’s art world. Scholars outside of the mainland are going to investigate his theories quite seriously. The Chinese authorities will clamor for it because it fits into their hyper-nationalistic agenda.

What then, is the real party line here? China is definitely not the one-party harmonious society it pretends to be.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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