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YINGMEI DUAN, Happy Yingmei (2011,2012) Photo Linda Nylind



Art of Change: New Directions from China 

Hayward Gallery, London


By Anna Leung

That direction and dissent play a prominent role in this exhibition should not come as a surprise given the meteoric and dramatic pace of change, on all levels, that is overtaking China. However, appending ‘New Directions’ to ‘Art of Change’ seems somewhat of a misnomer since there is absolutely no unanimity about what direction/s such a transformation should take. At first sight the title, and by extension the exhibition, seem to refer to a modernist/post-modernist discourse and its relation to an absence of or adherence to tradition, a position which in itself reflects a Euro-ethnic influence. But the situation is far more complex due to the legacy of the Cultural Revolution which over a ten year period of repression precipitated a complete caesura with the past, leaving the next generation of young artists groping in the dark unable to make contact with past traditions or with what was happening in the West. Since 1978 and Deng Xiaoping’s policies of reform that encouraged a flow of ideas from the West there had been a radical rethinking of modern art practices and an attempt to create a three way relationship between western post modernism, globalism and a Chinese tradition.  But the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres brought with it another clamp down that resulted in much innovative or experimental art that may well have been interpreted as a critique of the totalitarian state, being banned or facing severe restrictions. As a result ‘xingwei-zhuanzhi’ i.e. performance and installation art practices that had no stylistic components and could, if necessary, be rapidly dismantled have gained ground in an art market which, while being one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the world, lacks critics and the backing of established art practices. Added to this is the impact of the post modernist critique of originality which justified the notion of the scavenger artist rearranging prefabricated ideas, images and ready made objects which became main stream in the West from the end of the 80’s at the very moment when the art from marginalised cultures, including China, began to gain international recognition. All this makes for problems especially for us in the West but probably also for the Chinese in judging or evaluating this body of work.

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WANG JIANWEI, Surplus Value (2010) Photo Linda Nylind

One way to overcome these problems is through context and the Hayward Gallery has attempted to make good this lack by providing an interactive archive relating the various art practices to the nexus of socio-political events that gave rise to them. However comprehensive this may be it takes time and attention to follow through. Moreover it seems at variance with the spontaneity and immediacy that characterise most of the art work. Another approach in an attempt to understand what motivates contemporary Chinese artists is to look to their traditions and Chinese belief systems and to ask whether they remain relevant. Taoism with its emphasis on change and continual flux immediately comes to mind as to a lesser extent does Chan Buddhism. Fundamental to Taoist teachings are the observation of nature’s cyclic patterns and the interaction of yin and yang as polar opposites within the undifferentiated Tao, the source of all being. Such ideas remain operative though not necessarily explicitly so in this exhibition. However a polarisation of sorts is characteristic of the exhibition as a whole with art works oscillating between a kind of sweetness and a poetics of purity that involves a search for harmony as opposed to others that exploit brutality, calculated disturbance and the use of extreme shock. Nine artists have been chosen to represent the new directions within Chinese art. Their work covers a period of thirty years and explores the central idea of impermanence and change. 

Liang Shaoji is the oldest within this grouping. Born in 1945 he is the closest to his Chinese roots. Exiled to the countryside during Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) he eventually graduated in textiles and worked as a designer during the Cultural Revolution but was prevented from setting up as an independent artist till he was in his forties. Central to his art practice is the notion of metamorphosis symbolised by the different stages of the silk worm’s life cycle. At the centre of his Nature Series is a darkened room that houses cohorts of silkworms munching their way through mulberry leaves which we can hear through the headphones provided. Liang Shaoji suggests that listening to the silkworms is an experience akin to listening to zen. It is also a very Taoist response for a Taoist elects to live in accord with nature, contemplating nature’s ways and letting things be by respecting the concept of Wu Wei, i.e. only doing what is needed and no more. Liang Shaoji’s living sculptures embody this attitude as his basic structures made up of lattice casement windows, wire cots and heavy metal chains are very gradually transformed, not through his efforts, but naturally through the silkworms’ life work into something mysterious and poetic which the artist hopes will foster our sense of inner peace. 

Happy Yingmei is a performance that suffuses a tender almost fairytale sweetness and is loosely based on the Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Happy Prince’. To reach this installation and performance we have to crawl through a small opening that leads to a dimly lit space suggestive of a forest glade. The German based artist Yingmei Shaoji who studied with Marina Abramovic crouches at the back softly singing to herself. Eventually she approaches her visitors and then with a smile hands out folded instructions to them some of which are doable within the context of the exhibition, others not. More socially inclined works by the same artist include Sleeping, In Between and Patience, all of which are concerned with the way the mind can break free of our material conditions.

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CHEN ZHEN, Purification Room (2000-2012) ©The Artist 2012. Photo: Linda Nylind.

Chen Zhen who was born in 1958 took as his main concern the interrelation between the mind and body. Having been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune blood disorder and told he had only a few years to live he decided to immigrate to France but before doing so spent six months at a Tibetan Buddhist temple.  He was trained as a painter but on reaching Europe came under the influence of Joseph Beuys and began to make mixed media installations. Believing also in using art for therapeutic purposes, his main concern was to explore the path of Buddhist spirituality, find common ground between East and West and achieve harmony through difference using medicine and the human body as metaphors on one hand and his Chinese roots and western aesthetics on the other. In his main contribution to this exhibition, Purification Room (2000/2012) natural material, in this case mud, is used to purify and unify isolated throw away objects that exemplify our consumer culture. Chen Zhen died in 2000 having achieved international recognition.

At the other end of the scale is the collaboration between Sun Yuan and Peng Yu whose Old People’s Home featured in the first exhibition of Chinese contemporary art at the new Saatchi Gallery in 2008. Notorious for the brutality of their vision – in 2001 the Chinese Department of Cultural Affairs prohibited their performances that were deemed bloody, obscene and violent - it can be argued, by way of a defence, that their provocative performances and videos which use extremes of violence to confront the violence endemic in society are intended to act homoeopathically, like with like, and awaken the public to the dehumanising effects of the state system and its links with capitalism and globalisation.  Their work often seems plain nasty and not thereby necessarily ethically redeemable. However, using body parts from mortuaries, live animals and the animal carcasses they have as their aim to force us to reconsider our place in a material world and consider our parity with animals – are we that much different or necessarily superior?. Live animals are often used as art material, e.g. the video Dogs that cannot Touch Each Other 2003 which feature pit ball terriers that, facing each other on treadmills, run non stop - though not without statutory breaks - without ever getting any nearer to their rival, whereas in Safe Island it is the humans in their enclosure who are stalked by the tiger prowling outside. Add to that their Civilisation Pillar 2001 made up of fat siphoned from cosmetic liposuction surgery designed to make us ponder on the depths of human vanity.  

Xu Zhen is the youngest of this group of artists. His video The Starving of Sudan 2008 considers the degree of culpability involved in creating newsworthy footage. Xu Zhen’s intention is to force the viewer to reflect on the type of ethical dilemma that routinely faces a camera man in a war zone or famine stricken country such as Sudan. But with the dying African child replaced by a chubby toddler in nappies who is repeatedly coaxed by his or her mother to take on the stance of the original child and the vulture being a stuffed vulture I think this exercise, however worthy its aim, fails to convince. Xu Zhen is also responsible for Just a Blink of an Eye that features what seems to be an impossible real life falling figure, said by some critics to have a political agenda, and Untitled the remotely controlled fitness machines at the entrance of the exhibition that has definite ironic undertones.  In 2009 taking on a de-authoring stance he morphed into MadeIn a creative corporation that has as it main target the foibles of the art market and the commodification of art that has so dramatically overtaken the Chinese art world these last few years.

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LIANG SHAOJI, Nature Series, Hayward Gallery

Ai We Wei is notable for his absence from this exhibition but has been extremely critical of it. Writing in the Guardian newspaper he compared the exhibition to a Chinese restaurant that ‘sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork’ adding that ‘people will eat it and say how it is Chinese but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.’  While not directly attacking any of the nine artists Ai Wei Wei condemns the exhibition ‘as part of a propagandist cultural exchange’ whose only purpose is ‘to charm viewers with its ambiguity.’ To his mind it fails because it failed to address ‘a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues.’ Is Ai Wei Wei suggesting that these artists, by not creating explicitly political art, are complicit with the state’s suppression of freedom of expression and consequently, even if indirectly, endorsing rather than subverting the Chinese status quo as he does? 

Ai Wei Wei’s argument is based on his belief that self expression and the imagination cannot exist in an authoritarian state. This is on the whole true though through out history many artists have circumvented censorship one way or another. However, his definition of self expression is not co-equal to ours in the West; this is where direction comes in. His prioritises political activism and explicitly blurs the boundaries between art and politics. Its back ground is the stamping out of all critical cultural activities under Mao. Historically ours is based on the modernist notion of autonomy - art asserting its independence from the rest of society and thereby uncoupling itself from ethical and social issues while at the same time championing the artist’s right to self expression. The other side of this coin is the degree of alienation to which this formalist stance has given rise. In the West belief in the autonomy of the art world persisted till the late seventies and a major part of post-modernism’s challenge was to re-engage with social issues by re-inserting art into the cultural and ethical fabric of society. It was at this point that the Chinese state began to encourage a dialogue with ideas from the so-called democratic free market of the West. In fact Installation and Performance art are part of an alternative tradition that since Dada’s anti-art antics has attempted to break down the boundaries between art and life. To this tradition belong Surrealism, Conceptual Art, Fluxus and Beuys, happenings and ready mades etc. Quite a number of the artists represented in this exhibition have been influenced by these attempts to reunite art with its everyday culture including those whose critique of society is not sufficiently overt to find favour with Ai Wei Wei. This does not mean their contributions are apolitical.

The exhibition includes explicitly and implicitly political art, the former radically questioning the system, the latter concentrating on abstract concepts of harmony and beauty and communicating the possibility of a more therapeutic perspective on life.  Both in effect have an adversarial relation to society that is part of art’s modernist heritage. Whether we view the work on display as defined by a certain Chinese-ness and whether this helps us to come to a judgement of sorts is possibly of more interest than the dearth of direction that most critics have underscored in their attempts to come to terms with an exhibition that lacks familiar sign posts.  

© Anna Leung December 2012 

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WANG JIANWEI, Making do with Fakes (2011)


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Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

Art of Change: New Directions from China was shown at the Hayward Gallery in London from 7 September 2012 - 9 December 2012.