Visiting China's Avant-Garde

by Eleanor Heartney


As economists wring their hands over our trade imbalance with China, an art-world observer might be forgiven for adding artists to the list of items with which China seems to be flooding the Western market. Museums, galleries, collectors and art magazines can't seem to get enough of the new work pouring out of China today. Yet for many spectators, the Chinese scene remains mysterious and inaccessibly exotic.

China: Art Now, a lively and well-illustrated account of the current Chinese scene, offers to fill that gap. The book, written by French art critic and curator Michel Nuridsany and photographed by Mare Domage, presents a lengthy preface that puts the new generation of artists into an art historical and social context. The body of the book is a breezy report of the author's tour of the studios of 30 mostly quite young Chinese artists, amply illustrated by 200 color shots depicting their work, their working conditions and their daily lives.

The result is an engaging presentation that is short on analysis but long on local color. We tour the village of Yangjiang with photographer, performance artist and painter Zhen Guogu. We cruise through the charming blue-and-white brick houses surrounding the farm of the Luo Brothers, 30 miles from Beijing. We discover that artists' studios range from ultramodern to quaintly rural. Photo essays take us into trendy galleries in Beijing or pan across the skyscrapers of Shanghai. The effect of the tour is to suggest the kaleidoscopic intermingling of old and new in contemporary China, whose dizzying pace of change is one of the underlying themes of its young artists.

The preface is historically informative, suggesting the complicated relationship between art and such events as the sweeping destruction of tradition wrought by the Cultural Revolution, the subsequent introduction of capitalist ideas into China following the death of Mao, the rise of the pro-democracy movement and its harsh demolition in Tiananmen Square, and the unleashing of the intensely pro-market economy that reigns today. The preface also follows internal developments of the Chinese art world, noting how Political Pop of the 1980s gave the country its first widespread international exposure, how performance and video emerged as the noncommercial alternatives to art created for the international market, how provocation fed provocation, yielding exhibitions with names like "Art for Sale" and "Fuck Off."

Curiously, no distinction is made, either in the preface or in the body of the book, between artists like Gu Wenda and Huang Yong Ping--who left China, many in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, and took up primary residence elsewhere--and those who have stayed. Yet it is clear that the experience of "exile" has been an important shaping influence for foreign-based artists, ironically making them more obsessed with "Chineseness" than their stay-at-home counterparts.

The book also glosses a little too lightly over the dark side of Chinese capitalism, which has returned China to a resource and income imbalance greater than that which existed before the Communist revolution. Government crackdowns on unruly artists and unauthorized art shows are duly noted, but they seem more like badges of honor than brutal suppressions of the sort that have been meted out to political dissidents. And while Nuridsany describes the Tiananmen massacre as a "needless tragedy," he also notes approvingly that the "events of Tiananmen Square, rather than halting the transformation of the economy championed by Deng Xiaoping, actually set in motion a policy of developing a genuine market economy and all that that implied in terms of opening China's borders."

The big question readers will bring to this book is: what's behind the remarkable explosion of art and artists in today's PRC? China: Art Now doesn't tackle the issue head on, but it does suggest some answers. There is a lot of talk in the book about the high energy level of a country with a bursting youthful population and an addiction to change. But one is also left to speculate on the meaning of the apparent contradiction in a society that nurtures entrepreneurial artists (some, the book suggests, aspire to the status of rock stars) while maintaining lip service to the socialist ideology espoused by its leaders.

The contradiction is resolved, at least in part, by the paradox of avant-gardism. Chinese artists embrace contemporary forms like video, digital art and extreme performance art, and they often adopt rebellious personas that seem to mock the consumerist values sweeping their country. But they never go so far as to overtly criticize the government. In the end, a nagging question arises: are these artists really rebels, or are they simply savvy marketers promoting the idea of a China open to new ideas and philosophies? And is it the promise of a glimpse into a future that we may all soon be sharing which so fascinates their devotees abroad?

Eleanor Heartney is a freelance critic based in New York.