Installation Art in China

A review of Installationskunst in China. Transkulturelle Reflexionsräume einer Genealogie des Performativen (Installation Art in China. Transcultural Spaces Reflecting a Genealogy of the Performative), by Birgit Hopfener.

Installation art has been an important medium for contemporary artists in China to critically reflect upon shifting socio-political and art historical frameworks. In her dissertation, “Installationskunst in China. Transkulturelle Reflexionsräume einer Genealogie des Performativen,” Birgit Hopfener presents the first comprehensive survey describing the development of installation art in the People’s Republic of China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. In it, she not only provides insights in the socio-political contexts of installation art, but also explains how its development in China was, and partly still is, informed by intellectual discourses on “humanistic” versus post-structuralist concepts of the self. Furthermore, the dissertation examines installation art from a historical and anthropological perspective by focusing on how artists in their moving image installations critically reflect upon traditional Chinese aesthetic aspects of perception.

Since only a very few scattered overviews about this genre written in English and Chinese language existed previously, most very short, Hopfener’s dissertation addresses a long standing absence in the field while providing a rich body of intriguing case studies, historical facts, and theoretical reflections. It is the latter that makes the book not only a ground-breaking account of installation art in China, but also inspiring inform a methodological perspective, as Hopfener explores an innovative transcultural approach to the genre of installation art. The dissertation therefore appeals to area experts as well as art historians of modern and contemporary art in general while also addressing an academically interested general readership, introducing many intriguing examples of installations that are little known through Western exhibitions or existing scholarship.

Hopfener’s basic thesis is that even if art installations from around the globe share a formal resemblance, they respond to specific, often transculturally grounded conditions and socio-political, institutional, and historical relations that need to be taken into account. In this view, installation art in China is not the product of a culturally homogeneous or even closed society and neatly distinguishable national, ethnic, geographical or other boundaries, but of intensive processes of exchange and entanglement. These processes are constituted by complex worldwide circulations of artworks, art concepts and art agents that have significantly increased since the end of the Cold War. Hopfener therefore questions the dominant narrative of installation art in China as being a belated, un-critical, and total “adoption” of Western modernism. This narrative has often framed artworks from China as second-rate “copies,” rather than treating them as equally relevant and specific objects to which we should pay as much attention as to any European or American work. The author decisively unpacks essentializations of “East and West,” “Chinese versus Western art,” etc., providing the reader with complex art historiographical and theoretical interpretations of the installations while analyzing the accompanying discourse of the artists.

As Hopfener’s title conveys, she argues that installation art in China constitutes “transcultural spaces reflecting a genealogy of the performative” (p. 9). To explain this central thesis, she first discusses the Euro-American concepts of installation art as stressing theatrical qualities, which effectively question the object-centered, representational aesthetics of European and North American art and helped installation artists to critically overcome notions associated with modernist art after 1945. In contrast, Hopfener argues, Chinese installation art, which has been developing since its emergence in the mid-1980s, negotiates both a traditionally Chinese performative understanding of art and the Western representative understanding.

Shi Xinning, "Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition." Sigg Collection. Permission secured by Birgit Hopfener.

Shi Xinning, “Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition.” Sigg Collection. Permission secured by Birgit Hopfener.

Following Michel Foucault’s concept of “genealogy” – coined not as a linear understanding of historical developments that ultimately point to certain “origins” and reveals distinct “identities, ” but as a discursive approach that makes visible the breaches and discontinuities that pervade historical processes – Hopfener engages in writing a “counter-history.” Accordingly, her aim is to unmask power relations in the discourse of art and its institutions, which dominant Euro-American narratives tend to conceal. In particular, she asks how Chinese installation art reflects certain conditions and modes of subject-object relations, often marked by performativity, that play a different role in, or are entirely absent from, Western contexts.

The dissertation approaches the interrelations of installation art, transcultural spaces, and performativity in China in three chapters. The first takes a theoretical approach to installation art in China and highlights the importance of its performative qualities in transcultural negotiations of difference. The second chapter analyzes its development from cultural and art historical perspectives. The author outlines and offers an exemplary discussion of socio-political conditions, stylistic trends, connected artistic concepts, and intellectual debates as well as important exhibitions between 1979 and 2000. She focuses on performativity as a key aspect of Chinese installations that was and still is particularly informed by relational concepts of the self. The third chapter provides anthropological contextualization that centers around the notion of the image, focusing specifically on moving-image installations. It explores how specific examples of this type of installation art re-frame traditionally performative viewing experiences of the (Chinese) beholder.

The introductory chapter of the book engages with Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the “third space” as an “instance of production in time – the moment of speech – …the site of enunciation” (p. 30), which dynamically produces new meaning while negotiating cultural difference. Importantly, the “third space” constitutes not so much a physical space, but a discursive state of being “in-between.” Following such post-structural and post-colonial notions, Hopfener interprets installation art in China as constituting “third” or “hybrid” spaces. Rejecting an ontological understanding of identity that would stress cultural roots or “originality,” she suggests identification to be a continuous process of “translation” that relates and integrates various heterochronous elements. The process re-enacts and incorporates “tradition” by translating it.
Hopfener widens Bhabha’s abstract theoretical concept, which conceives of culture as “text” and consequently speaks of the subject “reading” when engaged in cultural signification. In contrast, Hopfener stresses corporeality, which exceeds the linguistic sphere of signification, as a key factor of cultural translations and negotiations. Hopfener further claims that corporeal, body-and-space related aspects of installation art are particularly important in its production and reception. Given the basic three-dimensionality and site-specificity of installations, they trigger a procedural way of perception, involving the whole body of the viewer and speaking to all senses. Hopfener finally calls installation a “meta-medium” (p. 21), i.e. a medium that, exactly because of this relational quality it enfolds, makes visible the immanent performative qualities with which it mediates its message. Discussing Xu Bing’s, “Book from the sky,” and Song Dong’s installation, “Touching my father,” among others, the author shows how Chinese installation works challenge an object-centered and dispositive rendering of meaning and constitute a dynamic signification process instead.

The second chapter examines the complex history of installation art in China. The author critically summarizes previous Chinese and English literature and crucially enlarges its limited theoretical scope. Hopfener discusses pioneering artists such as Huang Yongping, Wu Shanzhuan, and Xu Bing, artists groups such as “Xiamen Dada,” the “Pond Society,” the “grey humour” artists or “apartment art,” prominent events (the “China/Avant-garde” exhibition in 1989, the protests on Tian’anmen Square in the same year or the first international “Shanghai Biennale” in 2000) and presents ground-breaking works in chronological order, explaining their socio-political and discursive backgrounds. Hopfener highlights how influential Chinese debates on “humanism” were for most of the early installation artists: many affirmed this concept, but the most vanguard among them explicitly rejected it, opposing it with anti-ideological and deconstructive positions. The author shows how the notions of “humanism” and “alienation” were still very much resonating with a revised Marxist and partly existentialist reading (mainly referring to the writings of J. P. Sartre). Artists and art critics mostly did not speak out against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, yet fragmented references to Western writings served them well in their early idealistic claims to change society. The result of this transcultural translation was that “humanism” was idiosyncratically understood as a call for individualism, and offered a foundation for the attempt to reform the bureaucratic official art system to allow “freedom of expression” (first claimed by the artist group, “Xingxing” or, “The Stars”) and a plethora of new styles, genres (concept, installation, and performance art), and media (e. g. video art and, later, computer based artworks).

Hopfener compellingly argues that already in these formative and politicized stages of installation art in China a decentered understanding of subjectivity and the subject in art played an important role. Although the “cultural fever” soon cooled down when the idealist artists witnessed the officials’ crack-down on liberal cultural activities after the protests on Tian’anmen Square had failed, the new economic paradigm and the continuous internationalization led to an ongoing blossoming of installation art. Subjectivity still seems central to works created during the late 1990s albeit in a disillusioned and more individualistic way. Examples that Hopfener examines are the “Apartment Art,” interventions in urban and commercial spaces such as the supermarket or in private “under-ground” exhibitions. All installations in these settings show a heightened awareness of the tension between the private and the public. Some artists even engaged in it by breaking strong taboos, e.a. using material such as dead animals and human corpses for their installations.

The third chapter focuses on installations of moving images, particularly video installations, an art form that has flourished in China since the mid-1990s. Hopfener observes that these works are characterized by aspects of “touch” or “contact” (Berührung) and “animation” (Verlebendigung, in the sense of “to animate” or “to enliven”). She suggests that video art re-negotiates premodern Chinese aspects of perception, since ancient perception was crucially based on relational and performative aspects of subjects and objects. The author very plausibly summarizes how premodern art in China was premised on a responsive understanding of the world (ying wu) and favored an experience-based relation to the cosmos, which was thought to be continuously generated by objects and subjects interacting and participating in the coming into being of the world. Hopfener describes this understanding as a stark contrast to the rational Cartesian subject-object-dichotomy, which became central for the Western modernist understanding of art. This understanding still dominates the (unconscious) disciplinary and methodological outlook of art history and often leads to problems when non-European art is exclusively considered in this perspective. Precisely because of this burdened historiographical condition, Hopfener’s illumination of how Chinese moving image installations negotiate and creatively translate earlier aesthetic “traditions” is a valuable contribution to art history in the latest wave of globalization.

Based on compelling literature treating earlier Chinese aesthetics, which is far too seldom quoted by authors writing on contemporary art in China, Hopfener uses her knowledge as both a trained sinologist and an art historian to problematize superficial takes on installation art in China. Her account debunks both readings of Chinese installation art as merely following Western art concepts and essentializing, even nationalist claims for its pure “Chineseness.” As Hopfener makes clear, while in Europe art was supposed to re-present the world since at least the Renaissance, in China traditional aesthetics viewed art as a process to actively be present in the world, dynamically relate to it, and participate in its ongoing making. She concludes “Art [in premodern China] was therefore not [a distanced] object of perception and [rational] knowledge formation, but a space in which the relation of man to the world and to other men is performatively negotiated” (p. 255). Instead of representation, lived, dynamically experienced embodiment was central to traditional Chinese aesthetics. To perceive a work of art required the work to be a medium rather than an object, and art to be the event in which the ever changing process of life is realized – or better – up-dated.

It is fascinating to see how the moving image installations of contemporary artists like Li Yongbin, Wang Gongxin, Zhang Peili, Qiu Anxiong, Kan Xuan or Liu Ding gain a whole dimension of hitherto hidden meaning when we follow Hopfener’s sophisticated approach and interpret them as “transcultural spaces reflecting a genealogy of the performative.” It is the great achievement of this dissertation to have opened-up a methodological approach that critically explores earlier (European and American) readings of these works by providing an interpretation that also allows premodern Chinese aesthetic concerns and their contemporary translations to enter the picture. The dissertation is not only an encouraging example for the rather recent field of transcultural studies of art in the era of globalization, but rightly calls into question the all too well-established national demarcations of art history as a discipline.

Franziska Koch
Assistant Professor of Global Art History
Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”
Heidelberg University
koch@asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/en/people/person/persdetail/koch.html

Primary Sources

Exhibition catalogues of contemporary installation artists such as Li Yongbin, Wang Gongxin, Zhang Peili, Qiu Anxiong, Kan Xuan, Liu Ding and Xu Bing.
Writings and visual archival documents about contemporary Chinese art provided by the Asia Art Archive Hong Kong (http://www.aaa.org.hk/) and libraries focused on East Asian art.

Dissertation Information

Freie Universität Berlin. 2011. 325 pp. Dissertation originally written in German. Primary Advisor: Jeong-hee Lee-Kalisch.

Published in Germany as: Birgit Hopfener, Installationskunst in China. Transkulturelle Reflexionsräume einer Genealogie des Performativen, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2013, 325 pp., ISBN: 978-3-8376-2201-0.

Image: Shi Xinning, “Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition.” Sigg Collection. Permission secured by Birgit Hopfener.

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