A review of Responding to the World: Contemporary Chinese Art, Exhibitions, and Criticism in the 1990s, by Peggy Wang.
Peggy Wang’s dissertation, which addresses the production and interpretation of contemporary art within China during the 1990s, is conceptualized within a meaningful framework: how different sectors of the Chinese art world responded to new opportunities and pressures coming from the world (more accurately the Western-dominated international art world) against the backdrop of globalization. Indeed, responding to the world was definitely a major driving force of so many economic and cultural initiatives of the decade that aimed at integrating China into international communities and making China’s voice heard. In the art world, the 1990s was the beginning of an era when frequent and direct contact with the Western art world became available, mainly through participation in international exhibitions, which brought up significant changes in the thoughts and actions of many Chinese art professionals. This was the context against which contemporary Chinese art entered into a status of self-awareness in terms of shaping its own discourse and redefining its relationship with society at large. Wang’s study highlights various approaches adopted by Chinese art professionals who charged themselves with the enormous responsibilities of opening new territory in art making, art criticism, art exhibitions, and in the art market as well as in redefining art at epistemological levels. Relying heavily upon primary resources, often accounts from the primary participants, Wang discusses and contextualizes a wide range of extraordinary creative energies and innovations among art communities in pushing the boundaries of Chinese art, formulating new artistic standards, and creating relevant theoretical and institutional frameworks for the practice of new mediums, forms, and styles. Their disparate efforts, as we can now see looking back from 2013, have orchestrated unprecedented transformations in the field of contemporary Chinese art and resulted in a very dynamic artistic landscape.
Identifying the emergence of a global exhibition culture and the rise of contemporary Chinese art via international exhibitions as two significant phenomena that fundamentally shaped new discourses of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s, Wang approaches her subject matter in relation to these two phenomena in four interrelated chapters. In each chronologically-organized chapter, she focuses on a specific debate and looks at a different set of issues and problems, and more importantly, a number of individual Chinese art professionals who were motivated by varying intellectual perspectives and practical agendas when they adopted specific strategies in “responding to the world.” Each chapter is supplemented by two case studies that provide a close reading and analysis of artists and exhibitions in relation to topics at stake in the chapter.
Chapter 1 begins by recounting the domestic fanfare stirred by a large number of Chinese artists’ participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale, regarded as one of the three most important international exhibitions in the world by most Chinese art professionals. However, disappointed with the inadequate exhibition space designated by the organizers to display Chinese art works and unsatisfied with the theoretical framework that automatically positioned Chinese art as inferior to that of developed nations, many artists and curators voiced their concerns via domestic art periodicals, debating the actual meaning and practice of multiculturalism, identity politics, and globalization as seen through this renowned international art forum. Centering on various and often-bitter reflections from artists and curators who had a first-hand encounter with the Venice Biennale, Wang explores the mixed experience of exhibiting contemporary Chinese art in an international setting and examines the impact of this very experience on domestic debates concerning how to engage in dialogue with the West and how to position Chinese art within the framework of a rising international exhibition culture. In the two case studies, Wang undertakes a close examination of the work of Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang in her effort to illustrate the strong connection between Chinese artists’ interactions with the international art world and their successive artistic directions. Focusing on a number of art works produced by the two artists from the late 1980s up to 1993 (before they became iconic figures in contemporary Chinese art), she analyzes in great depth the internal logic of their continuous experiments and engages in a close reading of the visual codes employed in their work. Her reading of their art, combined with their writings, establishes the historical significance of their artistic endeavors and provides a much-needed addition to our understanding of the artistic history of these two prominent figures.
Chapter 2 centers on the rising consciousness of history making and a sense of mission in creating new value systems among the circles of domestic art critics in their response to an increasingly commercialized Chinese society in which the effect of market was increasingly felt. The practice that viewed history as a malleable object whose cause could be shaped with conscious individual and collective efforts actually continued the idealist intellectual legacy of the 1980s, a decade when major Western philosophical and aesthetic writings were translated into Chinese and widely read by Chinese artists and critics. In particular, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce’s theory on aesthetics and his famous dictum “all history is contemporary history” were enormously attractive among Chinese intellectuals. Motivated by this conviction as well as a strong sense of cultural idealism, as Wang painstakingly articulates, a lot of art critics actively engaged with the art market, perceiving it as a conduit to international recognition and the basis for formulating new standards and rules on art. In so doing, Wang convincingly argues, they were reaffirming the significance of their own position and creating a new relevance of their profession in contemporary Chinese society in general and in Chinese art history in particular. Simultaneously, the negative impact of an increasingly market-driven social mentality on artistic and intellectual autonomy was also widely discussed and cautioned against, and different strategies were invented to address the concerns or harness the power of the market for desirable outcomes. In the case studies that illustrate these competing efforts, Wang discusses in great depth the origins, processes, and outcomes of two vastly different but equally mission-driven exhibitions in 1992, the Second Documents Exhibition and the Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair (Oil Painting Section), respectively conceived and executed by two young art critics-turned organizers, Wang Lin and Lu Peng.
Chapter 3 takes the reader away from metacriticism and the cultural strategies of art critics and focuses on a number of individual artistic practices and experiments, broadly grouped under the label “Conceptual Art.” Here, Wang investigates interpretations and debates over new developments in contemporary Chinese art since the late 1980s in terms of mediums, forms, art making processes, and the epistemological understanding of art. The case studies dissect the work of some major practitioners of conceptual art, including Wang Luyan, Gu Dexin, and Chen Shaoping from the New Measurement Group who experimented with art making as the neutral outcome of collectively formulated and thus predetermined rules and conditions, and Wang Jiangwei, an artist who distinguished himself by intentionally producing unrelated artworks that rejected coherent symbols that might constitute a unique and identifiable artistic identity and resisted any fixed interpretation and defined ideology one might apply to viewing his art. In addition, Wang examines the rise of “Proposal Art,” a trend that advocated using pictorial and textual hints to instruct the audience to approach, experience, and understand art. What these artists and critics who endorsed conceptual art shared was a desire to seek alternative ways of representation so as to break free from the cultural and symbolic confinements of other well-recognized art forms such as ink painting or oil painting. The major appeal of conceptual art, Wang affirms, lay in its potential to allow its practitioners to “unfasten themselves from a culturally anchored past” (p. 178) and imagine themselves “in line with a global history that identified artists according to artistic contributions rather than cultural significance” (p. 178).
Chapter 4 again looks at the work of individual artists, this time the younger generation that emerged in the second half of the 1990s and lived in an urban environment increasingly saturated by visual markers of globalization and commercialization. Unlike their predecessors, the younger artists applied a lighthearted and pragmatic attitude toward the coming dominance of materialism in Chinese society and created parodic art that addressed the rising obsession with appearance and superficiality. Either dealing with pointed issues of particular relevance to contemporary Chinese art communities such as the authority of Western curators over Chinese artists and the desire to acquire international recognition, or topics of interest to society at large such as deportment codes and outward symbols of success, artists Shi Yong, Hong Hao, Zhou Tiehai, and Yan Lei simulated fake realities in their art and illustrated the extent to which reality could be manipulated and apprehended through visual presentation and voluntary deception. These artists, among others, had been innovative in applying artifice to their art making process, which would sometimes be seen as hoaxes as in the case of the work Invitation Letter by Hong Hao and Yan Lei in 1997. The prevalence of artistic strategies such as simulation, masquerade, self-packaging, and self-glorification revealed the thorny fact that these artists engaged with superficiality as both a means and an end. Without necessarily being critical of what they portrayed, their works actually could be seen as part of the rising urban culture that embraced artificiality and surface value, even though they also questioned what distinguished the real from the superficial in their work. As Wang concludes at the end of this chapter, “They transformed art into commodities, likened cultural exchange to sightseeing, and explored art as advertisement to demonstrate the integral role of artifice in contemporary cross-cultural communications” (p. 221).
Overall, this dissertation presents an extraordinary effort in recovering the intellectual conditions of artistic production and exhibitions, the original intentions of artists or critics, and the first-hand accounts of many active Chinese art professionals, as seen in the rich array of primary sources Wang incorporates. Rather than fitting selective phenomena into a predominantly theoretical framework, a much-exercised practice in writings on contemporary Chinese art, she endeavors to uncover the original contexts of new artistic experiments and exhibition practices and to bring to the forefront the often competing agendas and incongruent voices of their practitioners. In this manner, Wang’s dissertation joins a growing literature in English on contemporary Chinese art by art historians Wu Hung, Gao Minglu, and Thomas Berghuis which has prioritized the internal dynamism and complexity of the Chinese art world within which the meaning of contemporary Chinese art was first conceived, created and contested. In doing so, the dissertation contributes to a new paradigm for understanding the development of contemporary Chinese art on its own historical, social, and intellectual terms. Wang’s detailed accounts of a broad spectrum of artistic endeavors in the Chinese art world of the 1990s position Chinese art professionals as active agents, as opposite to mere receptors of Western trends or global fashions, who were charged with a sense of mission and were active in creating meaning and defining new discourses through appropriation, assimilation, and adaptation of artistic ideas and practices coming from abroad. As such, Wang presents a nuanced view of the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s and reveals that, contrary to the common view that the art world of the 1990s gave up intellectual idealism and was subjugated to materialism and banal reality, there was an internal link between the two decades, and though manifested in different conditions and forms, an enduring sense of cultural mission that continued to motivate art professionals.
Associate Professor of Art History
California State University Northridge
Zhongguo meishubao 28 (July 14, 1986), Zhongguo meishubao 36 (September 8, 1986), Zhongguo meishubao 35(August 29, 1988), Zhongguo meishubao 11 (March 13, 1989)
Jiangsu Huakan 4 (1986), Jiangsu Huakan 10 (1990), Jiangsu Huakan 3 (1991), Jiangsu Huakan 6 (1992), Jiangsu Huakan 12 (1992), Jiangsu Huakan 11 (1993)
Meishu 3 (1989), Meishu 10 (1989), Meishu 6 (1990)
Yishu Shichang 6 (September 1991), Yishu Shichang 7 (May 1992)
University of Chicago. 2010. 279 pp. Primary Advisor: Wu Hung.
Image: Zhang Xiaogang, “Bloodline – Big Family” (1995), oil on canvas. Jing Daily.