Published  27/10/2017

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

The curatorial mission, to showcase the influence on artists and their practice of two distinct moments of political impact – the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the failed promise of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – upends our understanding of the modern Chinese aesthetic

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York
6 October 2017 – 7 January 2018


The break was defining and sudden. In 1988, a China that had been opening to reform allowed veteran artist Wang Guangyi to depict Chairman Mao behind bars. Two months into 1989, Beijing’s National Art Museum of China mounted the China/Avant Garde Exhibition to parade its officially liberated visual art. Four months later, the Tiananmen Square massacre forced free expression underground or into exile, where an intrepid group of artists recalibrated methodologies to challenge a newly repressive regime’s abusive behaviour. Magiciens de la Terre, at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, had introduced China’s provocateur practice to the west with just three of them (Gu Dexin, Huang Yong Ping and Yang Jiechang) – all showing here. Far too few, as it turned out, since the nascent protest was outshone by easier-to-love riffs on local bop and western pop – those colourful be-aware-or-be-square paintings collected and promoted by David Tang at his China Club in Hong Kong, which first came, as they infiltrated collections abroad, to represent China now. Even as the mainland’s tightening control triggered stronger work, those large vibrant canvases – more accessible, more saleable – still constituted for the west the contemporary aesthetic.

Wang Xingwei. New Beijing, 2001. Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong, By donation. Photograph: courtesy M+, Hong Kong.

Until now. Bypassing the auction-driven celebrity art stocking the vanity museums in favour of lesser-known conceptual and experimental work, this exhibition has the fresh feel of an eye-opener. Spiking attendance, it arrived with the baggage of brouhaha. After showing in Dubai, three works involving live animals triggered a frisson that rippled across the Atlantic to unleash a force field of anger threatening chaos and worse. A video of tattooed pigs copulating? Another pitting chained dogs against each other until close to collapse? A doomsday vivarium that releases reptiles, insects and crawlies to devour each other to extinction? Protest built to a level that led the Guggenheim Museum’s director Richard Armstrong to pull all three works before opening. That the extent of public outrage was underestimated reveals how inured the art world inner sanctum has become to humanity’s threshold of decency. That the venerable New York Times called the Guggenheim “badly mistaken” for its “self-censoring” decision shows how far free expression has derailed to confound censorship with respect. Referencing as backup the Brooklyn Museum’s past refusal to pull The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a work by British painter Chris Ofili involving elephant dung – a case of apples and oranges on a 10-to-one scale – only made the paper of record look fatuous. Wiser the position that prevailed in my small in situ survey: although the Guggenheim should have thought better of including material that presents abused animals as an art form, the ensuing public outcry, climbing to threats against staff, viewers, installations and the building itself, justified a change, both of heart and of mind.

Huang Yong Ping’s excoriated vivarium, Theater of the World. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Emptied of life, Huang Yong Ping’s excoriated vivarium [Theater of the World] holds court here (it supplies the show’s subtitle after all) as a far stronger metaphor. And you won’t miss the others. There are almost 300 other works here by 71 artists, and the presentation is stunning. In no particular order, although the stated brief posits an evolution of sorts between two distinct events, the elaborately detailed schemes pitting art’s resources against tyranny play out freely across the walls and floors of a normally intransigent space.

Seemingly organised according to which space best fits which work, the resulting presentation is less scholarly than revelatory. Wondrous the metaphor for cultural wipeout extracted by the same Huang Yong Ping from a glop of paper that had held the history of Chinese painting until run through a washing machine (The History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987/1993).


Huang Yong Ping, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Chilling to segue from actual drawers displaying didactic pamphlets to Jiang Zhi’s visceral print of a drawer containing the owner’s severed limb (Objects in Drawer,1997). Gripping to move between master calligrapher Qiu Zhijie’s magnified Map of the Theater of the World (2017), a tour de force manipulation of China’s geography to parody power game strategies, and his single sheet of paper inked over for a year with the same ancient text to produce an indecipherable monochrome.

Jiang Zhi. Object in Drawer, 1997. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Qiu Zhijie. Map of Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, 2017 (detail). Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Painting, though not the dominant medium here, is forcefully represented. The versatile portraitist Zhang Xiaogang borrows from photographs and western symbolism to mark citizens betrayed. The academically trained Zhao Bandi, although best known as “the Pandaman”, here tilts realism – his canvas literally askew – to portray the spent illusion of a white-collar life.

Zhao Bandi. Young Zhang, 1992. Oil on canvas, 214 x 140 cm. Installation view. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Liu Xiaodong’s mastery of perspective imbues a seemingly too-literal message painting, Burning A Rat (1998), with spine-tingling foreboding, and escalates conscript despair through serial portraits of soldiers – they’re so young! – from his 18-panel Battlefield Realism (2004). Shen Yuan has such a way with the brush that her delicate watercolours hold more weight than the video interviews they support. And happy the mark-making technique of Yu Youhan and Ding Yi, abstract artists who use astute interventions of shading and colour to give charted statistics eye-popping effects. Factor in an extra 10 minutes to fully navigate Splendor of Heaven and Earth (1994-5) – Liu Dan’s spectacular reimaging of the landscape painting undertaken by the most accomplished of the imperial court painters and indeed the emperors themselves – it will take your breath away. And that inkwork! One of those Pompidou “magiciens”, Yang Jiechang yanks calligraphy from the confines of a scroll to a gestural majesty that envelopes a whole wall in the Tiananmen bloodbath.

Qiu Zhijie. The Present Continuous Tense, 1996 (reconstructed 2017). Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Interactive material is scarce (just here? or does it not speak to the Chinese soul?) but compelling; I had to line up to play Cao Fei’s move-the girl-through a never-ending fairytale videogame, and a small crowd formed in front of Qiu Zhijie’s The Present Continuous Tense (1996), two gaudy funerary wreaths projecting the cheery smile of sunflowers to draw visitors in to a hidden camera loop that captures them unwittingly looking upon their own death.

Video work is plentiful and accomplished; making full use of the space, curatorial ingenuity suspends, floats, anchors and bunches it. Most instructive for the west, almost none involve algorithms. And only one is digital – Cao Fei’s masterful RMB City (launched in 2008, it’s a virtual city she created in online game Second Life), designed by her avatar China Tracy to project a futuristic, rich-is-glorious, megalopolis that will rise on razed housing to profile China’s next Olympics. Like weather – notoriously hard to convey in a video game – in a world of real consequences, the climate of oppression relies on reportage. How it is relayed is the art. Building to terror, the eponymous video, Kanxuan! Ai! (1999) follows the young artist fleeing an unspecified demon. Chen Chieh-jen’s magnified shades-of-grey study of a clothing factory tracks the quiet despair of life tied to a sewing machine.

Most here are veterans.

Zhang Peili. Uncertain Pleasure ll, 1996. Six-channel, 12-part stream. Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017—January 7, 2018. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Held to be China’s video pioneer, Zhang Peili’s Uncertain Pleasure ll (1996) works the small screen into metaphors for anxiety with a six-channel, 12-part stream that magnifies hands scratching various body parts raw. Zhao Gang’s insightful The Harlem School of Socialist Realism Study (2002) – if you have the 46 minutes to stay with it – brings the cultural revolution to an American working-class kitchen. We identify readily with these narratives – perhaps because their makers lived abroad, often collaborating with western artists who hadn’t yet self-identified as collectives, but shared a “transexperience” of culture and a global consciousness.

Still seeking China? Individually, much of the émigré work feels appropriated – Li Yongbin’s video imposition of one face on another, Zhang Hongtu’s Berlin Wall comment, and a forged invitation to participate in an exhibition were first explored in the west. The ultimate reveal is not visual. More demanding of your time and almost impossible to digest, the defining material and real meat of the show is the straight-out conceptual work, fully conveyed here through collectives. A deadening concept when associated with socialism and group-speak, these alliances enabled Chinese dissidence to emerge from the shadows as a powerful art form that western artists are only beginning to fully mine and master. Albeit loosely affiliated, and whether for safety in numbers, affordability or to slyly invert bureaucracy’s thinking-by-camel, a majority of the artists who broke through to the big time began with, or returned to, group statement. From a western perspective, the resulting efforts are astounding but abstruse – a boon for sales of the museum catalogue that constitutes an exhibition on its own.

Conceptual work enfolds traps. Even to understand the contribution of six artists to the Happiness Pavilion project from the small rock, wood and bamboo model on show is challenging: to follow the convoluted thinking behind the large storyboards is like crawling down rabbit holes. The amount of archival material – displayed here in the pullout drawers of chests that are scattered throughout – is in itself significant but defeating. So how to absorb the internet platform Art-Ba-Ba’s 433-artist, 167-event, 10-year-long project from the documentary videos streaming on a series of tablets? What to make of the detailed 1998 proposal for The Long March Project, which enacted a curatorial experiment by founder Lu Jie and artist Qiu Zhijie involving thousands of participants, exhibitions and performances staged along the Red Army’s route to collectively “reinterpret historical consciousness and develop new creative approaches to political, social, economic and cultural realities”. Moving along to Age of Empires – Zheng Guogu’s elaborate transposition of the famed getaway of literati from a repressive imperial court to a courtyard-landscape inside a vast architectural complex that he shaped with his Yangjiang Group into an imagined paradise – well, I just gave up and enjoyed the greenery. Ai Weiwei’s wallpaper roll-out of citizens trapped in an earthquake; the myriad-artist Shanghai Contemporary Art Archive Project After 1998, and Ou Ning’s Mind Map of Bishan Commune (2017) – all elaborate subversions of numbing commercialisation, environmental degradation and aborted social activism – in turn numb the viewer. Nonetheless, such is their latent power and brilliantly curated installation that emotion builds. Deadening as life-draining opioids, even the works that span yards of walls with the obsessive statistics and directives of unbridled oppression start to work on you like the drip-drip abuses of communist rule that disregarded, disrupted, and destroyed entire communities – day after day, year after year.

Song Dong. Throwing a Stone - Documentation, 1994. Ink on stone, 15 parts. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

More moving in the end, though, are the intimate protests. Literal works addressing capture and imprisonment with chain-link fencing, plastic tanks and nailed boots fan out to the purely conceptual statements of stones that once served as building blocks now framed by Song Dong’s 1994 (Throwing a Stone – Documentation) as projectiles; Yang Fudong’s 1993 marked-up photocopies documenting with hand gestures his three weeks without speaking; Lin Yilin’s 1995 triple-entendre colour video, Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road, of a tourist photographing a worker building a wall for the state to confine him, who really might be the artist building a wall that art can dismantle; and Kwan Sheung Chi’s A Flags-Raising-Lowering Ceremony at My Home’s Clothes Drying Rack (2007), a film of a home-rigged laundry line that reels in and out the British, Hong Kong and mainland China flags that signalled handover or takeover, according to one’s citizenship.

Seen in context, even the better-known work re-engages: the titillation triggered by solo presentations of the 1995 filmed nude performance by Rong Rong and his pioneering Beijing East Village group, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, reverts here to the existential absurdity of naked artists piling on top of each other to achieve a perverted officialdom’s directive. Joined here by a drawing, a Cai Guo-Qiang gunpowder video showing one of his crowd-thrilling explosions links the ancient Chinese invention to the blowout of the 2008 Shanghai Olympics and America’s obsession with blowing stuff up. Not all are as intelligible. You’ll need to study the wall text to know that Wang Gongxin’s Sky of Brooklyn (1995) – which projects the sky of Beijing on to the Guggenheim’s floor – inverts his 1995 photograph series, Digging a Hole in Beijing – which streams a tiny video of America’s sky from a bottomless pit – so as to conflate the Chinese parable of the frog who gained world knowledge from viewing the sky, with the American metaphor of the hole dug to China (whew!)

Zhou Tiehai. There Came a Mr. Solomon to China, 1994 (detail). 230 x 350 cm. Gouache, oil stick, charcoal and paper collage on packing paper. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

Only the ubiquity of Ai Weiwei feels promotional. Not for his immersive collaborations on behalf of citizens awakened by his Johnny Appleseed sowing of disruptive ideas – all elaborately conceived and courageously realised – but for the disproportionate space given his crowd-pleasers. Ai is a conceptual artist, of course. And, yes, he was jailed. But, released through international pressure to wander the planet on silken restraints, he also functions as a semi-free-will ambassador, tolerated to badger the regime, not to topple it. Let him import 1,001 citizens to Documenta in order to document their “dream trip” – as long as he returns them. It jars that running concurrently in New York are more than 300 public-funded, site-specific and largely agitprop Ai Weiwei installations. And it vitiates the provocation of the solo work given pride of place here – Ai destroying an ancient Chinese vase – to remember that he himself was angered by a visitor to the Pérez Art Museum of Miami who held up one of his vases that was featured there and smashed it to smithereens.

Ai Weiwei. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017—January 7, 2018. Photograph: David Heald

This show is perhaps too short on shock – the tactic that so effectively served China’s guerrilla art. The animal travesties duly yanked, it might have included one of Zhang Huan’s or Xiao Lu’s provocative performances (three weeks naked in a latrine covered with flies, and shooting an exhibited sculpture with a pellet gun.) Nor is it long on humor – so prevalent in the first wave of Chinese art that had ravished the west. The crackdown was too grim and pushback too earnest. Tiananmen cut off more than “free” from the speech. Stop to study Rainbow (1988), Xu Zhen’s photograph of a torso, and you’ll flinch at the clang that accompanies it; Yang Fudong’s film of a disaffected citizen’s aimless wander through the “estranged paradise” of Hangzhou stifles all hope, and Yang Jiechang’s instructions above an urn (Testament, 1989-1991) – One Day I Die An Unnatural Death Then One Should Feed Me to a Tiger and Keep its Excrements – veers to the morbid. Even the rare bursts of levity are charged. There Came a Mr Solomon to China, Zhou Tiehai’s cheery depiction of the storied American author Andrew Solomon, touring on a gondola manned by Marco Polo, wryly links local artists’ fading hope for western recognition with the writer’s all-too-brief interlude from his noted battles with depression; and the cute plastic toys flooding in from the world’s Chinatowns that furbish Xu Tan’s object-laden Made in China manifesto (1997-98) link his nation’s new wealth to the detritus that is choking the oceans.

So much for China: What about the art? The question answered last year in contemporary Chinese art shows at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and Al Riwaq in Doha is not explicitly addressed here. Ignoring artist pushback against being labelled either “provocateur” or “auction-darling”, the curatorial focus on reactive work marginalises no-agenda creativity. No dancer, farmer-sculptor or rice-paddy painter: No matter, art is a voice that can’t be stifled, and the voices here ring loud and clear.

Given that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim is an echo chamber, the decision to confine most of the audio pieces to headphones was a wise one. Just as astute, to allow a lone, rhythmic throb to suffuse the entire exhibition – from where it emanates constitutes a finale of sorts.

Gu Dexin. Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017—January 7, 2018. Photograph: Jill Spalding.

The official finale, 2009-05-02, a frieze of 35 panels red-inked in the Communist party’s signage by Gu Dexin (held the conscience of his generation), accuses all humanity of killing children, eating hearts and beating people blind. Inadvertently coinciding with Xi Jinping’s self-congratulatory, 205-minute State of China speech to the party congress that submits – four decades after the reform era – all reform to absolute censorship, it just as inadvertently places Armstrong’s gesture on a pedestal of decency and good will.

Thankfully, what goes up must come down. The Guggenheim’s spiraling descent is pure glamour, so let the long wait for an elevator incline you to walk it and build your own finale. Gestural or minimal; isolated or grouped, written, painted, filmed or constructed, the components marking this alien culture’s individual extremes now flow together, like Chen Zhen’s (Precipitous Parturition, 1999), a 50-foot-long inner-tube dragon that connects the rotunda, into a polymath aesthetic unified by one longing, one need.

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