Over the course of the twenty and twenty-first century thus far China’s politics, economy, society, and culture has transformed dramatically. China has dismantled rigid barriers that previously antagonized foreign trade, shifted from a system of Monarchy to the People’s Republic of China, survived the violent demolition of culture instigated by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and allowed a distinct, ever-branching urban landscape to rapidly surface. Old tradition and heritage is vigorously collapsing into a complex web of emerging and everchanging mass culture. City centers, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong have ripened into China’s pride and glory practically overnight. They have become places to advertise to the global world that the country has conquered and buried its historical wounds and accordingly embraced a culture of consumer-driven consumption. Chinese culture at large is a mere echo of these dramatic political, economic, and societal changes; it is a reflection of everything that occurs between the frameworks of the country’s strengths and limitations. When perceiving cultural re-creations, such as visual art, literature, film, music, fashion, and media constructions, one is simultaneously witnessing and coming to grips with the pain, pleasure, and personal narrative of China and the individual people that reside within its tangled landscape. Contemporary art is merely one form of cultural exploration and elaboration, but it is an incredibly rich and critical one. One can observe the means that Chinese creators and intellectuals experience and react to past and present change in terms of the ways that humans engage with one another and the types of lifestyles that Chinese inhabitants lead. However, before one can jump into the topic of Chinese contemporary art, it is essential to reflect upon and articulate a broad definition of contemporary art, and what it means within the context of post modernity.
Just what is Contemporary Art? Contemporary art is a sliver of many distant and unique environments. It tracks the up rise of widespread consumer culture, and also the personal variation that never fails to step out of this Adornian culture industry of sorts. Art conveys this world’s many personalities, and the fragility of the human condition within the definitive blankets of history, society, and culture. A mere two hundred years ago the definition of “art” was understood in an entirely different fashion. Artists were not considered intelligent human beings, but mere craftsman that created visual communication for the sake of ritualistic, religious, and ceremonial purposes. Only in the age of modernity has art rejected its utilitarian function, and transformed itself into a self-referential product that expresses the philosophy, as the French say, “ l’art pour l’art ”, or “art for art’s sake”. Capitalism and the ultimate domination of western thought shook this world into a state of new being. Science (over religion), rationality (over spirituality), the industrialization, and globalization pierced through, defined, and forever altered our surrounding sphere. As a result, Modern art expanded into disparate directions, following either a utilitarian model that cried out for traditional society, or an abstract model that embraced constant innovation and
revelation. Furthermore, mass culture was either lashed against for it’s supposedly shameful and unsophisticated elements or celebrated for it’s democratic and universal appeal. The Avant-Garde was the red thread that tied together the elitist establishment of Modern art. Artists like Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, William De Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, alongside critics like Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg, defined the ideological stance of art as an entirely unique and progressive creation that supported the individual gesture of the male artist’s (often tortured) soul. World War II and the development of late Capitalism altered everything: the way that we interact with and treat public versus private space, our relations with each other inside our individual lives, the surveillance system that underhandedly monitors our thoughts and actions, and the way that we create and perceive cultural productions. High art, alongside cinema, literature, music, graphic design, and other textual forms began to mainly demonstrate an ironic, tongue-in-cheek attitude that concurrently celebrate the new, allengrossing consumer/corporate culture that had recently emerged, all while critiquing it’s deceptive and mind-numbing qualities. Art in the late modernist and eventually postmodernist period moved away from the fabricated western ideology of freedom, individuality, progress, and universality and instead borrowed from the ever-problematic climate of our times. It has become widely accepted among theorists and critics in the last thirty years that we live in a state of post-production-an environment in which the idea of a new, raw creation has been virtually extinguished in favor of the pastiche. Many artists in the contemporary art arena are intensely inspired by and thus vigorously demonstrate current theoretical perspectives. New art is often times reflective of the thought of Post-Structuralist thinkers, such as the likes of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard. Feminism, post-colonialism, Neo-Marxism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, race and ethnicity issues, alongside postmodern critical theory all motivate contemporary artistic production as well. In this ever-shrinking world, varieties of art signify vastly different styles of narratives, interests, values, and meaning. Likewise, meaning is never perceived of as inherent, stable, and centered, but as a cut-andpaste selection of the author’s and most importantly viewer’s personal experience. The spectators own gender, race, class, profession, generation, and individual knowledge constantly bleeds into the artwork and alters the author’s intentional meaning. To reiterate Roland Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. Signification is then constantly in flux and can only hold real value to individual people. In addition, the market has shifted into an intense competition of power that expresses little inclination of the actual “value” of the piece itself. Instead, the market becomes a game of politics for the incredibly rich and powerful. Art in the market has everything to do with ownership, authenticity, and author/ity. The value of the artwork depends on who constructed the artwork, who owned the artwork, who sold the artwork, and where the artwork has been exhibited and featured. Clearly then, art has no intrinsic value in itself, but is rather injected with conceptions and expectations of what art should be in light of contemporary trends and values. So, after a very brief introduction on the way that society has shaped our ideas of artistic
production over the course of the last hundred years, it is only possible that we define our current conception of contemporary art as: everything. In a day of age where universality ceasesto exist and meaning is simply pasted onto pictures and can just as easily be peeled off, art at once means nothing and has the possibility of being anything. When the spectator perceives art, it is entirely crucial to discover a sense of personal meaning within the piece. Contemporary art has a funny habit of interlacing the personal and political, the collective and individual narrative all within a dizzying amount of mixed material. At the end of the day, contemporary art has something for everybody-it’s your job to go out and find it.
What is so Unique about Chinese Contemporary Art? Given the broad definition of contemporary art as discussed, it is vital to conclude with a dialogue pertaining to the specificity of contemporary art that is created and filtered through China. The country’s artistic production does indeed exhibit western influence, just as Europe and America’s art mesh together ideas and symbols from both the east and west. However, an interesting an entirely remarkable voice trickles through the Chinese art scene: a voice that expresses the country’s past and present, truth and mythology. Shanghai and Beijing, two of the countries largest cities, are swiftly altering in front of the entire world’s eyes. Traditional streets and architecture (hutongs and siheyuan respectively) are being demolished in favor of technologically advanced highways and futuristic skyscrapers. Western fast-food chains, brands, and commodities are constantly discovering new locations and customers within the cities frameworks. As the old ferociously merges into the new, contemporary artists mourn for the loss of authentic culture while often promoting the spectacle of consumption. Artists like Nedko Solakov grieve over the disappearance of hope that complemented Socialism and the impossible promise of democratic freedom. Other artists like Liu Xiaodong elaborate upon the personal loss that is a result of recent political and economic change. Chinese contemporary art is a fusion of corporate logos, western stylistic forms and symbols, media and government propaganda, and traditional craft. Divergent elements of culture are spliced together to create a layered composition of contemporary Chinese consciousness. In institutionalized art, China’s personal beauty and demons are revealed, the reality of over a billions people’s homeland is unmasked. China remains so unique because it is a country with a profound traditional heritage and history that is in the midst of great modification and struggle between eastern and western influence, Communism, and Capitalism. So, while Chinese contemporary art imparts common traits with the rest of the developed world’s art, it also remains entirely close and personal to China.