Chinese Contemporary Art: Import and Export Trade
Paper for Recurring Concepts in Art
Interactive Telecommunications Program
Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

Fall 2008

In the thirty years since China opened its doors in 1979, Chinese artists have exploded into the international art world with an astonishing breadth of new ideas and work. After a long period of isolation, artists were suddenly and forcefully thrown into the “modern” world, exposed to the ideas and movements of Western artists, given access to the tools and media of the digital age, and freed from the official state constraints on artistic style (there was much less freedom allowed in terms of content). At the same time, Chinese society underwent radical changes – new economic freedoms, a weakening of the social contract, and a mass migration, some voluntary and some forced, from the country to the cities – and China’s economy was catching up to Western modes of production, finance and technology, and integrating with the international economy through globalization. The broad scope and impact of these changes gave Chinese artists an unusually rich set of issues to react to. The temporal disconnect between Chinese artists and Western art movements provides a unique opportunity to re-examine those movements in a different geographic, social and historical context.  What ideas did Chinese artists adopt, and how were they applied, modified and reconsidered for the rapidly evolving Chinese society? As the attention of the international art market and critics turned towards China, how did artists react, negotiating between the needs and temptations of the market, while retaining a local character and the artistic integrity of their practices?

For centuries, Chinese visual art revolved around the ink drawing and its techniques. Subjects were often landscapes, with a flattened perspective that gave equal weight to the foreground and background, and there was much less emphasis on portraiture (and the individual) than in Western art of the period. China was generally isolated from Western art until the early 20th century, based on geography more than anything else, and most Chinese artists were not exposed to, nor influenced significantly, by Western art. Referring to the 18th and 19th centuries, Qing Pan wrote:

…the early influence of Western art on Chinese artists was minimal, it was because China then felt that it could afford to disregard European culture. The turbulent political events of the twentieth century further accelerated cultural change and prompted reconsideration of fundamental artistic practices, values and beliefs. Even so, Western science, technology and other domains continued to be seen as far-away models, and the purpose of learning them was to ‘serve’ China.1

In the early 20th century, with the advent of more global travel and trade, there were the beginnings of contact, but that was generally shut down by the Communist Revolution in 1949.

In his “Talks at the Yenan Conference on Literature and Art” in May 1942, Mao Zedong set the principles for art under the Communist regime – art should serve politics: “Our aim is to ensure that revolutionary literature and art follow the correct path of development and provide better help to other revolutionary work in facilitating the overthrow of our national enemy and the accomplishment of the task of national liberation.”2 This policy existed for Mao’s entire period of rule, and was applied especially rigorously during the Cultural Revolution period. The official policy found its expression in a distinct genre known as Socialist Realism, characterized by brightly colored oil paintings, glorifying the heroes of the revolution and the bright future that it was bringing. At the Asia Society’s “Art and China’s Revolution” exhibition, there are numerous examples. A typical work, reproduced millions of times and distributed throughout the country, is Chen Yanning’s Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside.3 (fig. 1) In it, Mao is shown at the center of the painting walking along a path in a farm field, followed a crowd of adoring villagers. The scene is painted in a realistic style, but the colors and exaggerated adulation of the villagers make it feel more utopian and fantastic than real. Mao was a common subject for these paintings, and was always shown in the best possible light.  Socialist Realism was the officially endorsed art, used for propaganda and to boost support for the government’s leaders and policies, and while it diverged from traditional Chinese art by using oils and a more European, Renaissance style of perspective and representing figures, there was little experimental or avant-garde art work to compare to what was happening in the West at the time. Artists who diverged from Socialist Realism had no opportunities to show their work, and at worst, faced persecution.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution and the passing of Mao and his generation of leaders, China began opening its society to the world in 1979. This year is also considered to be the beginning of Chinese contemporary art. At first, only a trickle of Western art books and artworks made it into China – exposure was limited enough that John Clark was able to claim to document such contacts4, something that few would attempt to do for any other large country.  In February of 1979, the “Twelve-Artist” exhibition in Shanghai was the first public exhibition of modernist-style works in fifty years. What did make it into China was eagerly devoured by students at Chinese art academies. Several artists mentioned an exhibition and visit by British artists Gilbert and George as being highly influential in the artistic development in 1992, while a Robert Rauschenberg show at the China National Gallery (the most prestigious institution in the country) in Beijing in 1985 was considered to have spawned the Political Pop movement.5  Accustomed to studying masterworks of Western art merely from reproductions, these early shows had enormous influence on artists of the time.

During this period, Chinese artists were experimenting with the forms, concepts and practices they were reading about from Western art. Artist Huang Yongping spoke of this early period in his essay “Xiamen Dada – Postmodern?” in 1986:

Although it did not produce any laudable or historically memorable works—only all manners of compromises, awkwardness, and crudeness, full of traces of imitation—this was not important. What was important was that all this turned the art establishment upside down and contributed to the emergence of a new generation. This confusion, and the participation in creating it, was in itself of great value. This was obviously very “Dada,” and the time to promote the Dada spirit explicitly in China had arrived. Dada had never shown its face before, but now here it was.6

Huang was a founding member of Xiamen Dada, a group of Chinese artists that attempted to bridge concepts in Western modern art with Chinese philosophies. One piece that was clearly modeled on Dada ideas was his Four Paintings Created According to Random Instructions and Wheel (Fig. 2), in which he set up a set of instructions and used a roulette wheel to select compositional instructions and dice to select colors.7

Whereas movements in Western art closely paralleled social changes and historical events in Western countries, Chinese artists were suddenly faced with a multitude of new artistic theories, techniques, practices and mediums, and the challenge of resolving them with the long tradition of Chinese painting and three decades of the government-imposed art policy of Socialist Realism. In addition, there were decades of Mao’s rule to react to – free expression had been effectively suppressed during this time period – the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and other wrenching government policies, and of course, the rapid social and economic changes initiated by the economic liberalization under Deng Xiaopeng – industrialization, urbanization, displacement and capitalism. In the beginning, the themes of Chinese artwork were driven by reactions to the Communist era and the new possibilities that were emerging with new policies.  Painters were freed from the constraints of Socialist Realism and created works that reflected more private situations and realistic conditions, while photography was often documentary in nature. The first wave of artists to emerge from China had lived through the Cultural Revolution, and many had indeed been sent to the countryside to be retrained along with other urban Chinese. While some may have chafed under the oppression of the period, many were deeply influenced by the experience and maintained the philosophy that art should serve the interests of the masses.  In his essay for the Inside Out exhibition, curator Gao Minglu wrote:

In the eighties, artists seeking modernity undertook three major tasks. First, the avant-garde artists saw themselves as cultural pioneers whose task was to enlighten the masses, fight for social reform, and rebel against the past. Second, they criticized the previous state-dominant ideology, which had long suppressed individuality. Third, avant-garde artists made the creation of art part of a cultural enlightenment program rather than a formalist activity, a social activity rather than the representation of an illusory reality.

This period ended with the exhibition “China Avant-Garde,” at the National Gallery in Beijing in February 1989, a watershed moment for Chinese contemporary art.  This would have been the first major show of the new generation of Chinese artists, with official approval, in the most important art institution in the country, showing work that reflected these new modes of expression. However, the show was shut down after its opening when two of the artists, Xiao Lu and Tang Song, fired a gun at the show as a performance, “Two Gunshots Fired at the Installation: A Dialogue” (which they considered a “happening”) (Fig. 3), and were subsequently arrested.  It turned out that they were able to take such bold action because they were the children of high-ranking officials, and they were released after their arrest.8 Before the show, the government was wary of the new art, but beginning to give them some latitude. After that show, the Chinese government went back to strict control over the content and exhibition of art, through its main education and gallery institutions and prohibiting performance and installation art at the national galleries. A few months later, the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy took place, followed by the subsequent brutal military response and massacre.

After Tiananmen, artists needed to regroup and reconsider the relationship of art with social issues in China, and the role of the artist. With the specter of the government sanctions against critical art, most Chinese artists addressed social issues as an implicit, hidden or second meaning to the ostensible content of a piece. According to art historian Karen Smith:

To some extent, China’s avant-garde artists laid the foundations of their careers upon equivocation. It enabled them both to navigate the turbid waters at home and to build credibility abroad, encourage foreign audiences to believe the art to be more political than it actually was at times, and thereby delight in its illegality.

The constraints may have inspired artists to invent more creative forms of representation and coding of messages, by using anonymous characters, or the past, rather than anything in the present. The first groups of artists to gain prominence internationally were labeled under the terms Cynical Realism and Political Pop.  Cynical Realism combined western figurative art with the bright colors of Socialist Realism; done in an exaggerated, garish style that served as a critique of the previous era, without explicitly criticizing the government.  Fang Lijun’s early work shows outsized, bald characters painted brightly, but dislocated in front of blue skies and no other context.  The characters yawn or smile preposterously, expressing their generation’s aimless drift and lack of control over their situation in China’s changing society. Another Cynical Realist painter, Yue Minjun, was also known for characters with preposterously large, toothy smiles, emphasizing the absurdity of the image that the Chinese had to project in public to live peacefully under the authoritarian society. Political Pop borrowed from Pop Art, appropriating symbols from Cultural Revolution and other government propaganda, but stripping them of their political significance by mixing them with the newly prominent billboards and advertising that had invaded the Chinese landscape. Wang Guangyi’s work exemplifies the Political Pop style; his Great Castigation Series: Coca-Cola incorporates drawings of revolutionary figures, while putting them in a layout that appears to be advertising for Coke, and rendering the figures meaningless. The use of layers of imagery reveals the influence of Rauschenberg and his 1985 exhibition.

Meanwhile, many strove to find a way to maintain their traditional techniques, and address local issues, while integrating the new media and ideas. Unburdened by the history of Western art, Chinese artists were able to pick and choose ideas without worry about having to do them in a “new” way or in an evolutionary way.  In an interview with Fei Dawai, artist Cai Guo-Qiang stated:

When I work, I always feel as though I am swinging like a pendulum between Chinese and Western culture…Western artists also live with a similar dilemma–they must swing between formalism, conceptualism and humanism, which go across the board of their history of modern art. …we could not understand everything Western artists were doing, but we indirectly understood that “these guys” could do anything and everything – they were free. They responded to the issues of their time by very clearly distinguishing themselves from their predecessors. But we in China had not yet responded to the questions raised by our time. So there was a sense of urgency.  However, we felt we shouldn’t do as they did, but that we should resolve our problems in our own way. Of course, we could attempt to understand the process of their evolution, but the most important thing was to find a solution from within our own culture.9

Western artists are discouraged from creating work that too explicitly borrows from older movements, while Chinese artists were free to use any of the ideas from the movements of the twentieth century, mixing, adapting and revising them for their own purposes and their local and temporal contexts.

Like Duchamp and other Western artists after him, Ai Weiwei, one of the most revered Chinese artists of the contemporary era, raised the question about what is an art object, in a Chinese context, in his 1995 piece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (fig.5). In that piece, he took the urn, considered an important piece of China’s cultural heritage, and turned it to a modern conceptual piece by dropping it on the sidewalk, but documenting the action with photographs. Ai questioned the value of the artifact, noting the abundance of them, given the drastic changes happening in society around him. In destroying the urn, he devalues the past and the material object, while creating artistic value in the action and material value in the documentation.

Cai Guo-Qiang also examined the questions of art, authorship and reproduction with his installation for the 1999 Venice Biennale, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard (fig. 6), a reproduction of a famous sculptural monument from the Cultural Revolution. The original consisted of 114 sculptures depicting the exploitation of the peasants by their landlords; at the time, it was hailed as a grand monument to the struggles of the peasant class, and reproduced throughout China. Interestingly, Cai considers the piece a performance, rather than an installation, because in the creation of the work is the meaning. Cai’s reproduction, for the primarily European audience, is also a form of the readymade, but commenting on the Chinese artists’ position in the international market, by employing Chinese workers to create the copies. For whom was the art created, and by whom?

The desire to forge a Chinese identity to their art created resistance to adopting Western ideas too freely. Some artists have addressed this tension directly in their work. Huang Yong Ping’s "A History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes” (fig.7) is exactly what its title describes – the two books, after two minutes in a washing machine, reduced to a sloppy pile of wet paper, unintelligible and aesthetically worthless.10 Hong Hao’s The History of Modern Art simply consists of two editions of The History of Modern Art by H.H. Arnason, the English version and the one translated to Chinese in 1983, displayed with their pages interleaved, while Zhang Hongtu’s Repaint Chinese Shan Shui series consists of classic Chinese landscape paintings repainted in the style of Van Gogh.  In 1997, Zhan Wang created an event called New Art Training Workshop.  Participants were invited to create artworks based on his instructions, which were basically to take a plaster cast of a famous Western sculpture, and cover it, in any way the participant desired, with additional clay.  He likened this process to what was happening with art production and education in China at the time.11

Chinese institutions – museums and universities, all under the control of the central government – play a pivotal role in defining the parameters of which art is official and thus able to be presented in state-run venues. The China Art Gallery in Beijing has not exhibited performance and installation art since 198912, and many of the more conceptual artists are not given space either. In 1993, Wang Peng confronted this issue directly and bravely by contracting with local construction workers to completely brick up the entrance to the Contemporary Art Gallery, the official exhibition hall of the preparatory school of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing13, considered to be the most elite of the country’s art academies. The entrance was sealed tight, symbolizing the lack of access to the space, and by extension, the lack of artistic freedom, for artists and the public alike.

With the lack of official venues for performance and installation art, many experimental artists would stage underground performances or create site-specific artwork. This brought some artists’ practices in line with the Situationalists, though more out of necessity than philosophy. Zhang Dali, who is recognized as China’s first prominent graffiti artist, started with fairly conventional graffiti work (painting his “logo” – an outline of his profile, along with his tag, “AK-47”) throughout Beijing and China, but his work brought him into contact with the massive number of demolition sites around the country. He began to carve his logo out of the holes in the walls instead of painting (fig. 8). Zhan Wang also worked on these demolition sites – in 1994, he began “to clean and repaint some of the decorative details of a building that was in process of being razed.”14  This temporary reversal of the process of destruction highlighted the changes to the urban environment and offered a glimpse of resistance to the displacement and loss of Beijing’s architectural history.

Other art exhibitions and performances took place in artists’ and curators’ homes, the so-called Apartment Art movement, and in the artists villages that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s – some of the more well-known include the Beijing East Village, where Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan worked, and Yuanmingyuan, where Fang Lijun lived. Some of the experimental pieces that introduced Chinese experimental art to the world emerged from these colonies. In 1995, Zhang Huan and other East Village artists created To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (fig. 9) by stacking their bodies atop a nearby mountain, to illustrate the Chinese idiom, “there are always higher mountains behind a high mountain and there are always more capable people beyond a capable person.”15  There was no audience for this performance piece (aside from a surveying crew, to measure the mountain’s height) – there was very little public interest in this type of experimental art at the time. These artist colonies allowed artists to work together and support each other’s work, while providing a site of focus for international art dealers and curators.

As another strategy to avoid confrontation with the government, many artists turned their attention to the individual, and the individual’s relationship to contemporary society. This in itself was new territory for Chinese art; in the past, the individual was rarely the focus of visual art, and artists approached the subject of representation with a fresh perspective. For Chinese citizens, the growing emphasis on the individual over the group, community and society was also a new dynamic; under Communism, and also in traditional Chinese society, individual needs and desires were deprecated. Making art which encouraged the development of the sense of self could be subversive.

Fang Lijun’s current work, exhibited at Arario Gallery in New York, shows his trademark bald-headed characters, alone and en masse, struggling in their environment.16 In 2007.9.11 (fig. 10), he created two life-sized metal cages, each with a dozen of his short, pink, bald characters, ready to revolt but armed only with primitive weapons – axes, sticks and fake rifles. Others show buildings arising from the water, each overflowing with characters looking upward at the birds, butterflies and insects circling the skies. They are adrift in the ocean, apparently looking to the skies for freedom and a savior. Other installations feature many more figures in miniature, compartmentalized on different floors or in different boxes of a structure, fighting with each other in small tribes. From another series at this show, 2008.5.1 (fig. 11) is a large oil painting of a gray, concrete room with another bright painting of the sky on the wall. In the bright painting, a few bees soar outwards into the sky, but on the floor, below the painted painting, are dozens of dead bees. Here Fang reflects upon the oppression of the state and institutions, and the opportunity for art to liberate.

In her video “Whose Utopia?17 (fig. 12), Cao Fei depicts the dreams of factory workers in China, filmed onsite at the Osram lighting factory in Foshan.  In the midst of the austere, visually and temporally monotonous setting, she shows individual workers dressed and living out their dreams – one as a ballerina, another as a guitar-playing musician, against the backdrop of the operating factory, along with a soundtrack that enhances the inherent poignancy of the slim possibilities that they will achieve their dreams.

Video cameras only recently became available to Chinese artists – until the late 1990s, the equipment to shoot and edit was not widely available to artists.  This was partly due to economics and partly because the government did not want allow video documentation of protests or official misconduct to be made and distributed.  As costs for equipment came down, and a consumer culture developed in China, the widespread use of video could no longer be suppressed.  Still, because there were no domestic venues to screen videos, Chinese artists primarily created video for installations. According to artist Qui Zhijie, “There is always the possibility of finding a gallery or some other space or … a so-called ‘avant-garde’ exhibition, in which to show video installations. If you only work with video – that is, only make videotapes, – then in China you have no chance to show these works.”18

Zhang Peili began working with video in the late 1980s and is considered the pioneer of Chinese video art. He was invited to create work for the 1999 Venice Biennale; that work, Just for You, consisted of ten video monitors, each showed one representative of Chinese society singing a line from Happy Birthday.  Its reference is very oblique – the dates of the exhibition celebrated two birthdays – the closing, in October, was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the opening in June was the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

In the past decade, Chinese artists have quickly adopted the video format to create new experimental works. For The Real Thing, an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in Liverpool, England, Geng Jianyi created An Unapologetic Act of Sabotage (fig. 13), a video piece in which he taped workers at a foot massage parlour doing their daily work. After the initial taping, he then created a script which instructed the workers to do what they had done before as a re-enactment, and then taped the workers again. By making the workers aware of their every action, they cannot perform their same routine again without self-consciousness.  In doing so, the artist has altered their perceptions permanently.

The international market provides a new, and more liberal, venue to exhibit and sell work. As Chinese contemporary art gained prominence throughout the 1990s and this decade, the artwork became a valuable commodity. International collectors expected work with stronger political viewpoints, and were willing to pay large amounts for it. The money that could be made from international sales was much higher than most Chinese, and Chinese artists, would ever have dreamed of making.

Not until recently, as Chinese contemporary art has gained prominence in the international world, has the government supported the avant-garde; the government has finally recognized the benefits of using its artists to raise China’s profile in the international world. In 2007, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened in Beijing with a retrospective exhibition of the ’85 New Wave artists, which included many pioneers of Chinese contemporary art.

The attention of the international art market brought rewards and challenges to Chinese artists. While their newfound prominence created opportunities to advance their careers, the danger was that Chinese artwork would be defined by the needs of the market and the interests of international collectors, rather than social and artistic concerns. As early as 1997, artists Hong Hao and Yang Lei confronted this challenge by initiating a hoax on other Chinese artists. Since many in the Chinese art world were upset that no Chinese artists were invited to participate in Documenta X, held in Germany that year, Hong and Lei created fake letters inviting Chinese artists to submit to a special part of Documenta and sent them to numerous artists. Many did not see through the hoax and submitted their portfolios; here Hong and Lei demonstrated how dependent the Chinese art world had become on international validation and its market.19

Later, in 2000, as a reaction to the concurrently-running Shanghai Bienniale, Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi curated Fuck Off, a unofficial exhibition of 48 provocative works that contrasted with the more conventional and uncontroversial works presented at the Biennale. Ai explained the concept: “We were very clear about what we wanted to say towards Chinese institutions as well as Western curators and institutions and dealers; their functions are very similar in one way or another. It’s all about the deal, about labor, about how to trademark different interests. We had to say something as individual artists to the outside world, and what we said was ‘fuck off.”20

Others reacted by turning to artwork that could not be exhibited or sold. Zhang Huan was a pioneer in using the body as the medium for art and as a means of representation of the self.  In 12 Square Meters (fig. 14), he sat in dirty public bathroom in their artists’ village, spread with a mixture of fish and honey, leaving him covered in flies for an hour. Sitting motionless, he could feel the flies all over his body until reaching a near-meditative state.  He uses these performances that require enduring extreme conditions as a way of developing a new consciousness of the body, its boundary and connection with the self.

He Yunchang also does performances that require enduring physical pain and discomfort; At the opening of The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Contemporary Art in Buffalo, he put himself naked, standing in a transparent container, and let the container be filled with cement up to his chest and let dry, workers had to break through the cement afterwards with pickaxes, hammers and chisels. The very next day he went to Niagara River and attempted to walk upstream for 24 hours, naked, in the near-freezing water near the falls; this time he was stopped and arrested by the police before completing the action.  According to He, “Highlighting the body in this way, as separate, is also important because, historically, Chinese people have not endowed the physical body with value; rather, they have valued the spirit of the Chinese people as a collective.”21 These performances indicate the different perspective that Chinese have towards the mind/body dualism, as well as symbolize the violence and suffering that Chinese people endure.

Chinese artists also recognize the need to cultivate a domestic audience for their work. With limited venues and publicity for experimental art, the bulk of the Chinese public has limited exposure to the art, and little context for interpreting the work that is presented. As a result, the domestic audience for Chinese contemporary art still consists primarily of artists and other insiders. This has been another motivation for artists to create work in the real world with local people.

Early attempts at art with participation showed the challenges ahead. Chinese audiences, not familiar with contemporary art practices, had reactions ranging from befuddlement to amusement when presented with art in their daily lives. In Wang Peng’s Passing Through Beijing (fig. 15), the artist concealed a ball of string in his jacket and let it slowly unfurl behind hin as he walked around Beijing. People would regard him with curiosity, surprise or irritation, but no one questioned him or interacted with him, much less consider it a work of art. In 1998, Xu Zhen’s video “Shout” also documents the public reaction to his artistic intervention, as he simply shouts into Shanghai crowds and tapes their responses, symbolically “waking up” the Chinese public. The reaction of a villager who stumbled upon Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters was simply confusion and fear.

Though the understanding of experimental art in China is still limited, more recently, artists have more successfully engaged Chinese audiences. Video artist Hu Jieming created an outdoor installation Go Up, Go Up (fig. 17) on the wall of the Shanghai Art Museum in 2004, using twenty-five TV monitors displayed vertically up the wall. In the piece, there are images of four climbers going up the wall, each climber’s image spread across three monitors; the noise from the audience would affect the images of the climbers. The audience showed true empathy for the climbers and would applaud or show disappointment as the characters climbed or fell. In 2008, Cai Guo-Qiang created the fireworks display for the opening of the Beijing Olympics; this was obviously a major spectacle, but raised his profile immensely among the Chinese and international public.

After quickly assimilating many of the western art concepts of the 20th century, Chinese artists have moved on to explore new means of expression through conceptual art and to begin to work with new media and technology, and focusing on more universal themes of space, time, memory and self, though often with a distinct perspective. The work created by Chinese artists still generally has a social connection, and rarely goes into pure abstraction. In the catalog for China Onward, the curator wrote “Historically, Chinese art has had a tendency to approach abstraction, as artists experiment with effects of color and line, but has eschewed the abandonment of the subject: exemplary form or composition has not been considered sufficient for the fine arts.”22

The presence of the social component of Chinese art can be attributed to the pervasive changes surrounding the artists, but it is also a strong presence throughout Chinese history and was also ingrained during the Communist era. Critics are still debating whether Chinese art needs a new framework for analyzing and evaluating it. Some see the application of Western theoretical approaches as a form of cultural colonialism, or Orientalism. However, the diversity of approaches used by Chinese artists, and the rate at which they are evolving, makes the task of constructing a new critical framework daunting, if not impossible. In addition, the migration of Chinese artists around the world, the degree of dependence on the international art market and the influence of Western art that has already occurred makes it more difficult to define Chinese art as a isolated or monolithic entity.

Gao Minglu curated some of the most prominent exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, including China/Avant-Garde, Inside Out, and The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Contemporary Art, mentioned earlier. He proposes new concepts of “totality” and “total modernity” to analyze and understand Chinese contemporary art. The traditional, Western approach to the Chinese avant-garde has been in terms of dichotomies and antitheses, in particular, the political versus the aesthetic-cultural. In Chinese art, Gao believes that “the integrity of politics and art are combined with the sociological and the aesthetic.” and his totality theory emphasizes “interdependence, reciprocity and even interaction.” 23 He does not see Chinese art as based on the antitheses, pushing towards extremes, but integrating each, in a relationship that is under constant negotiation. In simple terms, this may be seen as an expression of the Chinese concept of yin and yang, balancing opposites within one work or one’s work. Though this comparison may seem trite, there does appear to be some validity to the observation. Critic Paul Gladston, while taking issue with Gao’s rejection of Western critical theories in analyzing Chinese art, finds the influence of Chan Buddhism and Daoism in Chinese art, leading towards a “desired state of harmony and reciprocation.”24

The concept of totality is echoed by curator Hou Hanru,

It is difficult to separate the question of aesthetics from that of the content. In traditional Chinese aesthetics, coherence and totality are very important…the different activities of life are inseparable and form a strong entity. In the Western rational tradition, the different activities are separated, which means that art, too, is separated as something that exists independently of other domains.  What is happening now is a re-invention of traditional Chinese aesthetics in the dynamic coexistence of urban and social aesthetics. 25

Chinese contemporary art has now established itself on the world scene. In three decades, Chinese artists have assimilated a century of Western art, integrated it into their practices, and have entered a new phase, developing unique directions of art from it. Artists are creating new works, techniques and processes that are no longer following Western art, while retaining a focus on local issues.  However, the offer of wealth from the international market creates a tension that threatens to corrupt the goals of Chinese artists; some believe it has already diluted the quality of the artwork. The next generation of artists will be the first post-Communist, post-Tiananmen generation, shaped by capitalist China, modern technology and globalization.  They’re in the midst of a still-rapidly changing China, growing in economic capacity and global power, and a society that is still undergoing growing pains, under a government that is slowly loosening social controls. Like its current trade in goods and services, we can only expect China’s trade in artistic ideas and product to grow.



1 Qing Pan, “Review of On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West,” Yishu (June 2005), 100.

2 Mao Tse-Tung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967)

3 See for color images of the figures referred to in the paper.

4 John Clark, “System and Style in the Practice of Chinese Contemporary Art: The Disappearing Exterior,” Yishu (July 2002), 13 – Appendix 1: Chinese Contacts with Foreign Art, 1972-1982. This appendix is an excerpt from his article “Modernity in Chinese Art, 1850’s-1990s: Some Chronological Material,” Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia 29 (1997), 74-169.

5 Lynn MacRitchie, “Precarious paths on the mainland - art in China - Report From Beijing,” Art in America (March 1994)

6 Huang Yongping, “Xiamen Dada – Postmodern?” (essay) Excerpt from Walker Art Center’s website for House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, .

7 Huang Yongping, “Paintings Made Following a Procedure (Determined by Me) and Yet Unrelated to Me (Nonexpressive)” Excerpt from Walker Art Center’s website for House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective,

8 Martina Köppel-Yang, Semiotic Warfare (Timezone 8, 2002), 174.

9 Fei Dawai, “To Dare to Accomplish Nothing.” Cai Guo-Qiang (Thames & Hudson, 2000), 117.

10 from Inside Out, the Asia Society

11 The full set of instructions can be found in Britta Erickson, “Material illusion: Adrift with the conceptual sculptor Zhan Wang,” Art Journal (Summer 2001), 72.

12 Clark, 21.

13 Simon Groom, Karen Smith and Xu Zhen, eds. The Real Thing, (Liverpool: Tate Publishing, 2007), 113-114.

14 Francesca Dal Lago, “Space and Public: Site Specificity in Beijing,” Art Journal (Spring 2000), 79.

15 Zhang Huan, “A Piece of Nothing,” from Altered States, exhibition catalog (New York: Asia Society, 2007) p65.

16 Fang Lijun, 2008.11.06, Arario Gallery, 521 West 25th St, New York.

17 Cao Fei, “Whose Utopia?” – excerpt available on YouTube,

18 Christopher Phillips, “The Great Transition: Artists’ Photography and Video in China,” from Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, (International Center for Photography, Smart Museum of Art, Steidl Publishers, 2004), 42. Originally quoted in Inke Arns, “Die Geschwindigkeit der Bilder in China ist der unseren ähnlich-ein Gespräch über Video und neue Medium in der VR China,” interview with Qiu Zhijie, 1998, .

19 Frances Bowles, ed, China Onward: The Estella Collection, Chinese Contemporary Art, 1996-2006. (Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 120.

20 Chin-Chin Yap, “Conversations,” interview with Ai Weiwei in Ai Weiwei: Works: Beijing 1993-2003 (Timezone 8, 2003), 51.

21 Rachel Lois Clapham, “Mahjong 2007 at PERFORMA07: Interview with He Yunchang,” Yishu (May 2008), 86.

22 Bowles, 360.

23 Zhou Yan, “Chinese Brand and Chinese Method: On the Exhibition The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art,” Yishu (March 2006), 6-16.

24 Paul Gladston, “Chan-Da-da(o)-De-construction, or The Cultural (Il)Logic of Contemporary Chinese ‘Avant-Garde’ Art”, Yishu (July 2008), 63.

25 Lotte Philipsen, “Exception to the Rules of Chinese Art: Interview with Hou Hanru,” from China Onward: The Estella Collection, Chinese Contemporary Art, 1996-2006. (Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 335.

Copyright © Derek Chung