New China, New Art
Given the task at hand, this is a formidable book—a volume replete with information, interpretation, and insight on contemporary Chinese art—a phenomenon that has sustained itself within a myriad of contextual, social, political, economic, and cultural issues. In contrast to other compendiums on the subject by English-speaking authors both in and outside the mainland, Richard Vine—a senior editor at Art in America—offers a more authoritative and carefully defined examination of the various artistic genres, mediums, ideas, and expressions that have evolved since the death of Mao and, concomitantly, since the Chairman’s brutal attack on traditional culture—ironically known as the Cultural Revolution—more than three decades ago. Rather than immersing himself in predictable artspeak, Vine offers an engaging and focused analytical argument in relation to the evolution of contemporary Chinese art. His approach reveals that both history and criticism function as a kind of necessary dialectic in order to explain the circumstances from which China has evolved over the past century, including its paradoxical economic growth and repressive politics, and its current status in the world today. New China, New Art is incisively crafted and scrupulously researched. It is a coy assessment of the artists and their works that have been shown and collected internationally, and finally, offers a prognosis of what we might expect from this artistic reawakening in the coming decades of the 21st century.
The author has traveled extensively in China on numerous occasions and has embedded himself in the transcultural aspects of everyday life. He has seen the rapidly changing social mores, the hidden political agenda, the talented entrepreneurship of Chinese businesses, and the brilliantly insightful art that has rapidly come to the foreground of international attention. Behind the veneer of what many outsiders perceive as a vapid, investment-crazy art world, Vine offers a more sober articulation as he keenly perceives what is happening in art against the chaotic background of recent Chinese history, ever since the tragic moment of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Given this structural base, he presents Chinese artists in terms of their mediumistic categories. Rather than going for the more popular boundary-breaking postmodern overlays, which some would argue are more indicative of Chinese art today, New China, New Art offers a welcome clarity, a refreshing respite, from all the theory-driven mumbo-jumbo that tires the brain and exhausts the senses before any experience of the art becomes possible.
Even so, there are occasions when this mediumistic orientation to art seems to lose its effectiveness, especially when the author insists on giving the various art schools attended by the artists, pointing out that most were educated as painters before turning to video, installation, or performance. While this makes sense—given the pressures imposed on educational officials, and thus, on professors, emanating from the central government—we hear it almost as a formula for success: that, to become famous, one must break through the traditional barriers of mediumistic expression, namely painting. At the same time, there are some exemplary painters in China (Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, and Zeng Fanzhi) that seem not to be given the attention they deserve, and little in the way of a critical commentary, or comparative aesthetic judgments in terms of what works might be more qualitatively significant than others. Recognizing that the book is a survey, one catches a glimmer of this, but it is too often abbreviated to the extent that any implicit critique is either barely noticed or too-implicitly generalized in terms of rejecting figurative expressionist painting, i.e. Cynical Realism, as a mere marketing ploy:
Painting sells—it’s portable, it fits over the sofa, it’s easy to store—and that leaves a number of China’s new artists in mildly embarrassing straits. Their refusal of pictorial depth and illusionist detail may well stem from a more profound psychological refusal to be ‘sucked-in.’
Given the concluding chapter, titled “The Scene Now”—perhaps, the most forceful and significant chapter in the book—it appears contrary that Vine would complain about the lack of critical and curatorial awareness in the scene without showing an alternative that moves in contrast to this lack.
Yet, as the author points out, there is no denying the sheer ambition and intellectual brilliance of many of these emergent Chinese artists. While Vine favors those who work in new media or extended forms, it does not discount this underlying fact: the energy of the work appears stupefying. New China, New Art reveals that the originality of recent Chinese art—although, sometimes naïve—is comparable, if not qualitatively exceeding, the limits of some of the highest priced contemporary art on the Western market. Scanning the pages of this volume, in relation to the author’s thoughtful aesthetic and political contextualization of the work, suggests the ambition and energetic output that much of this work displays. There are numerous examples, ranging from Xu Bing to Ai Weiwei, from Cai Guo Qiang to Huang Yong Ping, from Zuang Huan to Liu Xiaodong, and—in terms of rising stars—Qui Shi-hua and Yun Fei-Ji. There are many more examples of this ambition within the work of the 120 artists selected for this compendium.
A most valuable and incisive description of the scene—particularly in the major culture centers of Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai—involves the various tributaries that feed out from the marketing of art on a global scale. Here Vine is once again exemplary in his analysis of how institutions function relative to power and money. These include multiple art fairs large and small, municipal museums often for rent, private museums, commercial galleries of all sorts, artists’ studios transformed into factories that follow the lead of Andy Warhol, and the proliferation of one of the more vague institutions known in the art world as “non-profit alternative spaces.” In each case, the author makes clear the economic and political conflicts, partially based on greed and assertions of power, but also on negligence and chaos in terms of numbered editions, price structure, dating of works, and various other kinds of records needed to establish provenance. The profusion of work and the confusion of documentation substantiating the work, both inside and outside of China, create an aura of distrust among important collectors, museum collections, and auction houses throughout the world.
To clean up the chaos will be a daunting enterprise, whatever the case may be; but ultimately, for China to make its way into the global market, things will have to change. How soon this happens is anybody’s guess; but it is unlikely that when the market comes back—it had not disappeared at the time of the writing of Vine’s book—these issues will make a difference in terms of the number of collectors who are willing to take a financial risk.
In terms of cultural critique—an aspect of New China, New Art that is truly postmodern—Vine sharply senses within the work of certain artists, such as Sheng Qi, what is happening on a psycho-sociological level within the educated classes of China: “The sense that we lose a part of ourselves with every personal and societal change is—for once the expression precisely applies—almost palpable.” Here we get to the essence of much of the problem. Confusion in China is not without reason. The speed of new technologies has imposed confusion worldwide. It would appear that the period of adjustment on all levels—whether social, economic, cultural, religious, political, even psychological—is very much a part of the human condition today. The fact that China is large, and was isolated for so many years, makes the process of emancipation all the more profound. There is little doubt that art will continue to both express and represent much of what is happening amid this extreme period of augmented transition. I suspect that in the coming years, New China, New Art will become an important educational text for Westerners to get a handle on what is happening and to begin a much needed dialogue, given that much of the confusion found in Chinese art is also shared by contemporary art in the West, whether we admit it or not.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.