For a long time in history, Chinese art developed almost independently from the influence of the other countries in the world. After Chinese artists finally get access to western contemporary art in 1980s, they inevitably became parts of the global dialogue of Art. In the trend of art globalization, Chinese artists are heavily affected by western postmodernism, and they also contribute to the conversation. In research in this topic, extraordinary Chinese contemporary artists’ career and work are used as case study resource.
This paper looks into one main question: how do Chinese contemporary artists participate in international art conversation? To find out the answer, careers of renowned Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Fanzhi, Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang were studied. Although their current work varies, they were all pioneers in contemporary Chinese art when it first appears in early 1980s, after the end of Cultural Revolution. After looking into their works, the paper finds out that postmodernism has significant influence on Chinese artists, and museum/gallery plays important role in the early stage of Chinese contemporary art. Through development, some artists start to use Chinese traditional aesthetic elements in their creation. Others identify themselves more as an international artist rather than a Chinese one.
In 1996, Liu Ye, a Chinese contemporary artist, painted Qi Baishi Knows Mondrian to ask a question: what would happen to Qi Baish (a famous Chinese watercolor painter)’s work if he knew his coeval western artist, Mondrian? The topic conveyed by the painting was an unknown regret for generation and generation Chinese artists who worked independently in their unique context without learning from Western cultural heritage. Lack of communication kept Chinese art from international dialogue for a long time. When Western artists started their innovation and exploration to entirely new style in early 20th century, Chinese Art world was still dominated by traditional ink painting. However, nowadays, Art from different culture background has become connected under the path of globalization. Chinese artists know not only Mondrian, but also worldwide Art. And that changed their work significantly in technique, topic, technology and genre. From 1980s to nowadays, Chinese artist’s works serve as a vivid answer to Liu Ye’s question.
Heritage from World Art: The Influence of Western Postmodernism Art on Contemporary Chinese Art
In 1920s, Dada drove attention as a movement which reversed the traditional cognition of Art. Actually, it is always seen as “anti-art”[i] for it challenge the main aesthetic trend by creating a series of impulsive work to shock its audiences visually and spiritually. Benjamin likens it to a “missile”[ii] to illustrate its jolt to audience, and many theorists take it as the beginning of postmodernism. Later, Dada set agenda for contemporary art and became the predecessor of Pop art. Born in 1950s, Pop art shares Dada’s revolt and satire to the authoritative Art world.
In the most representative Chinese contemporary paintings, the heritage of Pop art is obvious. Chinese media and public named Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi as “Big Four” for the four artists share both great commercial success in the auction market and cynical irony to the serious politics and national character. For a long time, their works represents Contemporary Chinese art in public’s impression.
Each of them is famous for an iconic series. Zhang Xiaogang is famous for his Bloodline: Big Family series. Those paintings look like solemn Chinese family portraits from 1960s. In those dull color portraits, characters keep poker faces with large, extraordinarily black eyes. Yet it is hard to find any emotion in those pupils. In Yue Minjun’s oil paintings, he often creates exaggerated self-portrait figures bearing wide smiles with gaping mouths. The same face in candy color reappears so many times that it became his brand. [iii] Similarly, a bald guy with extravagant facial expression was portraited again and again with strong colors in Fang Lijun’s paintings. The distinctive subject is a figure of the artist himself. Wang Guangyi’s most influential work is the Great Criticism series. By combining the propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution (a sociopolitical movement purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society) with popular contemporary Western commercial icons, Great Criticism generated a strong contrast to claim a critical satire.
Obviously, their works were heavily influenced by Dada and Pop art. Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism was even seen as the pathfinder of China’s Political Pop Art. In these paintings, we could find similar techniques used by their creators’ western fore-goers. Repetition is a common method in art, especially Pop art. Andy Warhol used repeated images in large scale so much that it became a pattern and brand for him. From celebrities (like Marilyn Monroe) to commodities (like Campbell’s Soup Cans), everything reproduced by Warhol in his paintings became his icon. Similar to Warhol, his contemporaries Wayne Thiebaud created series of paintings filled with repeated food images. They use repetition to express their reaction to mass media and reproduction.
The repetition could be found in Chinese Contemporary art work as well. Through repetition of same faces, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and their coeval Zeng Fanzhi (who is famous for painting characters in similar masks) all made themselves big names. Different from Warhol and Thiebaud, repetition artworks of Chinese artist have another meaning. Monotonous faces in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family shows his introspection on extreme collectivism. When the whole society is preached as one big family, each member displays the same face and indifferent emotion instead of self-awareness. The exaggerated facial expression on Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun’s characters is another extreme, yet it shows similar topic as Zhang Xiaogang’s poker-face portraits do. Being described as “a permanent condition of our nation” by its creator[iv], the smirking face offers a rich text for interpretation. It could be seen as a whitewash for the deep pessimism or a blind optimism born by ignorance. Although the figures originated from those artists’ self-portraits, they are hard to be recognized as anybody from real life or any celebrities. Therefore, the repetition of the figure images in Chinese contemporary art seems more like a presentation of collective mentality rather than just a reaction to the mass media or mass reproduction.
Appropriation is another significant manner Chinese contemporary art used which is inspired by postmodernism art. Instead of creating the whole painting on empty canvas, artists develop their works on the base of some existing materials. Marcel Duchamp, the outstanding artist in Dadaism movement, parodied the established order in fine art by adding funny goatee to Mona Lisa’s dignified portrait. Daily life goods also drew his inspiration and became the foundation of his ready-made art. He diverted a men’s urinal into an artwork titled Fountain. By separating the article from normal life context, he endowed it with critical and artistic value. Invented by Dadaism, ready-made is widely accepted by pop art. It enabled Andy Warhol to transform mass-media images into art, and gave him opportunities to inspect consumerism by appropriating its commodities.
Appropriation influences Chinese contemporary art heavily. The concept of “ready-made” shaped Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism. The artist combined propaganda images during Cultural Revolution with western commercial icons. Righteous workers, peasants and soldiers were clipped from the propaganda posters and collaged together with trademarks, price-tags and barcodes. Parody of classic western paintings also occupied positions in top-tier Chinese contemporary arts. Zeng Fanzhi uses his iconic characters in masks to substitute Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper’s table. Yue Minjun parodied classical paintings including Liberty Leading the People, the Massacre at Chios and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian with his smirking figures.
They appropriate not only the paintings, but also the meaning then contained. Different from Duchamp, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun parody the art classics for more than sneering at the fine art. They mimic it also for the rich meaning represented by those artworks. The viewer doesn’t need education to recognize the incompatibility between the goatee and Mona Lisa. But fully understanding of Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun’s parody works requires knowledge of the original paintings. Parody became a method those artist makes themselves interpretable in the international dialogue. For example, Zeng Fanzhi’s parody the Last Supper alludes to the greed and betrayal showed in the original story.
Dadaism and pop art became widely accepted and developed by Chinese artists for certain reason. Dada as a movement was initiated as a reaction to radical society change, especially the First World War. Dadaism’s participates use this unconventional art as a protest against the “effrontery to the insanities of a world-gone-mad”[v]. Pop art appears in the trend of mass culture, which was the result of increasing commercial prosperity and consumerism. When contemporary artist got decision-making power in their creations, China faces similar social context as West did when Dadaism and pop art appeared. Due to the unique development speed of China, the changing process was compressed into a very short period. People had gone through the end of Cultural Revolution, the enlightenment of Chinese art and the sensational trend of economic-oriented development with in one or two decades. When the artist started their creation in 1980s and 1990s, they had been repressed so long by the immediate past Cultural Revolution. And the ideal artistic Utopia they created was quickly disrupted by the public craze of making money. Postmodernism art is confrontational and uninhibited, which makes it perfect for Chinese contemporary artists under that context.
Obviously inheriting from Dada and pop art, “Big Four” and their companions who have similar style are controversial figures, especially in their homeland. They once faced domestic folk critics while their works were popular in auction market and were appreciated by art professionals. On one side, they are censured for smearing the compatriots and ingratiating themselves with the western ideology. Their character’s unbeautiful visages and the sarcastic irony hiding behind those faces were the arguments for the viewpoint. On the other side, critics think the Big Four’s representative art is influenced so deeply by western artist that it lacks originality. Some even boldly drew direct connection between the artist and their predecessors. Critics believe that Wang Guangyi’s works are inferior imitation of Warhol’s ready-made art, and Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series reminds them of Rene Magritte and Margaret Keane. The detractors believe the commercial success of Big Four shows an awry shortcut in art industry. By creating artworks inequivalent with their achievement, these contemporary Chinese artists are “dishonoring not only art, but life as well”[vi]. Although the negative comments are harsh, they raise a problem that contemporary Chinese culture has to face.
Museum serves as significant interface in the development of China’s contemporary art
The function of museums is worth noticing in the initial stage of China’s contemporary art. First, for Chinese artists in 1980s, exhibitions were extremely significant as an interface to the international art. At that time, access to the western culture was hard to find. Exhibitions in the museums (along with the publications of those exhibitions) therefore became rich resources and important inspirations. In 1985, an exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg was held in National Art Museum. For the first time, Chinese public got the opportunity to see original works from a contemporary Western artist. The exhibition set a profound influence to Chinese artist in the 1980s art movement. [vii]
Second, exhibitions later became important events to connects nodes in the artist network and promoted the community to the public. By bringing works from various artist together, museums offer a space for them to learn their outstanding peers’ works and to communicate. Thorough the interface, artist inspired mutually and become more conscious of their own creation. After the community was built, museum serves as the public’s access to artists.
During the short history of China contemporary art, key events always happened in museums or galleries. In 1980s, a series of pioneer art exhibitions held in major cities of China made the contemporary art creation a phenomenon. China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989 was the zenith of that trend. Displaying over 180 artists’ 290 artworks, the exhibition held in National Art Museum of China was a milestone of Chinese contemporary art. It drove significant attention of domestic and abroad media as well as public, although most Chinese people couldn’t understand the pioneer spirit of those artists back then.[viii] In 2002, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun started to be familiar with each other after cooperation in the Power of Graphic exhibition in He Xiangning Art Gallery. And this was the beginning of media and public considering them together as the representatives of Chinese contemporary art. [ix]
Innovation: Using Chinese elements to Discuss Global Topics
Along with the worship of western art, we could also see China’s contemporary artists attempting to combine western and eastern artistic traditions they’ve learned. Instead of simply inheriting or “borrowing” the western technique to tell their own stories and to satirize China society, the artists try to explore some common topics the whole world cares with their familiar cultural context.
After 2008, Yue Minjun devoted a lot of time in the new series: Maze. Traditional Chinese aesthetics distinctly influences this series of works. Although painted with oil on canvas, the black-and-white color and light strokes of those pictures remind people of traditional ink paintings. Frames of the paintings are not rectangles, but multiple. The circle, sector and gourd-shaped frame are the similarity of traditional Chinese fans and ancient gardens windows.
But the Maze is far more than Chinese traditional aesthetics revival. Elements and characters in classic Chinese ink paintings were appropriated and arranged in scatter inside the mazes. The mess and disordered accumulation of those elements shows not beauty, but rather the self-examination of tradition. The series was interpreted widely as an introspection of Yue Minjun’s earlier parody to the classic oil paintings. After the intimate relationship with western art, the artist seems to started considering what is the role of Chinese traditional art in the international art dialogue. The artist himself takes Maze series as an explanation of his exaggerated-laughing figures. He believed that the traditional culture heritage is an important reason for the formation of nation character. [x]
After holding western postmodernism art in high esteem, contemporary Chinses artists realized that traditional Chinse culture offers rich inspirations. The most influential artwork inspired by Chinese culture is Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky. The large installation work contains hand-printed books on the floor as well as scrolls printed from wood letterpress type covering ceiling and walls. The content on the papers seems like Chinese, but if the audience try to read it, they will find out the Book from the Sky is not written in Chinese. Actually, it is not written in any known language. Xu Bing fabricated over 4000 characters with word-making theoretical principle in the written Chinese language.[xi] Since Chinese characters originally based on pictograms, Xu Bing’s invented characters are equally structural and beautiful. But Book from the Sky offers brand new perspective to semiology and linguistic. In the age of globalization and information explosion, it urges people to introspect the role of language in meaning-making.
Being an artist rather than a Chinese artist
After Book from the Sky, Xu Bing created Book from the Ground. In Chinese, Book from the Sky is a phrase meaning that no one can understand this book. On contrary to Book from the Sky, Book from the Ground is a book “any reader, regardless of cultural background or level of education” can read. [xii] There is also another contrast between the two works. In Chinese, “sky” often implies rootless, while the “ground” suggests solid and surefooted. According with their titles, characters in Book from the Sky are created by Xu Bing, while the one in Book from the Ground are combined by existing universal elements. The only prerequisite for understanding the book is living in contemporary society.
In the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing observed and extracted signs from public space worldwide. Based on the fundamental elements, he created more icons to generate meaning. His studio even created a translating system between the icons and Chinese/English. Language is always seen as the carrier of a nation’s culture and collective memory. By creating the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing expresses his ideal in universal language and weakens the spiritual boundary among different nations. Comparing to his earlier work Book from the Sky, his standpoint changed from rooting in Chinese culture background to a broader international view.
Similar to Book from the Ground, from many Chinese contemporary artists’ work, we could see their creators self-identifying as world citizen rather than Chinese artist. They are not fond of attaching their art with traditional Chinese culture. And their motivations are far beyond introspecting homeland’s society and politics. Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang are representatives of those artists. They left China in their prime of lives. In their early careers, hints of their Chinese background could be found. As for now, they become more interested in exploring the limitation of art and probing global-concerned topics just as artists from any countries.
Huang Yongping is famous for installation art. His influential work Theater of the World happens in a cage, in which insects, serpents and lizards fight with each other to the death. [xiii]Inspired by Foucault’s imaginary panopticon model, Huang Yongping uses animals in the arena as metaphor to the public’s common destiny in contemporary society. Cai Guoqing’s reputation comes from his use of gunpowder. With living experience in both Japan and US, Cai Guoqiang used gunpowder to imitate a mini explosion in 1996 in Nevada in order to remind people the cruelty of weapon and war. The Century with Mushroom Clouds was Cai Guoqiang’s first artwork with gunpowder after he came to US, indicating the transfer of his attention to terrestrial concerns. [xiv]
Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang’s success vividly shows how is the art community transcending nations. Cai Guoqiang first came to US through the P.S.1 international Studio Program sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council. In the correspondence with media, Cai Guoqiang’s studio wrote that “mainstream art circles in the U.S. have given Cai the attention and support that have at times exceeded that for local artists”[xv]. Huang Yongping’s statement perfectly explain his self-recognition:“I think the duty of the artist is to deconstruct the concept of nationality. There is going to be a day when there is no concept of nationality.”[xvi]
When Chinese contemporary artists started their careers, they faced great impact from the society. On one hand, the Cultural Revolution left indelible marks on their spirits. On the other hand, the rapid advent of consumerism shook their ideals. The context led their worship to Western postmodernism art. Later, some artists find out the heritage of Chinese art can serve as great inspiration. Instead of revival the traditional aesthetics, they use it as a unique way to contribute in the global art conversation. Some artists choose not to attach their topic or technique with China. They identify themselves as citizen of the globe and use art to probe world-wide common issues. From their exploration, they test the boundary of art. Their career shows that art could be a universal communication transcending language and nationality.
[i] Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004, Introduction
[ii] W. Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”, 267.
[v] Ibid 1.
[vii] Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
[viii] Ibid 7
[ix] Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.
[x] “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019, http://culture.ifeng.com/a/20150122/42992236_0.shtml.
[xi] Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
[xii] “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,” Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019, http://www.xubing.com/en/work/details/188?type=project#188.
[xiii] “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal,” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017, http://www.alexandramunroe.com/guggenheims-alexandra-munroe-theater-world-intended-brutal/. （Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum)
[xiv] Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.
[xv] “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019, http://www.leapleapleap.com/2014/02/correspondence-with-cai/.
[xvi] “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989.html?_ga=2.159330490.1850348465.1557070111-223685926.1553496556.
- Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Shanes, Eric. Pop Art . New York, NY: Parkstone, 2009.
- Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”.
- “Yue Minjun – 85 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy”, Artsy, accessed May 3 2019, https://www.artsy.net/artist/yue-minjun
- ““Yue Minjun: smirking face is a permanent condition of our nation,”, Sohu News, accessed May 3 2019, http://www.sohu.com/a/201543826_740896
- Perl, Jed. “Mao Crazy.” The New Republic, July 9, 2008. https://newrepublic.com/article/62005/mao-crazy.
- Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
- Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.
- “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019, http://culture.ifeng.com/a/20150122/42992236_0.shtml.
- Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
- “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,”Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019, http://www.xubing.com/en/work/details/188?type=project#188.
- “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017, http://www.alexandramunroe.com/guggenheims-alexandra-munroe-theater-world-intended-brutal/ （Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum）
- Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet : Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.
- “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019, http://www.leapleapleap.com/2014/02/correspondence-with-cai/.
- “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989.html?_ga=2.159330490.1850348465.1557070111-223685926.1553496556.
- Huang, Zhuan.Politics and Theology in Chinese Contemporary Art : Reflections on the Work of Wang Guangyi . First edition. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2014.