Multi-Archeology

[2008/08/16 17:54 | 分类: Articles | by lizhenhua ]
Multi-Archeology
1162 - 2162 Another Thousand Years

Introduction:
Conceiving this exhibition for la Strzzina, pushed me to examine issues related to geopolitics and to the particular identity of China and the Asian countries. These issues include boundaries set by politics, economics and spiritual heritage, and consider the problems related to the transfer of knowledge.  This paper analyzes all this from the perspective of a Chinese contemporary man trying to distance a western or a Japanese point of view.
This exhibition, inspired by the introduction to Jack Weatherford’s celebrated book on contemporary archeology, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,1  and by Wang Hui’s The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought,2 has a wider historical and archeological reach and macroscopically analyzes modern China and the issues related to Chinese contemporary art, while, at the same time, showing how the country relates to the rest of the world.  
Readings on philosophy and archeology helped me to form a personal perspective on this subject, in order to discuss its international dimension while revealing the sociological, archeological, historical and philosophical connections with  contemporary art.  
This description of my curatorial approach may make this task appear too ambitious, but its aim is to show a possible direction Chinese contemporary art is taking, and to stress my hope that this show will help to open up new paths and prospectives in present Chinese art practices.

Chinese contemporary art: a brief chronological overview
The development of Chinese contemporary art is strongly related to various elements. We can say that the internal and international issues that have arisen in different periods of modern and post-maoist China,  have played a major role in shaping contemporary art. The way in which these elements have intertwined with each other is evident from the various kinds of exhibitions that have been organized in China and abroad from 1979 till the present. Shows that not only reflected the state of contemporary art during the various decades, but also mirrored the social, economical, political, and cultural contexts that generated them and permitted them to exist.  
Chinese contemporary art has seen the rise of different styles stemming from different artistic practices and approaches, from the “Stars Outdoor Exhibition” of the Seventies to the “’85 New Wave”, the “’89 Grand Exhibition” and the “Post-’89 Grand Exhibition” of the end of the Eighties, from Political Pop and Cynical Realism to the Post-Sensibility of the late Nineties, from the most recent phenomenon of what can be called the Cartoon Generation to the New Media of 2000.  
“Stars”, the very first avant-garde group in the history of Chinese contemporary art, was formed in 1979. Composed mainly of visual artists (Wang Keping, Ma Desheng, Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui) but also of poets and writers, the Stars’ works were characterized by an incisive artistic language that daringly rebelled against the principles of revolutionary realism proclaimed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which had dominated the Chinese art world till then. Heroism, perfection, the “red principles” of the previous decades gave way to a style that investigated reality without any kind of sublimation and dealt with issues such as politics and the right to self-expression, which formerly had been taboo for at least three decades.  Freedom of expression and of thought, and the development of a highly personal artistic language that broke with all conventions, were at the top of these well-known artists’ agendas. The “explosive political nature” of their work linked them to the democracy movement of the late Seventies. When, in 1979, the Stars artists were denied permission to exhibit their works inside the National Art Museum of China, it was natural for them to hang them on the iron gates outside the Museum. The “Stars Outdoor Exhibition”  thus affirmed the concept of “non-museum” art while, at the same time, allowing those artists to emerge as a group denouncing art as a tool for free political acts. Despite the group’s short life and the fact that most of its members went abroad in search of a more liberal environment, Stars group and their ideology initiated a spiritual trend that open up the road for all that happened throughout the Eighties.  
In the early Eighties, the need to experiment and to challenge ossified dogmas became even more compelling, culminating in a nationwide movement called New Wave ’85. This movement involved many Chinese cities, not only acting locally but establishing a dialogue between artists, and transforming China into a “laboratory of ideas” . Artists became familiar with theories and works from the West, which were introduced extensively, though not systematically, to the Chinese public, thanks also to the huge amount of translation work undertaken at the time and to the positive economy developing trend (according to sources, the per capita income then was between 200 and 500 RMB). 3 In this period artists questioned Chinese tradition and attempted to find their own answers to artistic and personal questions. The movement culminated in the huge 1989 retrospective “China/Avant-Garde”, jointly curated by Gao Minglu, Wang Mingxian and Hou Hanru, and hosted by the China National Art Museum in Beijing. For the first time ever, “avant-garde” artists were allowed to exhibit at the National Art Museum. The show not only featured paintings and photography, but also installations, videos and performance art, something that never allowed before in such institution. The installation Dialogue, created by Tang Song and Xiao Lu, caused a big stir at the show. The work consisted in two standing phone booths (add picture), and at a certain point Xiao Lu fired two bullets at them. The police intervened, and shut down the exhibition.

“China/Avant Garde” signaled the end of what has been called  “humanistic enthusiasm” of the 80’, which were characterized by a progressive general attitude of the Government – fostered also from an economic standpoint –. After the events of “China/Avant Garde”, the rift between official and unofficial art widened and the releshionship between the two standpoints increased. Tang Song and Xiao Lu’s shooting performance and the 1989 Tiananmen Incident added more political tension to those times. The politically charged atmosphere of the late Eighties resulted in the birth of new artistic phenomena. The Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and Post-Sensibility movements were the response of artists who were self-styled outcasts – the so called “independent artists’ - and unwilling to compromise.  Their resistance to the “official” got to the point that artists started to use black humor and even violence or what has been defined as “morbid art” (especially the Post-Sensibility artists in the late ‘90s, whose artistic creations included “material” such human corpses).  To go back to the Early 90s, painters like Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei and Yang Shaobin, dubbed “cynical realists” by the  famous critic Li Xianting, found refuge in the artistic community at the Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) on the outskirts of Beijing; while the first performance artists in Chinese art history (Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Zhu Ming, Cang Xin and others) established the East Village community. These two communities were soon disbanded by the police, but their legacy lives on in the various art districts that have flourished in China, especially in Beijing: from Tongxian (an area in the Eastern part of Beijing where many artists have gathered and built their studios) to Factory 798, from Cao Changdi to the Liquor Factory. These ‘villages’ mirror the interaction between society, economy and politics, and embody new societal and geographical changes of Beijing. In the wake of phenomenal economic and urban expansion, Chinese contemporary art has undergone a kind of “village to city” transformation. This was particularly apparent in the emergence of the 798 art district in 2002.  Since then, more and more artists have settled in this area.  At the end of 2006, 798 finally become a government “accepted” art district , and with this new “status” the management began to organize its artists, perfect a management system, and draw up rent contracts. From the Yuan Ming Yuan independent and spontaneous art community to the “new” government “protected” 798, Beijing’s contemporary art scene has experienced 15 years of political, economic and geographical influences and transformation.  

Chinese contemporary art: a geopolitical issue?
Beijing’s 798 and Cao Changdi, Shanghai’s Moganshan 50 (M50) art district, Guangzhou’s Yang River, the Dafen Village, the Long River Delta and Pearl River Delta, the Northwest and the Northeast, are all geographical realities, places that once had nothing to do with art but which now – being blessed as “art districts” - contribute to outlining the profile and the state of contemporary art in China.  
The geographical aspect is not limited to identifying on a map the position of art districts within the Chinese context, but also means positioning China within the context of international art.
Different forces have enhanced China’s focus on the outside world and vice versa: Chinese artists who have moved abroad, like Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and the late Chen Zhen, and the large number of lesser known artists who emigrate every year, have not only created a Chinese “exodus”, but have also helped to establish a dialogue and to attract more attention to the country and the place Chinese contemporary art occupies in the international arena.  
At times, foreign connoisseurs who stress the importance of showing art with “Chinese characteristics” in their exhibitions, have no real interest in China. A recent case to mention to point this assumption, is the “Mahjong” exhibition organized by the collector Uli Sigg in 2006-2007 , which revealed “Chinese” characteristics in contemporary art history but was colored by the collector’s interpretation and understanding of the significance of the interaction between the last 20 years of Chinese culture, politics and societal movements, and the tensions between these elements. This approach based on a Western viewpoint is supposed to show the world the “authenticity” of  Chinese art, even though the starting point of this curatorial adventure is conducted from a perspective not rooted in a Chinese context. I can mention other significant  examples like Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “China Power Station” organized in 2006 , and the Chinese Pavilion curated by Hou Hanru for the Venice Biennale , namely “Guangdong Express” in 2005 and “Everyday Miracles” in 2007:  they all bolster the “Chinese characteristic” aspect of a “China on display”.  

Another approach consists in adopting an international perspective to go beyond the Chinese stereotype. It was employed by the “1996 Shanghai Biennial Exhibition” and by the art fairs organized from 2004 till 2007  in  Beijing and Shanghai . These events encouraged  a transformation of art with “Chinese characteristic”  in a artistic product for the “internationalization” of “Chinese” contemporary art. (add more comment on this point)
The international vision embodied by the “Get It Louder”  exhibition, organized annually since 2005 in ………., presents another principle for the development of Chinese contemporary art.  From the outset, this exhibition has attempted to avoid the question of “China” or “Chineseness”, enabling artists  to create highly individual works that go beyond a superficial geographical starting point. 2000 represents the year that Chinese contemporary art connected completely with the rest of the world also in an official level. The Shanghai Biennial  presented itself as the first “beyond boundaries” Biennale and gave an international exposure to Shanghai and  China. After participating in the Kassel Documenta in 1992, Chinese artists were gradually invited to the Venice Bienniale, the São Paulo Biennial and other celebrated international exhibitions.   Globalization impacted the Chinese art scene from the year 2000 on, and big exhibitions like “Asian New Media” spurred Chinese artists to participate more and more in international events.
“Going international” also concerns the economy of Chinese contemporary art. As contemporary art developed, literature on the subject burgeoned and became more exhaustive. Early texts, such as Chinese Contemporary Art History: 1979-1989, 1990-1999 Chinese Contemporary Art History and 20th Century Chinese Art History  all provide more or less independent account of contemporary Chinese art history.  However, the development of new media and the Internet has “marginalized” traditional texts, and the Chinese art world has seen the birth of various digital platforms that are incredibly successful, like the Aesthetic Alliance, the Century Online Chinese Art website, the Saatchi Gallery website, the artnet website4 just to mention few (here add also some independent sources like controversial blogs etc), all providing a virtual space for contemporary Chinese art that goes beyond geographical and cultural borders. The small, self-run website “we-need-money-not-art”5 is also worth mentioning. This group offers another take on Chinese art, by eliminating international borders through extensive translation work and by featuring international and domestic contemporary works in the fields of new media art, video art, conceptual art, robotic art, and live art.  
From the foregoing it is clear that timeframe, geography (from local, regional, national and international perspectives), political changes and economic developments are all clues to understanding Chinese contemporary art. It is worth considering whether the perception of  visual aesthetics in Chinese contemporary art – can we talk about styles-, has actually changed over the years and how.  We know for a fact that in the last 25/30 years an abrupt transformation occurred in Chinese society together with systematic political and organizational changes, as for instance depicted in the work Deng Xiaoping in 1975.6  These changes began with the establishment of the Special Economic Zones, such as Shenzhen Zone and Pudong District in the beginning of the 90’s. These incredible economic and social experiences were documented artistically by Wang Jianwei’s research series Architecture of Everyday Life7 of 1997, Rem Koolhaas’s study on the Pearl River Delta region8 and Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s San Yuan Li 9 of 2005, which deals the critical situation of villages in the area of Guangzhou city. These “artistic” researches depict the transformation of villages into sub-urban cities, from local/regional center to an international center that attracts a growing economy and that push the economic developing .  
All this to say that, Chinese art appears to be advancing through a dense fog where Chinese contemporary art is a larger-than-life question, appears to be influenced by short-term economic thinking and not a long term one that is rooted into archaeology, sociology and philosophy of history of art. Questions arised then to analyze and criticize this status of Chinese contemporary art:  is the Chinese art discourse influenced by nationalism/identity?  Is it related to the role and responsibility of those we deem  intellectuals?  What can help us broaden our understanding of all that is happening and changing in this complicated Chinese context?  
The exhibition is somehow rooted in these questions, and tries to answer them with a more complex manner.  
                      
The effect of the nationalist international brand
We have analized the underlined “characteristics” of Chinese contemporary art from and within a social, political and economic change.  This process triggers another thought: whether or not Chinese artists can forego their country’s background and act as “independent” (from what? From the west, from the tradion, from the communist recent history?) thinkers. Just to clarified: should Chinese artists be labeled “Chinese” or only representatives of a general “artist’s category”.
In today’s modern art market, brand certainly does hold some value where buying and selling are concerned; for example, when Chinese art is auctioned in America, or when modern Swiss art is auctioned in England .  This obeys certain market laws, in the sense that the market will always choose a scarce product and raise its value.  Thus, the artist’s nationality can become a sort of  “indicative” characteristic or added value in the speculative contemporary art market.
The present status of Chinese contemporary art was a much-needed conquest stemming from the country’s new cultural strategy.  Strategists and cultural elites in Europe, America and Japan gained an understanding of symbolic China, and considered China’s problems from the standpoint of its contemporary art problems, which constitutes a reverse phenomenon.  The rise of contemporary art celebrities at large exhibitions derives from the independent strategists’ tendency to urbanize. Regardless of the artistic, societal, or personal value of the artworks, they appear to be infused with a kind of “Chinese symbolism”, and the fact that they are exhibited in similar categories is interesting. It is also worth considering criteria that go beyond the actual artworks.  In the Nineties, Li Xianting suggested that to “connect with the world”, “Chinese symbolism” or “Chinese characteristic” must have a strategy since this implies the existence of the other.  Today we must seriously ask ourselves: What causes the overflow of “Chinese symbolism” or the “Chinese characteristic” and why the market and the artists themselves are using it so widely?  

The relationship between the artist and space
What can we say as final statement that describe the relationship of what “Chinese symbolism” and “Chinese characteristic” is?  It is hardly possible to come up with a satisfied answer to this, since the subject is with almost no boundaries. No matter what I think that  is better not to use “Chinese symbolism” to describe fixed Chinese symbols; I rather prefer to say that Chinese identity can be described by certain “Chinese symbols” and also by certain “Chinese characteristics” but this can happen when we discuss issues as space/geography, social issues and socialism, migration and problems related to that and of course racial issues.  It is when such concepts get to be a part or a whole of an artwork that the artist’s and curators’ visions becomes controversial.
This brings us to talk about this exhibitions and the artists in it. Wu Ershan and Ren Qinga were concerned with the issue of “identity” and their “Mongolian” being. Talking with Zhao Liang and Shen Shaomin I discovered that they all have an interest in researching Xinjiang Province or “the new boundaries/territories” .
In 2005, Wu Ershan researched on a large section of Mongolian history, and in this process he discovered extremely moving things, not because of historical glorious conquests but because thorugh this research he could explain why Chinese people see their own existence today or problems related to the concept of “acceptance” of  an identity vis a vis of other minorities, the relationship between state and family and issues related to technical development.  Wu Ershan’s latest work Plan to Roam in Space and Ren Qinga’s Hurray! both present the relationship between one’s identity (Mongolian) and the fantastical roaming spirit that it is connected with this “foreign” identity.  

In 2007, Shen Shaomin asked me to participate in the post-production of his film I Am Chinese.  After days of discussion with him and the artist Xu Huijing in their production office, I slowly realized that the identity dilemma and the extinction of language dealt with in the film, was a direct reference to the problems experienced by the early Russian immigrants to China: be in China, be Chinese but also Russian, loosing their roots which do not fully represent themselves either.
The work centers on a few chosen individuals filmed live, whose existence represents that of everyone else in their situation: transnational identities and consequential eradication.

The style and angle from which Zhao Liang’s Riverside records life on the border of China and North Korea, make it a “red” border in memory. It is a reflection on the Soviet Union and a realistic rendering of the situation experienced by those who actually lived on the border.  
These artists form a sort of  micro group. In 2005, Wu Ershan and Ren Qinga’s interpretation of Mongolia constituted a visual and conceptual focus that pushed them as well to dig into archaeological levels.  The films made by Zhao Liang and Shen Shaomin, whether in 2005 or in more recent works, all deal with a visible or invisible frontier, romanticized artistic concepts and anthropological questions, and are all connected by formal styles and research methods.  
Conclusion
The idea for this exhibition was born in 2005. After endless reading and discussions with artists, the focus of this exhibition was steadily broaden. At the end we went beyond Jack Weatherford’s book and  the notion of including some Mongolian artifacts (archeological objects). We thought that Palazzo Strozzi is a “living monument” that accentuates the link between artworks and the historical environment in which they are displayed.  We thought that such a “powerful” link to history was strong enough to stress this relationship with the idea of “history” or “archeology” (space and time permitted)
The idea to skip the “geographical” idea of “China” was also considered in the planning of the exhibition, and every effort was made to steer clear of the popular idea of “displaying China” issue.  It was only when I visited the Gabinetto Vieussieux, and more specifically the Biblioteca orientale, a center for Asian Studies, located in Palazzo Strozzi, that I began to ask myself some questions:   will we be able to present a real, up-to-the-minute image of China?  Can this exhibition create a platform for a real communication and understanding of the issues described above?  Is the content, concepts and displayed art in this exhibition able to offer a tangible experience and produce a different analysis of what current problematic frameworks of analyses and trends are developing in Chinese contemporary art?
We can touched some “difficult” topics like what Chinese symbolism and charateristic are of  the impact and some “rules” related to the international “global” market of art. Hopefully, this exhibition will offer some practical experiences and answers of the doubts that I have on these matters. The show does not want to communicate the image of China as a whole, but it tries to explore some pragmatic, minor yet fundamental societal issues from artist’s perspectives able to introduce an idea of a complex Asia – and so China as part of- originating from a complex stream of political, economical and racial identities.  
Franziska Nori, along with Biz-Art’s founder, Davide Quadrio, and Guangzhou’s Vitamin Creative Space’s manager, Zhang Wei, contributed to the creation of such complex structure of the exhibition. I hope that the public will be able to read the complexity of such endeavor. I would like to thank Tang Contemporary Art Center, Beijing for their great support.
Li Zhenhua
19 December 2007
Notes
1)    “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” -Jack Weatherford, New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. xxxv + 312 pp. Index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-609-61062-6.
2)    “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought” –Wang Hui, Beijing: San Lian Shu Dian 2004 ISBN :7108020505
3)    China’s Social Blue Book – “Chapter IV: Quality of Life” (1). Reported and composed by Tang Jun and Zhang Shifei.
4)    Aesthetic Alliance, Century Online Chinese Art website, Saatchi Gallery website, artnet website.
5)    www.we-need-money-not-art.com
6)    Deng Xiaoping in 1975
7)    Architecture in Everyday Life: 10 questions posed by Wang Jianwei in 1997 about the changing cityscape.  He conducted his research through interviews and records, which produced Living Elsewhere that was first exhibited at the ICA in London, England.
8)    In 1995, as professor of architecture and urban design at Harvard, Rem Koolhaas assigned his students the task of carrying out research on the 5 cities of the Pearl River Delta: Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhu Hai and Macau.  It is his belief that these 5 cities have extremely diverse backgrounds and many differences, but that their coexistence has created a feasible co-dependent “megalopolis.”  The researches appear in Rem Koolhaas’s book Great Leap Forward (published in 2002).
9)    San Yuan Li is a compilation of the year-long research on the urbanization of the San Yuan Li area by Ou Ning and Cao Fei.  It was exhibited at the Venice  Bienniale in 2003.
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