Tradition, Expansion, Exile, Individual paths in Chinese contemporary art
The contemporary art world craves for novelty: the best reason for Chinese art to be so trendy is also the worst one. Chinese art is new, brand new, here is the summary of its appeal. This fascination has indeed consequences in terms of what we see, thus what we like in Chinese art, or what we call Chinese art per se. Emerging through violent performances and radical installations, discovered in the early 90's, Chinese art quickly spread in the international market with an easier product : paintings which directly or indirectly refered to political and social aspects of Communist culture. Another generation relied on video and photography to depict the amazing growth of the cities and the increasing changes in the economy.
But how much of our own culture is projected on this short history of Chinese art? How much of ourselves do we impose on the notion of being "Chinese"? Can the “Chinese art” figure be avoided, and is it possible instead to select a group of interesting artists in China? Once chosen without criteria of age and personal history or carrier, these individual paths have indeed common points, which depict another vision of art, as taking its origin in an Eastern part of the world and in a completely different civilization.
These common points seem to stem from a single principle : the tension between the individual and the group, identity and culture, has been for a long time, and still is for many reasons, completely different in China. History, tradition, ancestors and/or collective attitude are given a much stronger importance in this Eastern part of the world, than in our European culture. Here, in the West, the self, the single person, is somehow always protected, or at least taken for granted, thanks to our definition of philosophy, the strength of psychoanalysis and the developments of Occidental medicine. The shape of occidental art history reflects this definition of the self : avant-garde and invention are at the core of our definition of the 20th century. In China, these notions are still goals to fight for.
Therefore the questioning of what is identity, or the shaping of an artist's critical point of view takes on a deeper significance in the East. There, a singular energy is often defined in contrast to a collective one; difference or critic have had strong consequences in the recent past: whereas emigration, exile, or actual geographical distance... By the same token, collective impulse, and synergies are more respected in Chinese culture; balance and harmonies driven from contrasting forces are considered as positive and a subject in itself.
Individual energies, collective synergy : the exhibition relies indeed on those simple principles. The regional diversity in the artists origins is part of the explanation, but also the width of generations : a group of mature artist, born in the 50's and mostly living outside China, coexist with a younger generation who has stayed and reacted differently to difficult conditions, and a still younger generation who has been quickly recognized by the art world. Still, it is amazing to see how much they have in common : their understanding of tradition as an essential base for aesthetic, their taking into account of the violence of chinese expansion -urban, economical, and the necessity of exile, either actual or metaphorical.
It’s interesting to point how Chinese culture, including visual arts, still refers strongly to tradition as a positive asset, and relies on another notion of time – cyclic, repeating, re using the same forms over and over again. Calligraphy (Xu Bing), classical compositions in ink art (Hong Lei), or found stones (Zhan Wang) are three examples of these recurring forms, treated by three contemporary artists very much in a Chinese manner : that is, not new, but only slightly differently the same. Art lies as much in the slight difference as in the recurrence. The use of actual historical or traditional objects is recurrent in many artists' works (Ai Weiwei), but they can also be mimicked (Huang Yongping) or poetically evoked (Chen Zhen).
A trip in China calls for disgust or fear : the worst of our future is here already in the enormous megalopoles spreading over the destroyed monuments of the past, in an apology of consumerism grown out of years of starvation. Criticism would be too slow, history is over before it’s even started. Very little is left of recent history, and the artist is a rare witness of its ruins (Rong Rong). To react against this massive expansion and this distortion of time, only passive resistance seems available. Either you accept that images are stronger than what they come from, that virtual has taken over the real (Wang Du); or you create very personal images between painting and photography (Qiu Xiao Fei) to save the idea of Past; or again you invent a very personal space, where City rimes with Poetry (Yin Xiuzhen).
An important number of artist have indeed chosen to exile ; the reasons differing from one generation to another. But all of them had to reinvent a specific vocabulary between the rules of tradition they escaped but for a part admired, and the occidental world they had to embrace but with a critical distance. Whether in Paris, France (Chen Zhen, Huang Yongping), Amsterdam, Netherlands (Ni Haifeng), New York, USA ( Cai Guoqiang), they use the medium of installation to mix bits of their original culture as seen from afar, and parts of a world they inhabited as seen from an exile’s distanced point of vue. There is no point in choosing between modernity and tradition, Orient and Occident : as an exile you have to create a go-between space, and an in-between time. Painting as a technique from the past can be used as a mean for an "inner exile" (Xie Nanxing, Wang Xingwei).
Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang, Chen Zhen, Hong Lei, Huang Yong Ping, Liu Xiadong, Qiu Xiaofei, Ni Haifeng, Qiu Zhijie, Rong Rong, Wang Du, Wang Xingwei, Xie Nanxing, Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen and Zhan Wang