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Modern Art in China, a time line

In February 1989, at the “China/Avant-Garde show” at the National Gallery of Art—the first Chinese government-sponsored exhibition of experimental art—the female artist Xiao Lu whipped out a pellet gun and fired two shots into a mirrored sculpture made from two telephone booths , which she created with another artist, Tang Song. Police officers swarmed into the museum. The international media covered the story as an act of rebellion. Xiao was embraced by the Chinese intelligencia as a hero and became the most famous female Chinese artist ever. Some even said the incident was an inspiration for the Tiananmen Square demonstration a couple months later.

Later Xiao said that the motivation for her action was not political or aesthetic but emotional. She was expressing anxiety over her relationship ship with Tang which was on the decline, and firing at a reflection of herself. Many found this revelation trivialized what was perceived as a great revolutionary act.


In the mid 1990s, the art scene was still largely underground and most artists were poor, often living in squalid conditions. Modern artists were accused of being sources of “spiritual pollution” and worried about being arrested if they talked to foreign reporters. With money in short supply, censors watching them and no galleries to market their works, they mounted one-night shows that doubled as rent parties in their small apartments.


On his only visit to China in 1982, Andy Warhol wrote: “I went to the Great Wall. You know, you read about it for years. And actually, it was really great. It was really, really, really great.”Warhol painted Mao because Life magazine called him the most famous man in the world.


 An exhibition featuring Chinese artists at the Saatchi Gallery in London called “The Revolution Continues” drew lots of attention in late 2008. On the Chinese modern art scene today John Howkins wrote in The Australian, “One of the most vibrant scenes is contemporary art. New movements multiply with bewildering speed, as cities, artists and international dealers promote their favorites... the Stars Group, Scar Art, the Red Brigade, Nativist Realism, Cynical Realism, Rational Painting, the Stream of Life, the New Generation...and Political Pop through to Youth Cruelty and Visual Comics. This rapid turnover is caused partly by Chinese people's instinct to operate in groups and partly by their mania for labels. [Source: John Howkins, The Australian July 28, 2008]


Chinese Art Schools and Artists



Work by Wang Guangyi Artists have traditionally been required to belong to the China Artists Association. Until fairly recently there were very few art galleries in China.


The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing is China’s top art school. Less than 10 percent of those who apply are accepted. Among the famous contemporary artist that have studied there are Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan, Faculty members include the artists Liu Xiaodong, whose works have sold for as much as $8.2 million, Sui Jianguo, regarded as China’s best sculptor; and Xu Bing, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius award. Many of the school’s professors have become millionaires from selling works by their students.


In the Maoist era the Central Academy of Fine Arts occupied a small area near Tiananmen Square, It had only 300 students and professors who mostly taught Social Realism and prepared students to work for the state. In 1989 its students created the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that was a focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests. Today the school occupies a new 33-acre campus and has 4,000 students, a 160,000 square-foot museum, spacious classrooms and studios and the latest video editing equipment. Students tend to be less idealistic than they were in the past and more commercial minded.


Works by students who have not even graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing are being featured at major galleries and being sold for thousands of dollars. Collectors often show up at the university to search for rising talent. Some artists sign their works with their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers.


Faculty members at the Central Academy of Fine Arts have told the New York Times that today’s students are less interested in politics and more interested in their personal struggle. One artist, whose works feature subjects that look himself dressed in women’s clothes, performing violet sexual acts, told the Times his art tells “my own story, my mentality. The whole process of art is like a process to cure myself.”


Traditionally students have been taught to paint by painting the same figurative works over and over in a training method that emphasized discipline. At the Central Academy of Fine Arts these training methods have given way to a freer teaching styles that encourage students to look deep in themselves of inspiration,


Other noteworthy schools include the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (formally known as the Hangzhou Academy) and the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. The latter has a reputation for producing innovative painters. In 2007 it received more than 64,000 applications for 1,600 openings.


Chinese Modern Art in the 1980s



Work by Xu Bing In 1982, a couple years after the Cultural Revolution ended, there were only 100 or so graduating art majors in the whole country. Today there are around 260,000. The revolutionary Stars Group was formed in the late 1970s.


 The relatively free-wheeling 1980s is regarded by some as a sort of golden age of Chinese modern art. Many critics argue that more innovative works emerged during that period than during the painting boom that followed when artists became more commercially aware and made “a fortune manufacturing machines to read credit cards.”


The 1980s is regarded as key period in Chinese modern art. Artists from the influential 1985 New Wave include Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and Hunag Yongping. Some of their works are clearly copies of Picasso, Munch and the Dada artists but others are original and offer insight in what Communist China was like as it was emerging from the Cultural Revolution.


In 1988, an exhibition of relatively modest nude oil paintings in Beijing was singled out by Communist officials as a display of Western decadence and closed down. A protest over the closure grew into larger protests that led to the crack down at Tiananmen Square.


The “China Avant-Garde” show in 1989 at the National Gallery if Art in Beijing was a defining moment in the Chinese modern art scene. It was the first contemporary art exhibition permitted in an official forum. It lasted for only a few hours. It was shut down after a performance artist entered the show with a gun and shot two bullets through her work—a pair of mannequins in phone boxes.


One famous work from the 1980s is A Book form the Sky by Xu Bing. Attracting a lot of attention when it was shown at the National Art Museum , it consists of a bunch of books and wall scrolls that appear to replicate ancient literary text but up are comprised of intelligible characters. The work was interpreted by many to be criticism of Communist propaganda.


Chinese Modern Art in the 90s



work by Zhang Xiaogang In the early 1990s the art scene in Beijing was centered around an artist colony called Dong Un (East Village) behind the city’s Third Ring Road. There was a very lively underground scene there. Shows were held in basements in out-of-the-way areas to avoid police detection. If an exhibit stayed open a week that was considered a long time. Artists sometimes moved four or five times a year. After one controversial exhibition in 2001 police raided the colony and arrested some of the artists and razed the village and built a public park in its place.


“Apartment art’ described the movement and experimental and avant guard artists who showed their art in private or alternative spaces because had no other place to show their art. The artist Wang Gongxin told the China Daily, ‘The government didn’t allow our works to be shown in public galleries,, so young artists of the time were looking for a private space to transform into a contemporary space.”


"Cynical Realism" is the name of the movement that sprung up after Tiananmen Square. Typical of this period was an oil painting by Fang Lijun showing a bald man with his back to the viewer, facing towards clonelike men in grey Mao suits; and sculpture by Wang Keping called “Fist,” consisting a wooden bust of a man with a giant hand wrapped around his mouth.


Modern Chinese art got its first major dose of international attention when Princess Diana showed up at the 1995 Venice Biennial, which featured several Chinese artists. Collector and fashion designer David Tang, the one who got the princess to come, later told Vanity Fair magazine, “I got the most famous person in the world to come and give us a lift, If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.”


Chinese Modern Art in the 2000s



Factory 798 Artists working in the late 1990s and early 2000s explored the social dislocation and isolation associated with the economic reforms or did various takes on Mao or Chinese iconography.


The Beijing International Art Biennial was an enormous exhibition at the Millennium Monument Art Museum and the National Art Museum in Beijing. Dubbed “the largest international art gathering ever held in China,” its featured many non-Chinese artist. Shanghai also has a biennial. Large exhibitions of works by modern Chinese artists have also been held at galleries in London, New York and other places.


Even with this high profile exposure artists complain they get little institutional support and don’t have enough places to exhibit their works. Some have taken up living together in warehouses and pulling their resources so they can pay their bills and work. Some have been harassed by police. One group of performance artist cooked up a dish made with potatoes and jewelry and placed then in condoms that were buried in the earth. For their trouble police arrested them and put three them in jail for two months.


Chinese Modern Art Scene in the 2000s



work by Zeng Fanzhi On the art scene in China, Arne Glimcher, owner of a prestigious New York gallery, told Vanity Fair, “It’s a little bit like Germany after the Second World War. With the culture being annihilated, it was fresh to start again. Or like America in the 1950s when we really didn’t have an indigenous style, so we were fresh to start from scratch.”


On the art scene in Shanghai, one American architect and collector told Vanity Fair,“There’s a kind of energy. In the art districts, ladies in Bentleys pull up dressed to the nines, and slog through mud to get to a gallery where they’re seeing a new artist’s work, while some deranged person is quivering off to the side. There’s a visual bombardment to the place.”


On the art scene in Beijing one collector told Vanity Fair, “”If you got to other art centers of the world—London, New York, Los Angeles—you may hear about a new gallery opening here and there. In Beijing, you hear about entire neighborhoods opening up overnight. The construction happens so quickly, and the number of galleries and the amount of art that’s proliferating is just astounding.”


Li Xianting is regarded are leading force in the Beijing modern art scene. He was the editor of an official art magazine before he was canned for supporting controversial art. Gaudy Art is China’s version of Pop Art.


Arguably the most happening place for artists in China is Factory 798 in Beijing. See Factory 798, Beijing


 The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), opened by a Swiss collector in 2008 has become the center of art life in Beijing. The Pace Gallery has moved aggressively into China, opening a huge space here two years ago and signing up some of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art, like Hai Bo, Li Songsong, Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan,


2008 Jeffrey Hays




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