13 December 2013
Dr. Porras, Places of Art
Early Contemporary Art in China
Historically, the landscape of Chinese culture has been consistently shaped by the
pursuit of power. After the Cultural Revolution, in an effort to maintain power and exert
control over contemporary art production in China, the ruling Communist Party
suppressed rapid surges of creativity enabled by the global art market, resulting in
constant cycles of reevaluation, reinvention, and reintroduction. Two of the most
important events in the early history of contemporary Chinese art are the 1979 Stars Art
Exhibition and the China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989 in Beijing. Both are products
of rapid rise in artistic thought and were followed by severe governmental action. These
cycles have taken a serious toll on the establishment of identity and have become
characteristic of the development of contemporary Chinese art.
In 1942, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the future Chairman of the Central Committee
of the Communist Party of China, gave his Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and
Art. Speaking to a Communist audience, he delineated guidelines for the production of art
that would be adopted as state policy in all of Mainland China after 1949.1 Mao stressed
the need for art and literature to reach a wider audience, stating that it should serve the
proletariat;art could be no more than a servant helping to shape the consciousness of the
masses. The issue of aesthetic quality was addressed, but political concerns were deemed
more important. He said, “Popular works are simpler and plainer, and therefore more
1John Clark, Modernities of Chinese Art (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pg. 47.
readily accepted by the broad masses of the people today. Works of a higher quality,
being more polished, are more difficult to produce and in general do not circulate so
easily and quickly among the masses at present.”2
After the founding of the People‟s Republic in China (PRC) in 1949, adoption of
the Soviet-style Socialist Realism was mandatory in all art production, a trend that
reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution. The mandatory new rules required artists
to give up any form of individual self-expression, since every creative action was to be
analyzedby the hard-liners of Communist Party.3
The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution(1966-1976) considered exhibitions and
discussions of ancient and Western art non-existent. One of the largest campaigns
organized by the government, The Attack on the Four Olds, was a movement to destroy
old culture, old customs, old ideas, and old habits throughout China. Examples of
Chinese architecture were destroyed, classical literature and Chinese paintings were torn
apart, and Chinese temples were desecrated.4The severe ideological and governmental
control of artistic production ensured the complete politicization of art.5
After Mao‟s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, party leaders including
Deng Xiaoping, the Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist
Zedong, "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art," Talks at the Yenan Forum on
Literature and Art, 2004, section goes here, accessed November 22, 2013,
Dal Lago, "The Avant-Garde Has Its Moment of Glory," editorial,TIME, September 27,
1999, World sec., September 27, 1999, accessed November 28, 2013,
Lu, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and
Communication (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004).
Wu and Peggy Wang, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents(New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2010), pg. 5-6.
Party, introduced reform programs that rehabilitated many artists who had been purged
over the past twenty years during the Cultural Revolution. The countrywide economic
reform and social shift was carried out in the development of “socialism with Chinese
characteristics.”6Art academies and colleges were reestablished and began to admit all
levels of students in 1979. These changes resulted in the return of academic art, which
was immediately eager to distance itself from monolithic, propagandistic model of art.
Following decades of governmentally authorized movements, contemporary
Chinese artistic progress had been almost completely eroded, which encouraged artists to
reinvent a new aesthetic culture. Many drew from Western models and worked to create
an alternate contemporary art history. Between 1979 and 1990, the Stars Group and the
New Wave radically shifted Chinese art from Socialist Realism to abstract and
experimental practice. These artists, especially those of the New Wave, were based in
collectivism and began the development of internationalization in Chinese art.
The term “experimental art” (shiyan meishu), popularized by prominent Chinese
art critic Wu Hung, “can be about almost anything related to art and can be something
major or something minor.”7 Experimental art has a deliberately nebulous definition and
is not connected with any particular subject matter, political alignment, or artistic
technique. Terms used by other critics, such as “unofficial art” and “avant-garde art” do
not fully encompass the goals and characterization of experimental art to the point of
being misleading. “Unofficial art” amplifies and over-exaggerates the political
Gao and Norman Bryson, Inside/out: New Chinese Art (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art, 1998).
7Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, the
University of Chicago, 2000), pg. 11.
inclination, while “avant-garde art” implies a level of artistic radicalism that is not shared
by all contemporary Chinese artists.
Lacking a concrete definition, experimental art can be identified by its
relationship with the five major traditions of contemporary Chinese art. The first, a highly
politicized official art based in social realism, is produced directly under the sponsorship
of the Chinese Communist Party. The second tradition is an art based in academia that
emphasizes higher aesthetic standards, but struggles to separate itself from political
indoctrination. The third is art that utilizes fashionable images from Hong Kong, Taiwan,
and the West and reflects their metropolitan visual cultures. The fourth facet is a
commercial, internationalized art that caters to the global art market, although it was
often originally part of experimental art. The fifth and final tradition of contemporary
Chinese art is the vanguard of experimental art that deliberately tries to connect itself
with various forms of Western modernist and postmodernist art.8
None of these traditions are overtly anti-Communist, nor do they constitute a
general hostility between experimental art and the ongoing sociopolitical system in
China. Boundaries between aspects are markedly unstable; the definition and content of
all five elements are in a constant state of flux. Wu explains that,
“An art experiment in China is always motivated by the desire to break away from
the visual modes and vocabulary of these four traditions, though the focus of
experimentation may be an art medium or style, new ways of presenting art to the
audience, or even the identity and social function of the artist him/herself.”9
In the 30 years since its materialization, the substance of Chinese experimental art
has been under constant transformation as its relationship with these other art traditions
Hung Wu, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago, IL:
David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 1999).
changes. Despite the vagueness of the term, there are several stable characteristics. In
general, experimental art aims to reinvent the systems of artistic expression, it embraces
new materials and forms, and encourages a self-imposed distance between the artist and
official or academic art.
While the obscure meaning of experimental art is successful in encompassing the
goals and characteristics of contemporary Chinese art, the absence of a clear definition is
used as a tool of suppression by the government to control the production and exhibition
of art in China.
Many young artists, who later became members of the Stars (Xingxing) group,
moved into cities from the countryside were part of the energetic democracy movement
that surfaced in 1979.10 These artists were mostly amateurs who had neither received any
formal artistic training nor were affiliated with any art institution. In the spirit of the
democracy movement, they organized the Stars Art Exhibition (Xingxing meizhan) on the
street outside of the National Art Gallery in Beijing. The exhibition included 163 works
from 23 artists, including sculpture, prints, and oil painting. One of the Stars group‟s
most well-know members, Wang Keping, showed a 1978 wooden sculpture, entitled
Silence (figure 1), which was shocking for its political candor. The piece, carved of birch,
takes the form of a human head whose mouth is literally silenced by a large wooden
stopper. He explains,
“I do sculpture for no other reason than to express my pent-up feelings…I don‟t
hold that art must obey any objective laws, and as the forces of production
develop in a society, people will naturally search for new means of expression. I
Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, pg. 6
found a medium for myself that is not limited by any rules of outward form that
leaved me totally free to express my feelings.”11
The explicitly political work stunned spectators with an aggressive attack on
Maoist ideology and directly instigated a strong social backlash.12This public assertion of
their „outsider‟ location in the Chinese art world was shut down and canceled by the
police after showing for only two days. As other artists staged exhibitions without
approval from any institution or governmental society, the Party swiftly responded by
banning all unofficial organizations and activities. This revealed the limitations of Deng‟s
seemingly liberal reform movement and marks a trend in the development of
contemporary Chinese art. Every time artists or groups attempt to create and explore their
own aesthetic identity, the exertion of more governmental control over art production and
methods of exhibition rapidly terminates their efforts. After the Stars Art Exhibition,
protests and crackdowns were repetitive.13 The fluid definition of experimental,
contemporary art enabled the government to broaden their control over exhibitions and
ban all modes of expression that they deemed “un-Chinese.”14
From 1983 to early 1984, the Communist Party Propaganda Department
assembled the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. Dialogues on formal abstraction of art
were officially forbidden, contemporary art exhibitions were terminated, and all
exhibitions of Western modern art were suspended. Not just an attack on art, in the words
Xianting Li, "About the Stars Art Exhibition (1980)," in Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary
Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 11-13.
Li, "Confessions of a China/Avant-Garde Curator (1989)," in Contemporary Chinese Art:
Primary Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. #117.
Wang, Gallery’s Role in Contemporary Chinese Art Market, The Ohio State University, The Ohio
State University, 2009, Historical Background of Contemporary Chinese Art Market, accessed
December 2, 2013.
Hendrikse and Thomas J. Berghuis, Writing on the Wall: Chinese New Realism and Avant-garde
in the Eighties and Nineties ([Groningen]: Groninger Museum, 2008), pg. 79.
of Communist Party Propaganda Chief Deng Liqun, spiritual pollution includes,
"obscene, barbarous or reactionary materials, vulgar taste in artistic performances,
indulgence in individualism" and statements that "run counter to the country's social
When the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign ended because of economic issues
and unanticipated resistance, 16 a rapid influx of “decadent” Western art and culture
became available to all people in China. Reproductions of artworks, exhibitions, and
theoretical writings were translated and published in a very short span of time. The
visually and intellectually diverse content of the past century of modern art in the West
was presented simultaneously, without consideration of chronology or internal logic
The New Wave movement, which began in 1985, was a response to the flood of
Western modern art. It was also an effort to develop contemporary art into a unified
avant-garde “movement.” 17To promote contemporary experimental artists, a new
generation of art critics and institutional leaders established new publications. The three
most significant ones were Jiangsu Pictorial (Jiangsu huakan),18 The Trend of Art
Thought (Meishu sichao), and Fine Arts in China (Zhongguo meishu bao). Their editors
developed close ties with experimental artists and organized exhibitions and conferences
around the country.
Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, pg. 35.
S. Wren, Special To The New York Times, "China Is Said to End a Campaign to Stop
'Spiritual Pollution'" The New York Times, January 24, 1984, accessed December 3, 2013,
Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, pg. 99.
One of the most prominent New Wave artists was Wang Guangyi. In his PostClassical: Death of Marat (figure 2), Wang created his own version of the famous
neoclassical work by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1793. He uses a historic Western
image, which itself is grounded in an actual incident: the assassination of the French
journalist and revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, to comment on the radical climate of
Chinese art and society. Wang‟s “revision” of the original—a twin-planed abstraction,
emptied of color and details—reinterprets the traditional, canonic representation with a
contemporary attitude. His repetition of the empty scene adds an existential pop element,
which was common in New Wave works.
Wang‟s work, and that of other members of the New Wave, addressed questions
of modernity, internationalism, and identity. What did the influence of western culture
mean for new experimental art in China? Did modernity have to include influences from
the West? Did Chinese identity and traditions have to compete for significance, or was
artistic knowledge cultureless? The Northern Art Group, part of the New Wave, believed
that the tension between China and the West in terms of modernity could be reconciled.
From their point of view, modernity was an international conceit, eastern and western
cultures collapsed after confronting each other and were steadily being replaced by a new
“northern civilization,”19 a culture of logic and rationality.
The attempt to connect all contemporary experimental artists was not realized.
Most artists were in their twenties; a large number of them were still in art school or had
just graduated. They were not only dissatisfied with the restrictions of art education; they
were still fresh from experiences of the Cultural Revolution and fully aware of the power
Hendrikse and Thomas J. Berghuis, pg. 81.
of culture. So many unofficial art groups emerged that, at one point, there were more than
eighty such groups across twenty-three provinces and major cities.20 No theoretical
principles or artistic styles united these groups. In general, experimental artists of the
1980s were very familiar with developments in Western modern and postmodern art.
They saw themselves as cultural critics, struggling to revolutionize Chinese art and
“reexamining the relationship between art and society, religion, and philosophy in all
possible ways.”21 In many ways, it was more of a movement of ideological liberation
within the confines of art theory than a creative effort to advance art itself.
This criticism of the New Wave, that it was not actually an art movement, has
grounds in the understanding of how art has evolved and for what reasons.The most
important element of art is the practice itself. The artist must incorporate his or her inner
vision with the exterior world at the instant of inspiration and to make a meaningful
contribution to the improvement of art.When art is simply used as a vehicle to express the
artist‟s sociological concepts, it loses its integrity.
The artists of the New Wave were more concerned with changing the climate of
the arts in China rather than making a contribution to the advancement of art itself. Critic
Jia Fangzhou traces the line between art and social reality, “An artist can never
completely sink into the predicament of humanity; he needs to maintain a certain
relationship to social reality while also maintaining a certain distance from it. Otherwise,
it would be too difficult for him to devote himself to art. This is because art does not have
Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, pg. 51.
the fundamental ability or responsibility to transform the fate of humanity.”22 He
compares Pablo Picasso‟s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica. The former
possesses greater artistic value because it represents the turning point from classical art
into the modern while the latter only extended the language, despite the importance of its
New Wave artist‟s adoption of contemporary Western styles also calls into
question the intrinsic value of their aesthetic. The surge of modern art from the West
introduced Chinese artists to the century-long development of art all at once. China
fundamentally lacked the social and cultural context for modern art.24The internal
rationality and history of the evolution of modernity became less important than its visual
and academic content. Western modernism is based off of hundreds of years of
precedents. Chinese artists adopted “avant-garde” artistic models based upon styles and
theories that had long become obsolete to critics of western art.25 The value of these
“westernized” Chinese works was placed in the relocation of these styles to a different
time and place instead of in the original historical and social impact.Even the borrowed
term of “avant-garde” implies that the New Wave was more outward facing and resistant
towards individual, personal development.
Modernism as a concept is based in individuality. The collective spirit of the New
Wave resulted in an marked similarity in artistic language. Self-expression through art
Fangzhou Jia, "Returning to Art Itself (1988)," in Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, ed.
Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 100.
Jiatun Li, "The Significance Is Not the Art (1986)," in Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary
Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 62.
Wu, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago, IL:
David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 1999).
was abandoned in favor of expressing the sentiments of an entire generation. These artists
were acting against the subordination of art to the governance of the Communist party
under Xu Beihong. With the extreme underdevelopment of academic thought in
China,artists were inspired not to further the language and strength of their art, but to
delve into philosophy and sociopolitical liberation. The New Wave did produce some of
the most influential modern Chinese artists, who today produce work all over the world.
Artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Ai Weiwei, Wenda Gu, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Xu Bing
moved aboard in the late 1980s and have enjoyed successful careers in the global art
The China/Avant-Gardeof 1989 exhibition represents both the climax and end of
the New Wave movement in China. Held at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, the
organizers dealt with setbacks and problems so regularly that the exhibition had to be
postponed from its original date of 1986 to 1989. Participating institutions included the
Chinese National Aesthetics Society, the editorial committee of Culture: China and the
World (Wenhua: Zhongguo yu shijie), the Beijing Arts Committee, and the publications
Cityscape in China (Zhongguo shi rongbao) and Free Forum of Literature (Wenxue ziyou
tan).26According to Zhou Yan, a member of the organizational committee, the objective
of the exhibition was to “reveal the value and significance of modern art to the
development of contemporary Chinese culture…[and] would act as a high-level activity
for the interaction and study of modern art while promoting the pluralistic development
Yan Zhou, "Background Material on the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition (1989)," in Contemporary
Chinese Art: Primary Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 114.
of Chinese art.”27 In October 1988, the committee chosenearly 250 works from
approximately 100 artists from every region.
One of the main problems with China/Avant-Garde is that the preparatory
committee had to make compromises with the museum, most importantly over a
prohibition on sexual and performance art. Li Xianting, one of the principal curators of
the exhibition, knew that it would be impossible to realize an avant-garde approach with
the prohibition and instead “attempted to build a certain atmosphere with a sense
offreshness and provocation unlike that of any exhibition the general public had ever
Several artists challenged the preconditions of the exhibition and staged
performances. Two of which were Xiao Lu and Tang Song, in their work
entitledDialogue (figure 3). The work was an installation of a mirror bordered by two
phone booths. On the opening day of China/Avant-Garde, Xiao, a young female artist
from Shanghai, opened fire and shot her installation twice with a loaded gun, leading to
mass panic.29 The exhibition was temporarily suspended, the museum went under
lockdown, and armed riot police swarmed the area.
After three days of meeting between the Public Security Bureau and the
exhibition preparatory committee, China/Avant-Garde was reopened. The “gunshot
incident” was a media sensation and caused the second opening to draw huge crowds.
The unexpected wide public attention changed the state of the exhibition.The show
Yan Zhou, pg. 115.
Li, "Confessions of a China/Avant-Garde Curator (1989)," in Contemporary Chinese Art:
Primary Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 117.
Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, pg. 113.
presented Chinese art to the rest of the world and the international market took notice.
Over the ensuing decade, foreign collectors began to acquire contemporary Chinese art in
mass quantities, leading to a worldwide demand. With the support of the global art
market, many artists shifted from collectivism to individuality.30
Exactly three months after the China/Avant-Garde, on June 4, 1989, several
hundred civilians were been shot dead by the Chinese army in Beijing during a bloody
military operation to crush a democratic student protest in Tiananmen Square in.
Protesters, mainly students, had occupied the square for seven weeks, refusing to move
until their demands for democratic change were met. Many of the demonstrators were
members of the New Wave.
The exhibition presented Chinese art to the rest of the world and the international
market took notice. Over the ensuing decade, foreign collectors began to acquire
contemporary Chinese art in mass quantities, leading to a worldwide demand. With the
support of the global art market, many artists shifted from collectivism to individuality.
In December of 1990, the Chinese government held the Working Conference of
the National Artists‟ Association. The attendants were all members of the Communist
party and leaders of national art and literature institutions. The goal of this conference
was to discuss the future of art and literature in China, “seizing onto rectification with
one hand and prosperity with the other”31. In this case, “rectification” meant:
Daojian Pi and Li Pi, "Contemporary Chinese Art Media in the 1990s (1999)," inContemporary
Chinese Art: Primary Documents, ed. Hung Wu (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pg. 312.
Hendrikse and Thomas J. Berghuis, pg. 78.
“Purging the harmful influence of the intellectual trend towards bourgeois
liberalization in the domain of literature and art [sic] so as to stimulate everyone
into an awareness of the difference between right and wrong, to increase
understanding, to strengthen the feeling of social responsibility in order to make a
new contribution to the prospering of socialist literature and art. [sic]”32
The “purge” began earlier that year with the upheaval of all art institutions,
including the most prominent national art journal, Meishu. The Association carried out a
campaign to investigate all members and to register them with the Communist Party.
Everyone investigated was either recorded as cleared or “under suspicion or worthy of
punishment for involvement in proper activities (either actual involvement in the events
around June 4 or activities construable as seditious incitement thereof).”33 Essentially,
anyone who was associated with experimental art in 1989 was banned from the Artists‟
A member of the Association, Gua Yang, expressed that all modern art was
fundamentally “un-Chinese” and completely influenced by the West. During the
conference, he said,
“There are those who proclaim that literature and art needs to „express the self‟.
They deny the splendid tradition of our literature and art consider the literature
and art of the masses before them to be of a lower stratum, and that which no one
can understand they consider of a higher stratum. The works exhibited at the
February 1989 „modern Chinese art exhibition‟ at the china art gallery in Beijing
were absurd and bizarre and clearly were influenced by the new currents of
The strong reaction against China/Avant-Garde and the events at Tiananmen
Square spurred the Association to redefine art in the context of politics and Chinese
socialism. Wang Qi, the secretary of the Artists‟ Association, advocated for the
development of, “a new kind of art (a socialist art furnished with Chinese characteristics)
which is thus not the same as the art of capitalist countries, and also must be different to
the art of other socialist countries.”35 Like many others at the conference, he wanted
China to develop a national identity in the arts with a clear and unified style, dictated by
The consequences of these anti-modernist actions alienated all of the experimental
artists and critics in the early 1990s, who suddenly found themselves without the support
of any national institutions. There was no longer an intellectual or academic arena where
they could openly discuss and interpret new forms of art. Everyone involved had to make
the decision between accepting the styles dictated by the Communist Party, or ignore
both the Party and it‟s decrees against modern art. With the growing encouragement from
foreign collectors and institutions and the waning support from their own country, many
artists became independent. Several artists, including Wenda Gu, Zhang Xiaogang, and
Ai Weiwei, left China and moved abroadindefinitely.
Without the presence of many of the most influential New Wave artists, and with
the government crackdown on modernism, contemporary Chinese artists were once again
left to redefine the art of their time. They had to change in order to accommodate the
international art market that supported them and, in the process, developed a more
individual sense of modernism. During the 1990s, the Chinese government was still
opposed to experimental art, although as the global art community showed more interest
in contemporary Chinese art, the industry became much more economically
profitable.Once the Party realized that modern art could be used as a soft power strategy
to enhance China‟s global status, more exhibitions were approved.36
In the early period of contemporary Chinese art‟s development, neither artists nor
critics were able to create a consistent, cohesive artistic identity. The Chinese Communist
Party regularly exerted tight control over art production in the country. The government
has a long history of swiftly shutting down any attempts by experimental artists to define
themselves and their art. These tensions resulted in cycles of creativity and suppression
that galvanized the Chinese art world into a constant state of reinvention. The Stars
Group Exhibition of 1979 and the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989 in Beijing were
both the culmination of revolutionary expansion of artistic thought and marked the end of
their respective movements.
Richard Vine, New China, New Art = Zhongguo Dang Dai Yi Shu (Munich: Prestel, 2011), pg. 207.
Birch,18‟ 7/8” (48 cm) high
Collection of the Artist
Post-Classical – Death of Marat. 1986
Oil on canvas, 65” x 45”(166 × 116 cm)
Sigg Collection, Switzerland
Xiao Lu and Tang Song,
Installation and performance.
Color photograph of performance, February 5, 1989, National Art Gallery, Beijing.
Installation 7‟10” x 8‟10” x 3‟ (240 x 270 x 90 cm).
Installation collection Taikang Life Insurance Company
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Wren, Christopher S. "China Is Said to End a Campaign to Stop 'Spiritual Pollution'" The
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