Witnessing the rise of history

Zhang Xiaogang in his large studio on the outskirts of Beijing. Paintings are from his "Bloodline: Big Family"
series, based on formal photos from the Cultural Revolution era.
PHOTO BY Chang W. Lee / The New York Times
A fascination for the contemporary art of China. What might inspire this? Newness, spirit, energy, diversity, the subversion of a system by society’s underdog - for history repeatedly tells of the fate of artists in so-called repressive regimes. Perhaps the fascination is bound up in all of these things. Perhaps none of them at all, for how many would believe us, if we said that it is the sheer quality and diversity of the art being produced in China now?

For western people, steeped in the history of western art, the fascination should be with witnessing the evolution of the contemporary as thought and expression, of witnessing a fundamental shift in thinking and perception by China’s growing body of artists, that is coupled with the kind of zeal that produced myriad schools of art in Europe at the turn of the century. Bearing witness to history in the making, born of the foresight suggested by the past, now draws the gaze of a growing number of western viewers. We can only read about developments in western art in historical accounts in books - the works themselves are so often denied their original, historical impact when placed in contemporary settings - and try to imagine the exuberant mood of a time in which art was suddenly so radically different from its immediate past; art that caused chaos in the salons and museums as it shocked patrons and public alike.

From the perspective of the present, it is hard to grasp the venom that was unleashed at the work of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Cubism, let alone the Surrealists, yet whether we like the works or not, all acknowledge the contributions these artists made to art history and to the evolution of western culture. The parallel here is the creative spirit and energy of a specific time, at which a certain set of circumstances, events and philosophising aligned themselves to allow a particular environment for aesthetics. In short, it is the artistic and creative possibilities that are unleashed by a period of rapid and dramatic social and economic change; 1990s China just as turn of the century Europe.

A fascination with contemporary art from China is like that of a parent watching the struggles of a child as it grows to maturity; the crossing of each barrier, the conquering of every obstacle, gives rise to intense joy in new discovery and achievement, that builds on all that has gone before. Western art continues to dominate world trends but perhaps Chinese artists, free from the weight of an academic history of artistic development, manage to escape this complexity and touch base with simpler, more essential truths.

Today, few places in Asia remain more mysterious than China. Even in this modern age of globalisation where cultural boundaries are being reduced by the march of mass media, China retains its own distinct and complex characteristics as almost no other nation. Whilst Chinese culture remains steeped in the creative aura of its ancient civilisation, the contemporary art of the middle kingdom stands apart. The reason is both natural, modern rebellion against tradition and an enforced socio-political break in the middle of this century. Post 1979, these combined to set the stage for a contemporary art that would be a dynamic and reflective aspect of the modern period. And so it is; reflective of the tremendous change sweeping through the annals of this long-standing culture; dynamic because it represents a spiritual and social awakening that is currently unique to China alone.

In the mid-1980s, art that was being produced throughout China was doused in Western thought and culture that surged in as the long-closed door began to open. Just ten years on in the mid-1990s, it is possible to see that the manifest forms and styles of expression that appeared in China’s new art, were, and remain, inextricably tied to the traditions of Chinese life; the tangible aspects of Western materials and approaches are but grafts onto an ineluctable body of Chinese thought and philosophy. This Chineseness is the appeal, strength, and significance of China’s contemporary art.

Art in China of the 1990s and the beginning of the millennium is increasingly marked by a profound diversity. There is realism, academicism, expressionist styles, abstract compositions and a mixing of media, all existing side by side. There are equally great works being produced in oil on canvas, ink on paper, in print-making, sculpture and photography. As the outlook of artists matures, it looses none of its vital impetus. What could be more fascinating to all who seek the thrill of art at the cutting edge?
[© 2008 China Avant-Garde Inc.]
Karen Smith will be in Macau at Bloom Yellow in Albergue. Tomorrow at 18.30!


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