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> Li Zhenhua, Multi-Archaelogy

> Zhang Wei, Throwing Dice
  Once Again: China!
A Decade of Art in Shanghai: from the “Off” exhibitions to the 40+4 Art is not enough, not enough! project presented at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina

Davide Quadrio
  “The best way of making money on a flower was to buy one that was about to develop offsets which could be removed and sold separately. Bulbs that were likely to grow rapidly were thus more valuable than either immature flowers or those which were already fully developed and unlikely to produce more than a few offsets before they died. But even the most experienced growers found it difficult to predict accurately what a single bulb of a particular variety would do, and so far as novice florists were concerned, bulb dealing was an exercise in pure speculation.”

Mike Dash, Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s most coveted flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused, Phoenix (UK), 1999

I recently presented a series of documentaries practically unknown in Europe at the Motor Village in Turin; they were dedicated to five art events of great significance to the city of Shanghai, all of which have taken place from 1998 to the present. The catalogues and videos presented at the motor show provide a fascinating, if fragmented, view of a group of individuals -- artists, curators, and gallery owners among them – who joined forces in the late 90s to create (or tried to create, at least) a context for contemporary art in Shanghai. Presenting this video seemed to me a good way to show the public how unstructured the arts and culture scene still was in the late nineties. And even though it is almost impossible to believe today, the situation at the time was even more challenging in the field of contemporary art. My colleagues, collaborators, and I set to work in an artscape that was still “empty,” you could say; we tried to come up with a modus operandi that would be the most effective, despite the inadequacy and the relative marginality of the venues made available to us, all temporary – abandoned spaces. Only as recently as the year 2000 did these venues start to become more stable, hosting the particularly exciting start-up phase of our projects, even if our “negotiations” with the city’s institutions and political culture were terribly complex.
This is how the BizArt Art Center came into being: a not-for-profit facility which, having practically nothing to go on, was able to develop a strategy of experimental action focused on specific projects involving Chinese and international artists and having a strong educational connotation. The undeniable achievement of this relatively small group of individuals, over the last decade, has been to meet the city’s “hyper-commercial” evolution head-on, with a policy that goes decidedly against the general trend. Hence a “not-for-profit” space that today is still devoted to creative activities that are not bound by the concept of art as the production of “art objects” with an immediate commercialization as their raison d’etre, but rather the essential creative process: generating ideas.
Our economic difficulties notwithstanding, we have managed to pursue our vision and see it evolve continuously and at a lightning pace, in a setting in which time seemed to expand and shrink with no interruption – a sort of “hypertime” in which months and years blurred together amidst the frenetic changes happening all around us. This state of affairs forced us to act very quickly, to the detriment, on occasion, of a systematic analysis of the decisions and paths we chose.

An “off” Story
The first video I’d like to discuss is from 1998. The title of the exhibition was Jinyuan Road 310. A group of artists lead by Xu Zhen, Alexander Brandt, and Yang Zhenzhong curated this event/multimedia show in a basement space they rented for the occasion. Although it seems frankly inconceivable today, back in 1998 multimedia or new media art was not yet considered art or classified as art by the Chinese authorities, who viewed it as “unstable” (bu wending), if not, at times, outright subversive. Consequently, due to certain contents deemed to be “unstable” – with no further explanation – the exhibition was closed down by the police. The following year, in 1999, the same artists staged a new action, this time by means of a more complex operation designed to build awareness among both the expat community and the international companies offering their support. Presented as a historic event for the city of Shanghai, the exhibition, which was called Art for Sale, was sustained by a highly effective marketing strategy. The venue chosen for the show was a shopping center, and the space was divided into two parts: one given over to an intentionally cynical commercialization of art objects, after the manner of a sort of mini market; and the other part reserved for performances and installations. This exhibition, as well, was closed down immediately, the day after the inauguration. The reason the authorities gave was the supposedly pornographic content of the works on display.

The history of the happenings, activities, and exhibitions in Shanghai at that time remains to be written. Moreover, the extreme commercialization of contemporary Chinese art, with its inevitable oversimplification, often stands in the way of a more contextualized vision of the evolution of art in China over the last two decades. And the recent internationalization of Chinese art has had consequences that are highly problematic, among them the difficulty in understanding, critiquing, and documenting the many-sided evolution of the Chinese artists’ careers, and especially of those working in Shanghai. Only lately has an analysis of the recent past and the key moments in the genesis and development of contemporary art in China been undertaken, two examples being the publication of monographic issues of the Beijing journal U-TURN, edited by Philip Tinari, and the Ullens Foundation’s commitment to arranging retrospectives of Chinese art, an activity that was inaugurated in 2007 with “85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art.” The fact remains that, for the most part, such an attempt at contextualization still stops at Beijing, while a history of the art scene in other places like Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming, and the area of the Pearl River Delta still cries out for codification.

Another video I presented in Turin – not strictly connected to the BizArt activities, but certainly part of a planning strategy characterized by provocative gestures and other actions in the field – documents the exhibition entitled Fuck Off in the English version, and, far less aggressively, Buhezuodefangshi (or “non-collaborative attitude”) in Chinese, which was held in 2000. Within a matter of days this exhibition, too, was shut down, and its organizer Li Liang, of the Eastlink Gallery (which was a cross between a commercial gallery and a not-for-profit organization), who had curated the exhibition together with Ai Weiwei, encountered considerable problems in managing his own activity for over a year. At first glance, the exhibition was not particularly controversial, and the contents of the artworks were critical without being subversive. Stronger tones and even violent ones, at times, marked the catalogue itself. A number of the artists featured had exhibited works that utilized or displayed human corpses or parts deriving from corpses such as, for example, the body fat displayed in Peng Yu’s installation. Indeed, the work that drew the most fire, the one that caused a genuine scandal, horrifying visitors before going on to tour the world, was the performance “Eating People” by Zhu Yu. Documented on video, it presented an act of cannibalism involving a boiled human fetus. The authorities promptly redrew the general laws on pornography and xingwei yishu, or nudity and the use of the boy as a vehicle for performance art.

In reality, the phrasing of these laws is extremely ambiguous; the guidelines and general principles can be interpreted as having meanings that are diametrically opposed. The vagueness of the rules and the potentially antithetical interpretations constitute factors that still create situations of great confusion and uncertainty at the present time: anything goes, in theory; the human body can be represented for artistic purposes, as long as the work is neither pornographic nor offensive. The terms of the debate are all rather vague, too; indeed, even the meaning of the word “art” is not at all clear. The question inevitably arises: what are the boundaries?

The other events I presented on the occasion of the Turin fair are the three latest exhibitions without government backing organized by the group of artists led by Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong, and Alexander Brandt, all three of whom still collaborate closely with BizArt. The first was entitled Fan Mingzhen and Fan Mingzhu (2002), after a pair of Chinese twins who greeted visitors at the two entrances to the exhibition. This was divided into two parts: two matching exhibitions covering an area of roughly 2,000 square meters; in both spaces the artists exhibited the same works with very minor variations such as, for example, an alternative ending for a video, different proportions for an object, or the slight modification of a performance. Every visitor could thus choose which part of the exhibition to start with.
And to make the situation even more absurd, destabilizing, and paradoxical, Xu Zhen created a performance entitled “March 6th”: he invited a hundred farmers, factory workers, and jobless individuals, and then a hundred university students, all wearing striped pajamas, to stand by the exhibition’s two entrances. For every visitor who crossed into the exhibition space, one of the figures in pajamas – on one side a farmer/factory worker and on the other a student – would leave his or her group and follow the visitor throughout the show, a full two meters behind, and neither speak nor interact, with the visitor, who could only shake the “shadow” off when it was time to go into the rooms holding the video installations. In this case the “shadow” would wait at the entrance to the room. It isn’t hard to imagine exactly how surreal and, at the same time, how very amusing this experience was.

2004 was the year of 62761232, an exhibition introduced by a long subtitle: “62761232 is the telephone number for a courier in Shanghai. From September 10th to September 20th, from 10 am to 10 pm, no matter where you are in the city, you will be able to have an exhibition brought in front of you.” A “portable” show, in a word, which saw the participation of forty artists, among them Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong, and Kan Xuan (I myself took part, under my Chinese name Le Dadou), as well as many others, like the thirteen messengers who worked for a local messenger service, equipped with bicycles and scooters. And preparing these young messengers was the most interesting part of this exhibition/performance piece: for months they were taught how to do a performance, explain a conceptual work, and exhibit and comment on contemporary artworks for the benefit of their future audiences. The messenger who delivered his or her exhibition package thus took on the role of guide to the event. The artworks were delivered in a random order: a sack containing the numbers corresponding to the forty works on display was given to the “customer-visitor, “whose exploration of the exhibition thus unfolded randomly as well, and somewhat ritualistically.

The 2006 Solo Exhibition was very likely the most ambitious one that this group of artists has arranged in the last few years (even if the circumstances turned it into more of a happening). The event was made possible with the technical and logistic support of BizArt, the Dolan Museum, and the Zendai MoMA. It was actually a combination of 38 solo shows by as many artists, each one curated utterly independently of the others, which, of course, made for a total of 38 catalogues, 38 invitations, 38 press kits, and 38 different and separate spaces clustered in a former industrial facility that had just been remodeled. The exhibition covered an area of roughly three thousand square meters. Approximately eighty people contributed to the making of the event, including the artists; BizArt, Zendai MoMA, and the Dolan Museum collaborators; and students. Each artist was in charge of his or her “solo exhibition,” from the form and content to the design of the invitation and the catalogue. And perhaps as a result of the long “silence” imposed by the censorship that prevailed from 2000 to 2006, the critical content of several of the works on display was quite direct, and at times their visual impact was rather disturbing. The young Zhang Ding, for example, presented a photographic study of pornography in China; He An designed an installation about rape. The works were labeled as “unstable” by the authorities, and in the presence of over a thousand visitors, the exhibition was closed down by cutting off the electricity just ten minutes after it opened. News of this was not made public. On the one hand, the local press was silenced; on the other, we ourselves chose not to enlist the international press, considering that by working in China, and intending to work in China in the future as well, we had to play by the rules and accept all the consequences of breaking them. We undertook multiple negotiations with the authorities to try to rebuild our relationship with them. As soon as the exhibition was shut down, the three organizations behind the event were indicted, and a number of the artists had to make themselves scarce for weeks. Some of them went away, others faced the local authorities, and still more were forced into hiding.

After working in China for ten years, this experience was acutely frustrating and depressing. It was hard to accept a reality so bleak – and so completely different from the image of the modern, international Shanghai that the West like to believe in, and the local authorities do everything to promote, in order to sell the idea of a city that can offer its residents a better life – the slogan “Better City, Better Life,” created for the World’s Fair to be held in 2010, epitomizes this policy. Needless to say, the reality is quite different and far more complex for those who live in Shanghai and work in the contemporary art field.

One point that I feel needs to be clarified is that open clashes with the establishment have not always been the rule in the experience of BizArt or other non-institutional organizations, groups of artists, and independent curators in China when arranging their various activities, projects, and exhibitions. Since working with the local governments entails dealing with individuals who, for the most part, know very little about art, negotiating with them is thus a matter of pure dialectics, whereby the form and content of a work are broken down and analyzed in the most elementary fashion, to the point of even distorting the artist’s original intention on occasion, in order to create a simple, direct message that will distract the “censor’s” attention. Admittedly, this has not always proved to be a winning strategy. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that the problem with censorship is (almost) never the art in itself, rather – as one of the “censors” explained to me one day – the fact that those in positions in power fear that the so-called “unstable” exhibitions could engender situations that could put their positions and their privileges at risk.

Censorship, therefore, is not set in motion at the creation of an artwork, but only when it is exhibited to the public: when the public becomes aware of its existence, and when it is documented in catalogues and the press. Of course, everything is relative: when you live and work in a place where a democratic system is absent, a place where the media has to answer to government “watchdogs,” you still need to find a way to conduct business in spite of these conditions. That said, in defense of China and its government, I must say that the attitude of the authorities has always been supportive of our activities, albeit tacitly. For example, in talks with representatives of the local authorities, I learned that BizArt’s activity was followed with great interest, and the international role of this organization, however misunderstood, was appreciated by the government precisely because it contributed to the image of a modern and cosmopolitan Shanghai that the establishment was eager to spread, recalling as it did the glory days of the city in the twenties and thirties.
The fragile equilibrium between government control and cultural development on an international scale has effectively allowed BizArt and other independent or semi-independent organizations – such as the Shanghai Gallery, Eastlink Gallery, and more recently the Shanghai Gallery of Art, Aura Gallery, DDM Warehouse, Suzhou Creek Warehouse, Dolan Museum, Zendai MoMA, and MoCa-Shanghai; and other independent curators like Li Xu, Zhao Chuan, Zhang Xian, Gu Zhenqing, and Karen Hung (to name just a few) – to promote an exceptional artistic dynamism for roughly a decade.

The current political situation in Shanghai:
what does the future hold?

“At least somebody cares.”
from a conversation between Lothar Spree and Zhu Xiaowen

As the years go by, the political future of China seems more and more of an enigma to me. What I feel I can try to analyze is what I see around me in Shanghai. Over the last year the administration has been reshuffled several times: there have been three mayors in just a few months, and the leader of the local Communist Party, Chen Liangyu, was arrested for corruption and misappropriation of public funds (specifically pension funds). This state of affairs, rooted in the past regime of Jiang Zemin and thus the old power system prior to Hu Jintao, formed the backdrop to the most recent summit of the Central Communist Party. One significant effect of similar political situations, which are indeed “unstable,” by my definition, is the direct impact they have on controversial cultural activities, to the point of clamping down on them altogether. What was the real reason for shutting down the Solo Exhibition show? In my analysis, the collaboration between BizArt, the Dolan Museum, and Zendai MoMA constituted an unusual precedent, hence a destabilizing one. The exhibition was co-produced, in fact, by BizArt, an independent organization; the Dolan Museum, a state institution; and Zendai MoMA, a private museum owned by an influential real estate agent in Shanghai. It follows that an exhibition of this kind presented all kinds of structural difficulties as to who exactly was to make decisions concerning the line to adopt. In a Confucian system that is highly hierarchical, like the Chinese one, if the lowest government level (in this case, the government office in charge of cultural affairs for the district) was unable to take precautions, the problem would necessarily climb a few rungs to higher levels, where it would become exponentially more critical and more dangerous. This is precisely what happened in a climate of extreme tension in the summer of 2006, when the rapid turnover of short-lived majors and the numerous dismissals of corrupt politicians were in full swing, creating an alienating immobility, both political and cultural.

One of the most recent initiatives to be presented in Shanghai, in the autumn of last year, was called eART, a new media art event held in public places, galleries, and museums. Conceived and organized by Victoria Lu, an independent curator affiliated with MoCA Shanghai, and sponsored by the government, the success of the event with the critics and public was circumscribed: on the one hand there were organizational problems, on the other there was a general apprehension that effectively dampened the event’s impact in the wake of restrictions applied to artworks by local and international artists.

Today, despite the tensions generated by the economic boom, in many areas the atmosphere remains essentially optimistic and open to exploring all the options; above all, the current political system is neither fragile nor its reasoning unsound. Personally, I harbour an extravagant, perverse admiration for the Chinese government’s ability to manage not only its domestic policies but also its international relations. It may well seem that the central authority supports and reinforces the postmodern idea of a globalizing economic dictatorship, the so-called “socialist path” to capitalism which – granted the obvious distinctions, yet a troubling analogy nevertheless – reflects what is occurring in the contemporary artworld system in China as well. The stellar prices for Chinese art, or more precisely, for a limited number of works and artists that the top auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s (to mention just the most famous ones) are promoting, operate on the same principle: commercialize the art to the point of creating a system for art production that is closer to the culture industry and luxury entertainment field, which turns art into a financial investment rather than a fundamental ingredient for the artistic and cultural evolution of China itself.

China and the art market

“To make it as a commercial artist, you have to be a good businessperson as well, and not all artists are up to the challenge.”
from a conversation with Zhang Beili, Amsterdam, December 2007

Over the course of the last four years, the international art market has swept into China, only to find a structural framework at the local level that is still largely inadequate. As recently as four or five years ago, many in the art business wrote the Chinese artists’ works off as provincial or déjà vu, of no real interest. As soon as it dawned on one and all that Chinese artworks could represent an easy investment, guaranteeing quick and substantial profits, suddenly the sky was the limit: and soon works carrying a Chinese signature, like those of Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Wang Guangyi (to name just of few of those who have acquired name recognition in the West), went from fetching prices in the tens of thousands of dollars to millions. The runaway success of the “first generation” artists (sustained at the time by respected critics such as Li Xianting and Gao Minglu) was sudden, swift, and of vast proportions; indeed, this group inevitably became a model for the generations that followed.
In fact, as Zhang Beili suggested during a recent conference, “contemporary” art in China was essentially an invention of the nineteen-eighties, when artists were seeking new expressive forms in opposition to, or in any case as a response to, the Maoist conception of art, and behind that the millenary tradition of “classic” Chinese art. This was the reason artists started to utilize “imagined” styles, more or less borrowed wholesale from the history of Western art; the result was the rise of the “pop cynicism” that spread to the West, the distinctiveness of its symbols linked to images that the international public could immediately recognize as “Chinese.” Its criticisms were directed at Maoist themes and images. With the use of artistic styles initially developed outside the ambit of Chinese aesthetics, the artists’ original intentions got lost: the critical spirit inherent in the artistic endeavor was transformed into a merely symbolic attribute that the international art-going public could label as “typically Chinese.” The canonization of these models occurred gradually over the course of the nineties, with the Berlin exhibition entitled “Chinese Contemporary Art,” the Venice Biennale from 1993 on; and the most recent show, “Majiong,” organized by Berne’s Kunstmuseum in 2006.

The consequences of this approach are there for all to see. Abroad, above all, the artists belonging to the “canon” have become the gold standard for young artists and students. The message is loud and clear: learn to paint and create artworks to sell. This is the career path that the academies and the various courses in design, architecture, and fashion advise. The same is obviously true of the visual arts: with the exception of a few enlightened teachers, the programs with the educational institutions’ seal of approval are the ones designed to maximize earnings. There is no formal invitation to seek to understand, learn, and investigate, in order to create works that have a certain intellectual depth; the main incentive seems to be making a quick buck, with not the faintest idea of investing in cultural practices long-term.

Let me stress that there is nothing wrong with earning money from one’s art, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the creative process and the coherent development of the artistic practice.
That said, fortunately enough there are organizations that operate quite differently, such as the Art Academy of Hangzhou, whose New Media Department has made a very far-sighted commitment to developing channels that are not solely commercial, allowing students to invest in complex artistic activities that even involve, on occasion, a form of political engagement.
It is true that it is essentially private enterprises, scattered across China, that make up this alternative trend: organizations and individuals who have worked in China for years, investing time and energy in understanding the way things work, and at the same time seeking to improve the quality of the artistic output, whether in the visual, performance, or musical arts. These players represent the alternative to the mainstream: the curator, collector, gallery owner or cultural institution that comes to China (and not only China?) to go on virtual shopping sprees, scooping up ideas, works, and artists themselves for export, and creating, as in the past, a fictional China, magic and diabolical, when not merely a projection of a China that is grossly oversimplified and lamentably inaccurate.

40+4 Art is not enough, not enough!
This long introduction brings me to the heart of the project being presented at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina. Where to find answers that redefine and reposition art and its meaning? What, indeed, is the role of art in the context of an alienating globalization? How to restore a sense of intellectual integrity to the approach to art, even in its commercial connotations and its relationship with power? What is the artist’s place in all of this? In the commercialization of art taken to the extremes, in which art is first and foremost an investment, and an ideal as an afterthought, is there still room for “revolutionary” expression? What is the meaning of an artist’s activity? Is it possible to envision art associated with a long-term planning and committed to producing ideas, and not just objects?
Again, is art just the umpteenth product of a specific era or society, to be exhibited in the museums of the future as representing a particular moment in political or social history? Am I alone in asking these questions and weighing their implications, or do others feel this dissatisfaction and alienation as well: artists, curators, and gallery owners? Finally, are these problems specific to China, or more generally, do they characterize the global artworld system today?
In my ideal view of things, my uneasiness over these many questions could only be dispelled by a real dialogue with the most important actors in the artworld system: the artists themselves.
This was the reason why Lothar Spree, Zhu Xiaowen, Xu Jie and I decided in early 2007 to adopt an almost sociological approach and undertake research to discover whether this unease was deep-rooted in or shared by Shanghai artists. We often hear about the art “system,” but the basic building block of this scheme is its core, that is to say, what the artist creates: in a word, art. And so, together with Lothar Spree, Zhu Xiaowen, and Xu Jie – the last of whom in the role of professional interviewer – we tried to probe the relationship between the artists, their work, and the evolution of contemporary art in Shanghai over the last two decades, by interviewing a carefully selected group of artists. The numbers we chose were forty and four: forty artists and the four people involved in the research project, for a total of forty-four, the number which, in Chinese, sounds like the translation of “double death, “ which recalls a quite common tongue twister in the language . Indeed, all the connotations of the number forty-four seemed to us to be ironically appropriate for defining the heart and soul of our project.
The forty artists we selected all have very different backgrounds, ranging from traditional art and painting and new media art. A number of them are museum directors, others are teachers. Yet although our selection was subjective, we believe we have succeeded in presenting a cross section of the art scene in Shanghai.
All artists were asked the same questions, each of which was printed on a flashcard, and there were twenty-seven cards in all, divided into four colors, along with a set bearing famous quotations about art made by historical figures. The interview got underway with four general and autobiographical questions about the artist (grey cards), and moved on to questions that were philosophical or psychological (blue cards), followed by questions that were of a political or sociological nature (green cards), and winding up with questions about art as a product (red cards). The conversation ended with the artist choosing one last card from the pack containing dozens of quotations (light green cards) by various personalities, concerning the meaning of art. The artist was asked to comment on the card he or she had drawn out loud, and propose a personalized version of the quote if he or she so desired. The interview/conversation lasted an average of 30 to 45 minutes, and occasionally a whole hour.

Thanks to a painstaking editing process, a composition has been created for four synchronized screens, across which the image flicker at a hypnotic pace that perfectly reflects the view of the contemporary art and culture scene in Shanghai: its fragmentation and continuous becoming. By way of this “forced” conversation, the artists’ narratives attempt an analysis of the history of contemporary art from the nineteen-eighties to the present, as they reflect on the condition of the urban artist, the ties existing between contemporary Chinese art and its past, as well as in relations to the world history of art; and the art market and the state of art criticism in China. By means of a presentation designed to unfold on four screens, the film’s narrative presents not only the individual artists, but also the collective point of view of the forty subjects interviewed: a vision of artistic Shanghai that isn’t “me, myself, and I.”

The wealth of recorded material produced two versions, one in Chinese and one in English, the transcripts of which will soon be available on the Internet. The texts have been submitted to a number of local as well as international art critics, who were asked to write a commentary and critical appraisal for a publication scheduled for 2008, to serve as the critical apparatus for the installation itself.
One preliminary general statement we can make, evinced by the material we gathered, is that the “case of Shanghai” is far from unique; on the contrary, it represents what is occurring in the rest of the world as well: the fracture between the artist, his or her art, and the artworld system. This is the very situation Stephen Wright so aptly illustrates in his introduction to the project:

“Like its skyline, Shanghai’s artscape is changing at a mind-boggling pace. It is no longer adequate to speak of the city’s ‘artworld’; rather one must recognize its plural and overlapping systems, communities, times and places of art making. How is the status of the artist changing in this landscape? As the ‘creative industries’ encroach on the former territory of art production, how have artists coped with the shift in their activity? How has it impacted on their self-understanding and on their relationships with other artworld actors including dealers, critics and curators? […]
At the core of this research project is a series of videotaped interviews by Davide Quadrio and Lothar Spree, in co-operation with Zhu Xiaowen and Xu Jie, with some forty Shanghai-based artists, dealing not with artwork per se, but rather with how artists themselves perceive their activity, their role and position in a changing, post-conventional society. This project seeks to ‘map out’ some of the contours of the city’s artistic imagination, providing a cartography of the force fields of its subjectivities. And above and beyond an unsparingly critical, and at times partisan analysis of artists imaginaries, it provides a heuristic focus on the urban subjectivities of one of the contemporary world’s most intense urban experiences – Shanghai.
The interviewees come from a wide variety of backgrounds, practices and traditions; their outlooks reflect a commensurately broad range of values, both implicit and explicit, and expectations with regard to art, art-making, critical commentary and spectatorship. Their answers, as revealing in what they take for granted as in what they assert, depict a landscape of overlapping artworlds, each with its own set of assumptions and economies of recognition.
[…]One of the lines of friction in these overlapping artworlds opposes the vernacular (practices profoundly grounded in their context) and the global (world art, everywhere at home, and nowhere more so than in the white cube). How can this now sterile opposition be overcome? Is there something ultimately impenetrably specific to a culture – and the art practices that comprise it – such that it can be grasped only by those born into it? […] While avoiding the pitfalls of universalism, is there any point overstating cultural specificity’ Very probably, the paradigm shift underway in the symbolic economy of the artworld mirrors a comparable though vastly amplified ongoing transition in the general economy. Not surprisingly, many artists appear disinclined to embrace a new paradigm, preferring to ‘patch up’ a still viable though more conventional model. Others seem more inclined to renounce an object-based practice in favor of a more discourse-based or community-based orientations […]

On the surface, the Shanghai art scene appears vibrant: the economy is hot, and demand continues to outstrip supply. But beneath the seamless surface of bonheur and excitement, is there not a latent discontent – that is, an often only obliquely articulated frustration and disorientation with current norms and values?”

What this lengthy excerpt seems to suggest is that this “latent discontent” is not necessarily the exclusive prerogative of the Chinese art scene.
I have often been invited to take part in conferences and seminars on the subject of China, in Europe and Asia as well; these experiences have been enlightening, especially for the sense of “displacement” they provoke. Over the course of my career, and perhaps as a result of a feeling of inadequacy partially derived from the Eurocentric view of the world, my impression of the artworld system in the West is that it is bursting with professionalism, freedom of action, money, and power. Examining the European art and government institutions directly, I soon became aware of the existence of certain mechanisms that I didn’t understand, or that took me by surprise – ones that, variations on a theme, are actually quite similar to those I have described in these images from the evolving art scene in Shanghai over the last ten years. In conversations with Italian artists and journalists it has come out that, sadly enough, a sort of self-imposed censorship exists and is endured in Italy, as well; in talking with friends and students, the impression that I get is their broadly-shared sense of powerlessness, a lack of “daring” caused by cultural immobility and a system of state support for the arts that suffers from gangrene. That defense mechanism by which an artist thinks “even if I try, it’s not going to happen, and if it does happen, it won’t be the way I want,” is widely shared, to an alarming degree, and as Stephen Wright has so skillfully shown, it is absolutely alienating.

Independence and the use of the system
I would like to conclude by highlighting certain aspects of the current situation in China as they relate to the new globalization of the artworld system. In the last five years interest has grown exponentially, and opportunities for making contemporary art in China have proliferated, attracting a series of international players of Asian or Chinese origin (from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, or continental China). These figures – critics, curators, artists, and collectors – have shaken the Chinese system to its foundations, working a middle ground between the international networks and the local institutions, and clouding the perception of Chinese cultural mechanisms. They intervene directly in the system, and the local institutions view them as part of the international Chinese community. Curators, academics, gallery owners, artist, and consultants who populate the museums, art festivals and biennials, they give the impression that a certain degree of government openness to the arts is a given.
The series of Beijing International New Media Arts Exhibitions (those organized by Tsinghua University and held in 2004, 2005, and 2006) or the eART Festival in Shanghai that debuted in 2007, to name just two events, are part of this system. They are events which seem to satisfy all the criteria for openness, at a superficial glance, but in reality, if you analyze how these festivals were actually put together, you soon discover formidable control mechanisms at work. The Chinese government’s policy of supporting the new media and the creative industry has generated a conception of the relationship between art and technology as entertainment; in which the two join forces to create the spectacle. These festivals showcase works that are about design as much as art, practically manga with a content that in most cases is deemed to be “safe,” requiring a minimum of analysis, and critical, if at all, to a very minor degree. The curators, many of whom are Chinese or “seem” to be Chinese (meaning ethnically Chinese, but brought up abroad), bring to bear not only their own experience on the event but an entire international artworld system, and convey the message of an “up-and-coming” China where anything can happen in an exciting, brand-new, futuristic landscape. Indeed, they are the perfect go-betweens for a government working on a grand scale, and if the content is international, attractive to the eye, simple to understand, and can bring a bit of glamour to China, so much the better. Obviously, the international art institutions are every bit as eager to come to China and open all imaginable channels to this new world so rich in cultural opportunities. Cultural and – above all – economic, that is.

“The dichotomy between China and the rest of the world by miming the rest of the world and adding a so-called ‘Chinese’ value to that. This fluctuating relationship was and still is part of the displaying-of-art game: content, aesthetics and standards on display are justified based on the ‘Chineseness’ of it. What is condescending indulgence towards exhibitions in China (and not only), a sort of justification that responds – from the Chinese side—maybe to a sort of uneasiness, inadequacy and nationalism and from the “western” side to a mixture of paternalism (touching sometimes the level of cultural imperialism) and anxiety (defending the value and quality of the western implications – cultural, economic, political—with China).”

The introduction to KIC, one of the venues for the Shanghai eArt Festival (Urbanized Landscape) in 2008, is thus in keeping with the theme: “KIC was inspired by a combination of technological innovation and entrepreneurial spirit found in the Silicon Valley in the United States, and the cultural vibrancy of the left bank of Paris”.

Seen from abroad, the Chinese art scene seems to operate according to international standards and conventions; the reality, however, is far more complex. China plays by its own rules, those of a system that was isolated for decades; a system that now opens and shuts for inscrutable reasons, which are extremely difficult to oppose or else turn to the advantage of genuine artistic creations. Nonetheless, if and when the rules are bent to benefit important projects, I am hopeful that they will produce an unprecedented results that will have an astonishingly liberating effect on the system. China as a workshop for new solutions and future rewards? The question is, is China still in time, though, to evolve in this direction?