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  > James Bradburne, The Centro di Contemporanea Strozzina
> Franziska Nori, China China China!!!

> Joe Martin Hill, Taking Stock
> Francesca Dal Lago, China Is So Far Away

> Wang Jianwei, Why Must We talk about“China”, now?

> Davide Quadrio, Once Again: China!

> Lothar Spree, 40+4 Art is not enough, not enough!

> Li Zhenhua, Multi-Archaelogy

> Zhang Wei, Throwing Dice

1162-2162 another Thousand years

Li Zhenhua
Conceiving an exhibition that concerns Asia means examining issues related to geopolitics and to the particular identity of Asian countries. These issues include boundaries set by politics, economics and spiritual heritage, and consider the challenges related to the transfer of knowledge.
This exhibition, inspired by the introduction to Jack Weatherford’s celebrated book on contemporary archaeology, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and by Wang Hui’s The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, has a wider historical and archaeological reach and macroscopically analyzes modern China and the issues related to Chinese contemporary art, while, at the same time, showing how the country relates to the rest of the world. Readings on philosophy and archaeology helped me to form a personal perspective on this subject, in order to discuss its international dimension while revealing the sociological, archaeological, historical and philosophical aspects of contemporary art. My description of the curatorial approach may make it appear too ambitious, but my aim is to show the direction Chinese art is taking, and to stress my hope that this show will help to create a new spirit and to open up a new path in present Chinese art practices.

Chinese contemporary art: a brief chronological overview
The development of Chinese twentieth-century art is strongly related to various elements. The regional and international issues that have arisen in different periods of modern and post-Maoist China have played a major role in shaping contemporary art. The way in which these elements have intertwined with each other is evident from the various kinds of exhibitions that have been organized in China and abroad from 1979 till the present. Shows that not only reflected the state of contemporary art during the various decades, but also mirrored the social, economic, political and cultural contexts that generated them and permitted them to exist.
Chinese contemporary art has seen the rise of different styles stemming from different artistic practices and approaches, from the Stars Outdoor Exhibition of the 1970s to the ’85 New Wave, the ’89 Grand Exhibition and the Post-’89 Grand Exhibition in the late 1980s, from Political Pop and Cynical Realism to the Post-Sensibility of the late 1990s, from the recent phenomenon of what can be called the Cartoon Generation to the New Media of 2000.
Stars, the very first avant-garde group in the history of Chinese contemporary art, was formed in 1979. Composed mainly of visual artists (Wang Keping, Ma Desheng, Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui) but also of poets and writers, the Stars’ works were characterized by an incisive artistic language that daringly rebelled against the principles of revolutionary realism proclaimed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which had dominated the Chinese art world till then. Heroism, perfection, the “red principles” of the previous decades gave way to a style that investigated reality without any kind of sublimation and dealt with issues such as politics and the right to self-expression, which formerly had been taboo. Freedom of expression and of thought, and the development of a highly personal artistic language that broke with all conventions, were at the top of these well-known artists’ agendas. The “explosive political nature” of their work linked them to the democracy movement of the late 1970s. When, in 1979, the Stars artists were denied permission to exhibit their works inside the National Art Museum of China, it was natural for them to hang them on the iron gates outside the museum. The Stars Outdoor Exhibition thus affirmed the concept of “nonmuseum” art while, at the same time, allowing those artists to emerge as a group denouncing art as a tool for free political acts. Despite the group’s short life and the fact that most of its members went abroad to find a liberal environment, Stars initiated a spiritual trend that reached its climax in the 1980s.
In the early 1980s, the need to experiment and to challenge ossified dogmas became even more compelling, culminating in a nation-wide movement called New Wave ’85. This movement involved many Chinese cities, not only acting locally but establishing a dialogue between artists, and transforming China into a “laboratory of ideas”. Artists became familiar with theories and works from the West, which were introduced extensively, though not systematically, to the Chinese public, thanks also to the huge amount of translation work undertaken at the time and to the fact that China’s economy was developing steadily (according to research, the per capita income then was between 200 and 500 RMB). Artists questioned Chinese tradition and attempted to find their own answers to artistic and personal questions. The movement culminated in the huge 1989 retrospective China/Avant-Garde, jointly curated by Gao Minglu, Wang Mingxian and Hou Hanru, and hosted by the China National Art Museum in Beijing. For the first time ever, avant-garde artists were allowed to exhibit at the National Art Museum. The show not only featured paintings and photography, but also installations, videos and performance art. The installation Dialogue, created by Tang Song and Xiao Lu, caused a big stir at the show. The work consisted in two phone booths, and at a certain point Xiao Lu fired two bullets at them. The police intervened, and shut down the exhibition.
China/Avant Garde signalled the end of the so-called “humanistic enthusiasm” of the 1980s, which were characterized by an open-door policy—fostered also from an economic standpoint—and widened the rift between official and unofficial art. Tang Song and Xiao Lu’s shooting and the 1989 Tiananmen Incident added more political tension to those times. The politically charged atmosphere of the late 1980s resulted in the birth of new artistic phenomena. The Political Pop, Cynical Realism and Post-Sensibility movements were the response of artists who were self-styled outcasts and so-called “independent artists” unwilling to compromise. Their resistance towards everything “official” found its expression in the use of black humour and violence (especially the Post-Sensibility artists, whose materials included corpses; their work has been defined “morbid art”). In the early 1990s painters like Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei and Yang Shaobin, dubbed “cynical realists” by the Chinese critic Li Xianting, found refuge in the artistic community at the Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) on the outskirts of Beijing; while the first performance artists in Chinese art history (Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Zhu Ming, Cang Xin and others) established the East Village community. These two communities were soon disbanded by the police, but their legacy lives on in the various art districts that have flourished in China, especially in Beijing: from Tongxian (an area in the eastern part of Beijing where many artists have gathered and built their studios) to Factory 798, from Cao Changdi to the Liquor Factory. These “villages” mirror the interaction between society, economy and politics, and embody new societal and geographical changes in Beijing. In the wake of phenomenal economic and urban expansion, Chinese contemporary art has undergone a kind of “village to city” transformation. This was particularly apparent in the emergence of the 798 art district in 2002. Since then, more and more artists have settled in this area. At the end of 2006, 798 finally became a government-accepted art district, thanks to its ability to organize its artists, perfect a management system and draw up rent contracts. From the Yuan Ming Yuan independent and spontaneous art community to the new government-protected 798, Beijing’s contemporary art scene has experienced fifteen years of political, economic and geographical influences and transformations.

Chinese contemporary art: a geopolitical issue?
Beijing’s 798 and Cao Changdi, Shanghai’s Moganghan 50 (M50) art district, Guangzhou’s Yang River, the Da Fen Village, the Long River Delta and Pearl River Delta, the Northwest and the Northeast, are all geographical realities, places that once had nothing to do with art but which now—being recognized as art districts—contribute to outlining the profile and the state of contemporary art in China. The geographical aspect is not limited to identifying on a map the position of art districts within the Chinese context, but also means positioning China within the context of international art. Different forces have enhanced China’s focus on the outside world and vice versa: Chinese artists who have moved abroad, like Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and the late Chen Zhen, and the large number of lesser known artists who emigrate every year, have not only created a Chinese “exodus”, but have also helped to establish a dialogue and to attract more attention to the country and the place Chinese contemporary art occupies in the international arena. At times, foreign connoisseurs who stress the importance of showing art with a so-called “Chinese characteristic” in their exhibitions, have no real interest in China. A case in point is the Mahjong exhibition organized by collector Uli Sigg in 2006–2007, which revealed “Chinese” characteristics in contemporary art history but was coloured by the collector’s interpretation and understanding of the significance of the interaction between the last twenty years of Chinese culture, politics and societal movements, and the tension it produced. This approach based on a Western viewpoint is supposed to show the world what authentic Chinese art is, even though this curatorial statement had been conducted from a non-Chinese perspective. Other telling examples are Hans Ulrich Obrist’s China Power Station organized in 2006 and the Chinese Pavilions curated by Hou Hanru at the Venice Biennale, namely Guangdong Express in 2005 and Everyday Miracles in 2007: they all bolster the “Chinese characteristic” aspect.
Another approach consists in adopting an international perspective to go beyond the Chinese stereotype. It was employed by the 1996 Shanghai Biennial Exhibition and by the art fairs organized from 2004 up to 2007 in Beijing and Shanghai. These events enhanced a transformation of art with socalled “cinese characteristic” into an artistic product able to make the leap to the process of internationalization of Chinese contemporary art. The international vision embodied by the Get It Louder exhibition, organized annually since 2005 in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing presents another principle for the development of Chinese contemporary art. From the outset, this exhibition has attempted to avoid the question of “China” or “Chineseness”, enabling artists to create highly individual works. 2000 was the year that China connected completely with the rest of the world. The Shanghai Biennial gave an international vision of China. After participating in the Kassel Documenta in 1992, Chinese artists were gradually invited to the Venice Bienniale, the São Paulo Biennial and other celebrated international exhibitions. Globalization impacted the Chinese art scene from the year 2000 on, and big exhibitions like Asian New Media spurred Chinese artists to participate more and more in international events. “Going international” also concerns the economic resources of Chinese contemporary art. As contemporary art developed, literature on the subject burgeoned and became more exhaustive. Early texts, such as Chinese Contemporary Art History: 1979–1989, or 1990–1999 Chinese Contemporary Art History and 20th- Century Chinese Art History all provide a personal, yet independent account of contemporary Chinese art history. However, the development of new media and the Internet has marginalized traditional texts, and the Chinese art world has seen the birth of various digital platforms, like the Aesthetic Alliance, the Century Online Chinese Art website, the Saatchi Gallery website, the Artnet website and so forth, all providing a virtual space for contemporary Chinese art that goes beyond geographical and cultural borders. The small, self-run website we-need-money-not-art is also worth mentioning. This group offers another take on Chinese art, by eliminating international borders through extensive translation work and by featuring international and domestic contemporary works in the fields of new media art, video art, conceptual art, robotic art and live art.
From the foregoing it is clear that time, geography, political changes and economic developments are all clues to understanding Chinese contemporary art. It is worth considering whether the perception of aesthetics, also from the perspective of style, has actually changed over the years. We know for a fact that the last twenty-five to thirty years an abrupt transformation occurred in Chinese society and systematic political and organizational changes took place, as depicted in the work Deng Xiaoping in 1975. These changes began with the establishment of the Special Economic Zones, such as Shenzhen and Pudong, in the beginning of the 1990s. These incredible economic and social experiences were documented artistically by Wang Jianwei’s research series Architecture of Everyday Life of 1997, Rem Koolhaas’s study on the Pearl River Delta region8 and Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s San Yuan Li of 2005, which deals with the emergence of villages in Guangzhou city. These works depict the transformation from village to city, from national capital to international capital in a growing economy and a developing reality.
In its portrayal of such aspects, Chinese art appears to be advancing through a dense fog. Chinese contemporary art is a larger-than-life question, and compared to archaeology, sociology and philosophy, appears to be influenced by short-term economic thinking. Or is it influenced by nationalism? Is it related to the social responsibility of those we deem intellectuals? What can help us broaden our understanding of all that is happening and changing in the Chinese context? The exhibition is somehow rooted in these questions, since it concerns the idea of Chinese contemporary art emerging from a dense fog as Chinese society develops.

The effect of the nationalist international brand
We have effected a comparison between the characteristics of Chinese contemporary art and that same art amidst social, political and economic change. The comparison triggers another thought: whether or not Chinese artists can forego their country’s background and act as independent thinkers. This should be clarified: artists can either be labelled “Chinese” or act as representatives of the “artist’s category” as a whole. In today’s modern art market, brand certainly does hold some value where buying and selling are concerned; for example, when Chinese art is auctioned in America, or when modern Swiss art is auctioned in England. This obeys certain market laws, in the sense that the market will always choose a scarce product and raise its value. Thus, the artist’s nationality becomes an indicative characteristic in the contemporary art market. The present status of Chinese contemporary art was a much-needed conquest stemming from the country’s new cultural strategy. Strategists and cultural elites in Europe, America and Japan gained an understanding of symbolic China, and considered China’s problems from the standpoint of its contemporary art problems, which constitutes a reverse phenomenon. The rise of contemporary art celebrities at large exhibitions derives from the independent strategists’ tendency to urbanize. Regardless of the artistic, societal or personal value of the artworks, they appear to be infused with a kind of “Chinese symbolism”, and the fact that they are exhibited in similar categories is interesting. It is also worth considering criteria that go beyond the actual artworks. In the 1990s, Li Xianting suggested that to “connect with the world”, “Chinese symbolism” or “Chinese characteristic” must have a strategy since this implies the existence of the other. Today we must seriously ask ourselves: What causes the overflow of “Chinese symbolism” or the “Chinese characteristic” and who has fostered this phenomenon more, the market or the artists themselves?

The relationship between the artist and space
Can we fail to consider “Chinese symbolism” or the “Chinese characteristic” when examining this relationship? It is hardly possible, since the subject is so wide-ranging and general that there are no boundaries. But it is better not to use “Chinese symbolism” to denounce fixed Chinese symbols; moreover, the Chinese identity is a part of the “Chinese symbol” and the “Chinese characteristic”. This does not prevent us from profoundly discussing issues we truly care about, such as space, socialism, migration and race. It is when such concepts correspond to the artwork that the artist’s and strategist’s vision becomes blocked.
First Wu Ershan and Ren Qinga were concerned with identity and the “Mongolian” issue, then Zhao Liang and Shen Shaomin showed an interest in researching the Xinjiang boundary. Perhaps new media and technologies will move in a more comprehensive and enlightened direction, and introduce scientific arguments to offer more significant research material and ideas. In 2005, Wu Ershan retold a large section of Mongolian history, many parts of which were extremely moving, not because of history’s glorious conquests but because of how Chinese people see their own existence today and the acceptance of their identity, the problem with minorities, the relationship between country and family and the advancement of technology. Wu Ershan’s latest work Nomadic Plan in Outer Space and Ren Qinga’s Hurray! Hurray! both present the relationship between one’s identity (Mongolian) and the idea of a roaming spirit linking it to a somehow “foreign” identity.
In 2007, Shen Shaomin asked me to participate in the post-production of his film I Am Chinese. After days of discussion with him and the artist Xu Huijing in their production office, I slowly realized that the identity dilemma and the extinction of language dealt with in the film was a direct reference to the problems experienced by the early Russian immigrants to China. The work centres on a few chosen individuals filmed live, whose existence represents that of everyone else in their situation, addressing topics such as a transnational identity and the consequential eradication of the national one.
The style and angle from which Zhao Liang’s Return to the Border records life on the border of China and North Korea, make it a “red” border in memory. It is a reflection on the Soviet Union and a realistic rendering of the situation experienced by those who actually lived on the border. These artists form a kind of group. In 2005, Wu Ershan and Ren Qinga’s interpretation of Mongolia constituted a visual and conceptual focus at an archaeological level. The films made by Zhao Liang and Shen Shaomin, whether in 2005 or recently, all deal with a visible or invisible frontier, a romanticized liberal thought and anthropological questions, and all were connected by styles and research methods.

The idea for this exhibition was born in 2005. After endless reading and discussions with artists, the focus was steadily widened and we went beyond Jack Weatherford’s book and the notion of including some Mongolian archaeological artefacts. Palazzo Strozzi is a “living monument” that accentuates the link between artworks and the historic environment in which they are displayed.
The geographical element was considered in the planning of the exhibition, and every effort was made to steer clear of the popular “China” issue. It was only when I visited the Gabinetto Vieussieux, and more specifically the Biblioteca Orientale, a centre for Asian Studies located in Palazzo Strozzi, that I began to ask some questions: Do we present a real, up-to-the-minute image of China? Can this exhibition create a platform for communication? Are the subjects and experiences we are offering in the ambit of the visible and invisible, able to produce a different analysis of the current trend in Chinese contemporary art?
As we tackled the main issue, the topics of Chinese symbolism and international market laws were also introduced. Hopefully, this exhibition will offer some practical experiences. The show is not intended to communicate the image of China as a whole, but to explore some pragmatic though minor societal issues from different perspectives and to introduce ideas on Asia originating in different countries or fields.
Franziska Nori, along with BizArt’s founder, Davide Quadrio, and Guangzhou’s Vitamin Creative Space’s manager, Zhang Wei, collaborated on the exhibition. The show has the full support of the Tang Contemporary Art Center, Beijing.