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Art, Media and Stardom

How Western Journalists Helped Make Stars of China's Artists Author: Thomas Fuesser 2009-10-09

The Shanghai Foreign Correspondents' Club Presents:

Art, Media and Stardom - How Western Journalists Helped Make Stars of China's Artists
Thomas Fuesser

ShanghART Gallery
Friday, October 9th, 6pm - 7.30pm

In 1993, the Dutch curator Hans van Dijk arranged for a group of foreign journalists and photographers to visit up-and-coming members of the then fledgling Beijing art scene. Reports on the visit, by New York Times art critic Andrew Solomon and others, played a major part in making stars of artists such as Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun. Another participant in the trip was photographer Thomas Fuesser, who was commissioned by Stern magazine but whose pictures were never actually published. The current show at ShanghART Gallery, 'Lost Treasures of Modern China', features Fuesser's 'lost' pictures of this crucial moment in the development of China's contemporary art scene, along with paintings and videos by Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai which satirize the role of the western media, and other related works by Shanghai-based artists Chris Gill and Andy Hall. In this special event, Thomas Fuesser will give an introduction to the exhibition and discuss the influence of the foreign media on the Chinese art world over the past two decades.

Venue details: ShanghART Gallery, 796 Huaihai Zhong Lu (just west of Ruijin Lu), Tel 3395 0808

Admission: Free. Refreshments will be provided.

NB: The talk will start promptly at 6.30. Please RSVP to by Wednesday 7th October. (Please do not reply to the FCC address)
Thanks to Chris Gill and ShanghART Gallery for their help in organizing this event.

About the Speaker:
Thomas Fuesser was born 1960 in Essen, Germany, where he studied communication and design, before becoming a professional designer and photographer working with magazines, advertising and arts. He has produced several major series of portraits of figures in the art, cinema and cultural worlds, including an acclaimed series of 85 black and white images of world-famous stage performers. Now based in Shanghai, he has participated in many international exhibitions.

Main Text:
Chris Gill introduction notes

So firstly I’ll just say a few words on how this exhibition came out and briefly explain the point of this show.

Thomas showed me his photos late last year, which he’d kept hidden away for about 12 years. I mentioned them to Karen Smith in Beijing, as she is in the process of writing a new history of Chinese art. She suggested it may be best to put together a show of the photos, so I talked to Zhou Tiehai and Lorenz about it, and finally we came up with a joint idea on how to approach the topic, the potential minefield of contemporary Chinese art history. The point about contemporary art is isn’t really history yet- but I think we can see that some elements are already settled into the historical record, so I was interested in questioning or at least commenting on this process of history being written as we live it.

So there are three key periods- the beginning, the middle and now. This show kind of starts at the beginning, works its way through the middle, and is almost up to date, or was a month ago- we haven’t really touched the future much, anyhow that would be illegal- as you all know fortune telling is prohibited in China.

A respected aged curator commented to me the period Thomas spent so much energy and enthusiasm covering was really a key period- a kind of “China’s 1960s,” after a 30 year gap, China had to catch up a lot very fast. When I lived in Beijing in 1992, artists often commented the late 1980s for them was the best period- a kind of Utopian era, when translations of all the various texts banned for decades suddenly became available. A lot of these freedoms disappeared after 1989. So there was a kind of retreat- into the, as was then, country side north of Bei Da, which at that time was paddy fields mostly. I recently revisited the area, and it is a conglomeration of strip malls and apartment blocks.

So things have changed so much, so fast, so we have a little time for reflection.

By bringing out Thomas’ photos- and the old school way they went about journalistic matters in those days, with an emphasis on quality, is interesting for me. Working with German photographers is a different process- every detail is important, from the lifecycle of the paper to the chemicals, not to mention the lighting. You could maybe quiz him about that later. Also then Zhou Tiehai’s reaction to the journalists work is also interesting- we have chosen three small key pieces from his oeuvre. We have also looked how Chinese art has evolved in quite a unique way- especially the collaboration between East and West. In this age of nationalism its good to remind people of that.    

My self and Andy’s work provides a kind of outside the loop look – if you see the paintings and installed works they kind of bracket the accepted dialogue.

Perhaps we could have done a better job of it- but hopefully this is a good starting point. Thomas has a gold mine of memories of the period of the early 1990s- I myself was just a student in Beijing then, and none of the artists I knew then became really famous. Artists lives tend to be quite messy, some drift in and out of their work, some, for which ever reason, give up, or go into hiatus. For artists in the early 1990s it was a particularly difficult time- society was beginning to get rich, so for some artists there was a lot of pressure to become rich, famous, successful. How these select artists Thomas took photos of became famous is quite mysterious- but also in some ways quite simple- they were selected by a journalist as representatives of their generation. It was a narrative accepted and still accepted, and most of them took well to the challenge- other became more obscure. So that is why we thought this might be an interesting discussion topic.  

Thomas Fuesser:

In 2004 Jonathan Napack alleged the following: "Young Beijing - China's capital, once stifled by officialdom, now hosts a myriad of emerging artists, dealers and curators who attempting to turn the mega-city into a truly global art center - at startling speed." (from "Art in America" Brant Art Publications/New York. Edition: Juni/Juli 2004, page 142-145). Napak was an observer, expert and art critic of this fast developing and multiplex Chineses Contemporary Art Scene and a respected Journalist for "International Herald Tribune" and the magazine "Art in America". Compared to the New Yorker Author und Art Critic Andrew Solomon, who's essay "Not Just a Yawn but the Howl That Could Free China - Meet the willful, playful young artists who may be China's most subversive dissidents" was published already in December 19th in 1993, we can recognize that Andrew Solomon visited and explored an obviously extremely different social situation for contemporary artists in China in 1993 as Napak described in 2004. Items like "subversive" and "dissident" can not be found in Napak's essays by this point. So the question arises, can this be noted as evidence that the position and social role of Chinese contemporary artists had changed existentially in only10 years. And can we say today, in 2009 from a western point of view, that during a little more then 10 years the Avantgarde status of contemporary art had changed from its position as a form of subculture into one of mainstream?

So I was in a unique position in 1993, and again in 1995, to take photos of these artists when they were still underground, before they became the stars they are today. The media has obviously played a significant role in this progression.  

Background and to understand why I visited China in 1993 for the first time:

My first perception of the new complex developments in China's unknown modern art scene happened in FEBRUARY - JUNE  1989.  

"The exhibition China/Avant-Garde (No-Return) was opened in February 05th in 1989 at the National Gallery in Beijing and was closed twice by officials during the regular estimated exhibition time of two weeks only. The preparation time for this show had already started in 1986 and this fact that such an art-event became possible in 1989 needed to be recognized as an enormous achievement against the official Chinese art world...  After June 04th in 1989 lost of contemporary artists shut themselves away from the public - a silence that lasted a minimum for two years if they didn't leave the country. The remaining artists worked in privacy in little studios mostly out of town and continued their works or developed their new personal styles..."  (Source: Hans van Dijk and Andreas Schmid, "Bildende Künste nach der Kulturrevolution"- Catalouge in occasion of the exhibition "China Avantgarde", Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 1993, Edition Braus.)

FEBRUARY - MAY  1993  

During February and May 1993, in occasion of the Berlin exhibition "China Avantgarde" at the "House of Culture of the World" which is far beyond being a Museum, I met lots of invited and participating Chinese Artists for the first time and took portraits of them for the German Newspaper supplement Magazine of FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) which never published these photographs, because the editor had no real interest in this topic. Anyway: For the first time in Europe it became possible, starting from Contemporary Art to Modern Music to Rock and Pop, Film and Theater up to Literature to experience a new open enthusiastic young engaged Art scene of China. It was like a miracle. I met the young Zhao Bandi, Ni Haifeng, Wu Shanzhuan, Zhang Peili and China's Rockstar Cui Jian and China's first female Rock-Band Cobra, the novelist Su Tong and especially the Dutch Artist and Co-Curator of this amazing and surprising Berlin Show. His name was Hans van Dijk and during these legendary Berlin days, we became friends. (Van Dijk lived and worked in China since 1985 and died in Beijing April 2002.) As I noticed and watched during these days the first spectacular very confidential visit of this show by Leo Castelli , New York's most famous art dealer, who died in 1999, at that moment I noticed that I witnessed an amazing moment in art history.

Remember: Zhang Yimou and his "Red Sorghum", the book was written by Su Tong (filmed in 1987), was winning the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. He was the first we recognized in Europe as the new generation.

The decision became clear, I had to go to China. Hans van Dijk in cooperation with Cui Jian helped me to get an official invitation by the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra to visit China.  My first touch down in Beijing was September 1993. Unofficially I got an assignment by the German weekly "Stern"- Magazine to produce an colorful overview of the new Chinese Avantgarde Scene, in perspective of an arranged common China trip with the famous German Artist Joerg Immendorf and former Stern Mag. editor in chief Wolfgang Behnken. Immendorf traveled later, Behnken remained in Hamburg.




China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW)-History: "Organization of visits introducing artists Joerg Immendorf (Hamburg), Guenther Uecker (Duesseldorf), art critics Andrew Solomon (New York Times), Thomas Fuesser (Stern, Germany), and others to the art scenes of Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.”  

During my more then 2 month visit which was orchestrated by Hans van Dijk and Ni Haifeng, I met following artists, musicians, curators and I documented their social environment and portrait them in their studios: Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Aniwar, Wan Jinsong, Li Tianyuan, Liu Anping, Zhao Jianren, Zhang Peili, Gu Dexin, Zhao Bandi, Ni Haifeng, Feng Mengbo, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Wang Luyan, Chen Shaoping, Hong Hao, Zhang Yajie, Qi Zhilong, Mou Sen, Cui Jian, Yu Jin, Wang Rui Fang, Xia Nan und Li Xianting.

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