A Critical Review of It’s All Right: a Recent Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Hangzhou, China
Paul Gladston – The University of Nottingham Ningbo, China
In recent years, exhibitions of ‘avant-garde’ visual art in China have begun to move away from the make-shift venues of the last quarter of a century to a dedicated and in many cases highly professionalized museum and gallery infrastructure. As a consequence, the settings within which contemporary Chinese visual art is now shown have become increasingly subordinate to the spectacle of the art itself. This subordination is, of course, not peculiar to China, but can be found anywhere where the anonymous ‘white cube’ gallery space and ‘post-industrial’ art shed have emerged as standard vehicles for the showing of artists’ work. It is, therefore, always refreshing to encounter contemporary visual art in China – as elsewhere - that continues to interact directly and meaningfully with the circumstances within which it is shown.
One such instance of this continuing interaction was the recent exhibition of contemporary Chinese visual art, It’s All Right, which was held in a disused industrial space just off Wushan Square in Hangzhou during December of last year (2006). The exhibition, organized (but not entirely subsumed) by the China Academy of Art’s new media art department, included the work of 36 artists all of whom had been selected in open competition. As ever in China, the work was somewhat variable in its quality and ambition; an understandable situation in this particular instance given that the exhibiting artists ranged from established practitioners in the international field, such as Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi to largely unknown post-graduate students. Indeed, the show was characterized in many ways by a clear, though not entirely consistent division between works by more mature artists with obvious critical content and aesthetic impact and work by younger artists which often seemed considerably more formalistic by comparison. As a result, the tenor of the exhibition was, at times, that of an ambitious graduation show rather than of an entirely mature artistic intervention.
Despite these evident inconsistencies, many individual works shown in the exhibition were, nevertheless, extremely engaging; not least, as has previously been suggested, because of their capacity to resonate strongly and meaningfully with their immediate surroundings. One such piece was Sun Xun’s Another Land – Magician and Spy, an ‘animated’ installation whose Baroque excess and stark Orwellian setting acted as a powerful, comparative doubling of the often highly aestheticized non-sequiturs and violent repressions which accompany all totalitarian ideologies. Another was Zhang Peili’s Restoration, an ostensibly slight piece juxtaposing two interior spaces, one of which remained in a semi-ruinous state of dereliction and another which had been ‘restored’ to something of its former appearance. Here, through a cynical reversal of China’s current, centrally driven programme of urbanization, Peili staged a characteristically absurdist resistance to unthinking notions of material progress. It was therefore possible to encounter within It’s All Right a number of telling interpenetrations between text and context which exceeded the overall shortcomings of the show.
Since the neo-Dadaist, post-punk revisions of the nineteen-seventies and nineteen eighties, any notion of a final sublimation of art within life has long since been abandoned in the West. It is therefore tempting to view It’s All Right from that perspective as a somewhat na？ve take on the possibilities which contemporary visual art now offers. However, that would be to seriously underestimate the potential for re-motivation which can be understood to follow on from the appropriation of Western avant-garde art by China’s contemporary artists. While avant-garde art in the West is seen to have failed in its ambitions to bring about a synthetic shattering of the supposedly distinct spheres of art and life, it is not all clear, despite the historical intervention of a Maoist version of dialectical materialism, that such notions have anything other than a limited currency within the Chinese cultural context. Rather, it would appear to be the case that Chinese thought and practice still proceeds to a large extent on the basis of a more Daoist-Confucian sense of reciprocity between unresolved opposites. As a result, what we find in relation to Chinese ‘avant-garde’ art is arguably not so much an attempt to bring about a critical dissolution of the assumed boundary between art and life, but to maintain the art-life distinction while looking to some sort of rapprochement between the two; hence, the ‘bland’ quality of many Chinese contemporary artworks, often mistaken (by Western viewers in particular) as a lack of critical significance and/or as a poverty of aesthetic affect. It could, therefore, also be argued that contemporary Chinese visual art, such as that exhibited in the context of It’s All Right, is not simply redundant of the Western avant-garde, but instead has the potential to re-contextualize the standard tropes of Western avant-garde art within a Chinese socio-cultural milieu, thereby re-motivating the possible significance of a conventional Western avant-garde desire to bring art into a closer proximity with life.
While the seminal interventions of China’s ’85 generation of artists may now be well behind us, the inclusion in It’s All Right of ‘conceptual’ art works by the likes of Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi alongside those of very much younger artists, does suggest the possibility of an inheritance within contemporary Chinese art. What would also appear to be the case is that this inheritance does not involve a straightforward form of historical continuity. Much of the work included in It’s All Right by less established artists was notable - as has previously been suggested - because of an apparent lack of critical content compared with the heavily allegorized, but nevertheless discernibly politicized work of the ’85 Generation. However, if we also consider the possibility that contemporary Chinese visual art is not simply a repetition but a re-contextualization and re-motivation of Western avant-garde art, then such discontinuities could seem less problematic. Here it may well be that - in some cases at least – the apparent insipidity of very recent Chinese visual art is not just a failure of critical nerve. Instead, it may be an attempt to posit a revised form of critique; one which involves a telling retrieval of a distinctly Chinese aesthetic sensibility. If Zhang Peili’s contribution to It’s All Right is anything to go by, this is a possibility that might already have been recognized by the older generation.