It is a great honour to be here at Stanford University to talk with you about "Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West." My original subject was “How Western People Support/Influence Contemporary Chinese Art,” but I prefer to talk about the subject rather broadly. Recently, I have been thinking about a few interrelated issues what is the "essence" of contemporary art, what is the current system of the contemporary Chinese art market, and what is my own situation now as a contemporary Chinese artist.?
Mankind has evolved rapidly from the agricultural, to the industrial, to today's IT-dominated civilization. I truly believe that art will stand at the forefront of the future development of human history. Contemporary art expresses wisdom, a very encompassing wisdom. Such wisdom exists in the East as well as in the West. But why did contemporary art in China only start to happen in the 1980s?
Only since the 1980s have contemporary artists in China been exposed to their counterparts in the West—to gallery people, curators, journalists, and collectors. From that time forward, under the influence of the western system, contemporary art in China mushroomed.
In 1996, I made a movie about when Chinese artists got in touch for the first time with their counterparts in the West. The movie is nine minutes long. It is called Will, or, in Chinese, bixu, which means literally "we must."
WE MUST build our own airports, WE MUST visit the foreign doctors, WE MUST become art tour guides, WE MUST establish contact with the godfathers of art. I think the video Will reflects very well the situation of contemporary artists in China at that time. Looking at Chinese contemporary art over a period of 20 years—that is, since I started to do my first works in 1986—I can only describe the situation today as grave, or dongdan bude, which means "can’t move."
It cannot simply be said that the result of the influence of the Western art system on Chinese contemporary art is good or bad. It is obvious that China at the moment lacks a system to sustain and develop contemporary art and is also not able to create a good model for itself. But I also want to emphasize that I don’t think the current system or model is a failure or can be categorized as East or West. I am not interested in these kinds of questions.
I am interested in the question of whether, through further development of our civilization, we will be able to quench the human thirst for freedom and liberalization of the self. Can we really cure the widespread depression common to both poor and wealthy societies in today’s world? Depression—depression is such a common phenomenon.
In my own artistic development, I encountered this feeling of "can’t move” in 2000. Realizing that the Western art world, however developed it is, cannot bring solutions to important problems, I started to look at the Chinese art world.
In my art, I call works related to Western "civilization" (that is, works with Western images) “placebo” and works with Eastern images “tonic.” Both of them, ”placebo” as well as ”tonic,” have curative purposes. We cannot say that one is better than the other, or that one is higher, the other lower.
In today’s contemporary Chinese art world, we seem to be hopelessly entangled between these two civilizations, moving back and forth between Eastern and Western things. How to jump out of this confinement and solve the essential needs of mankind?
As an artist, I cannot stop challenging myself to try to answer the question: How can one find a way to satisfy the human pursuit for freedom, beyond the normal wisdom of human civilization? How can one focus back to the original meaning of contemporary art and its pursuit of freedom?
So far, I do not think we have a solution for such questions.