The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Art superstars and Postmodern Literati: It's Spring in Beijing

Here is my second of four articles resulting from my April in Beijing, published today on

It’s spring in Beijing. Despite the smog (apocalyptic) and the traffic (makes Manhattan look bucolic) and the general grittiness of a place which is in a continual process of flux and reinvention, this city is inherently beguiling and seductive. In addition to willow and flowering cherry trees, the weight of imperial and revolutionary history, and the ever-surprising inventiveness and enterprise of its inhabitants, there is, of course, the art. This is a city of art superstars and art mavericks, of postmodern literati and of traditionalists, of hyper-inflated prices (and egos) and of sheer hard work in thousands and thousands of studios. From Songzhuang to Feijiacun, from Beigao to Qiaozi Town, in studios ranging from the large and palatial to the humble, artists are working. Artists from all over China and, indeed all over the world, flock to Beijing. Why? Perhaps this question is best answered by an account of some exhibitions I have seen in the last two weeks of April.
Xu Zhen 1 Installation View
Xu Zhen, Installation View, Photo by Eric Powell | Image Courtesy UCCA
Chinese contemporary art (‘Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu’) is like nothing else on the planet. For sheer bravura spectacle, artistic bravery, and innovation it is hard to beat. The unique historical accident which resulted in artists encountering every phase of Western Modernism and Postmodernism all at once, during the 1980s reform era, provided them with the freedom to invent, reinvent and transform historical conventions unburdened by reference points which western artists take for granted. They are often iconoclasts, as well as inheritors of a valued and treasured tradition. This apparent paradox plays out in surprising ways.
Xu Zhen 4 installation view photo Eric Powell image courtesy UCCA
Installation view of Xu Zhen, Photo by Eric Powell | Image courtesy of UCCA
At Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, the mid-career retrospective of Xu Zhen (though perhaps we should call him ‘the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen’ as he now operates as a corporation, ‘MadeIn Company’) is sheer spectacle. An extraordinary diversity of installations, performances and objects across multiple platforms and media makes for a very powerful experience, sadly not always the case in the contemporary art museum. The exhibition as a whole, and individual works within it, pack quite a punch. Surprise, delight, awe at the artist’s sheer inventiveness is the initial audience response, followed by a growing awareness of Xu’s thoughtful representation of some of the big issues of our times. The Duchampian wit and irreverent Pop sensibility is underpinned by the artist’s critical gaze on both Chinese society and the international art world.
Described by curator Philip Tinari as the key figure of the Shanghai art scene, Xu is a significant influence for Chinese artists born since 1980. The UCCA show includes more than 50 installation pieces, 10 videos, 40 painting and collage works and several performances (including slipper clad grandmothers who followed audiences around the gallery) and spans his oeuvre from the late 1990s.
Xu Zhen 2 Installation View
Xu Zhen, Installation View, Photo by Eric Powell | Image Courtesy of UCCA
One enters the museum to encounter a monumental sculpture in which the heads of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses have been replaced by inverted Buddhist statuary. In Xu’s hands this literal overlapping of East and West, the continuing concern of so many Chinese artists, becomes parodic. A multi-coloured Goddess Guanyin presides over the ‘ShanghArt Supermarket’, a replica of a convenience store, staffed by cashiers at the cash registers, in which the contents of every package have been removed – and are for sale. This is the literal embodiment of consumerist emptiness. In an interview with Ocula the artist said ‘We consider that exhibitions nowadays are a product, and that art is being sold…’ You wander through rooms containing museum vitrines showing the cross-cultural connections of bodily gestures, or witty replica oil paintings complete with carefully rendered camera flash. Courbet’s notorious La Source with camera flash obscuring – of course – the very source of the painting’s controversy cleverly skewers the phenomenon of art tourism whereby people experience artworks only through the lens of their camera. Images like these may be found in many vernacular Chinese photographs of the 1990s as citizens took up the opportunity for travel outside China.
Smaller versions of Play, the architectural construction of black leather, ropes and bondage items now in the collection of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, reveals another aspect of the work of Xu and his art corporation. These works, and the upside down be-feathered tribal people hanging, bound, in contorted poses from the ceiling above us, are deeply sinister and to some extent defy interpretation. Their sheer physical presence is enormously powerful. They suggest the ways in which religion and tribal identities are merely another brand in today’s world.
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