Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art

Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art

by Sasha Su-Ling Welland


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During the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the censorious attitude that characterized China's post-1989 official response to contemporary art gave way to a new market-driven, culture industry valuation of art. Experimental artists who once struggled against state regulation of artistic expression found themselves being courted to advance China's international image. In Experimental Beijing Sasha Su-Ling Welland examines the interlocking power dynamics in this transformational moment and rapid rise of Chinese contemporary art into a global phenomenon. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and experience as a videographer and curator, Welland analyzes encounters between artists, curators, officials, and urban planners as they negotiated the social role of art and built new cultural institutions. Focusing on the contradictions and exclusions that emerged, Welland traces the complex gender politics involved and shows that feminist forms of art practice hold the potential to reshape consciousness, produce a nonnormative history of Chinese contemporary art, and imagine other, more just worlds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369288
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/13/2018
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sasha Su-Ling Welland is Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington and author of A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters.

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Xianfeng Beijing

The invitation for the now historic 1989 "no U-turn" exhibit in Beijing at the National Art Museum of China presents a translingual puzzle. The Chinese text at the top reads Zhongguo xiandai yishu zhan (Chinese modern art exhibit). The English text at the bottom, China/Avant-Garde, anticipates a foreign audience. It also introduces a discrepancy that reveals the problem of translation when understood as a process of producing linguistic equivalencies. What do we make of "modern" in Chinese versus "avant-garde" in English? Or of the French "avant-garde," coined in the nineteenth century, in later Chinese and English contexts? Curator Gao Minglu explains that while xiandai (modern) in 1980s China signified newness, he and the editor of the exhibit catalogue agreed that " 'avant-garde' made more sense than 'modern' as a translation of the original Chinese title." Modern in English seemed outdated, suggesting even a period style. Avant-garde sounded cutting-edge. Gao notes that Chinese artists and critics first began using qianwei (literally, forward guard) and xianfeng (literally, advance front) toward the end of the 1980s. It was only after 1989 that they gradually replaced "modern" as descriptors for contemporary art practice.

As Chinese art circulated under the label xianfeng/avant-garde in the 1990s, I found myself struck, at street level, by a Chinese context for the term that diverged from its cultural career in the West. I regularly slid money through a subway ticket window under a brass plaque engraved with the characters gongren xianfeng hao (vanguard worker designation), a distinction awarded to units demonstrating an exemplary socialist work ethic. I noticed the honorary title on red and gold placards displayed in the front windows of public buses. I recognized its cognate of shaonian xianfeng dui (young pioneers) on elementary school banners and in the nationalist children's anthem whose lyrics impel young heirs of the Communist mantel to courageously advance toward victory. I noticed it in advertisements for electronics equipment, articles on home decorating, and public injunctions for Beijing to succeed in its bid for the Olympics, as well as on the cover of new art journals like Jinri xianfeng (Avant-garde today). It was a term still in flux, with a past that lived on in present juxtaposition with new meanings.

As a descriptor for the field I entered, xianfeng signifies the historical, political vanguard of Beijing as national capital and the forms of artistic activity it has fostered over time. It connotes revolutionary militarism and cultural cosmopolitanism. Only by assembling the translingual fragments of avant-garde/qianwei/xianfeng can we make sense of their cultural encounter in the context of Chinese contemporary art. Take for example the painting of a young woman in Red Guard uniform on the cover of a book titled The Condition of Chinese Avant-Garde Art (figure 1.01). Qi Zhilong's China Girl references a Maoist history of vanguardism, yet is infused with the soft come-hither glow of contemporary commodity culture. It appeals to Western desires for a Chinese avant-garde as political fetish that ventriloquizes liberal freedom of expression. It represents a Chinese break from the collectivized past of Maoist modernity even while remaining influenced by its revolutionary aesthetics. It also represents the persistence of gender politics in the confluence of avant-garde ideologies.

This chapter examines the remaking of Beijing first through an overview of cultural policy in relation to the capital city, and of avant-garde genealogies. It then portrays this remaking through a montage of ethnographic fragments organized around key art institutions — academy, palace, village, and museum — as they shift from sites of revolutionary nationalism to culture industry formation. Montage as method underlies the composition of this book, which assembles an account of cultural transition from closely observed ethnographic fragments and builds its argument across chapters. It is an assemblage whose theory of knowledge arises from dialectical contrasts between colliding myths of progress and modernity. Its compositional aesthetics reflect those of the artists I focus on, whose works often represent "dialectics at a standstill." Bringing gender to the analysis heightens awareness of the relationship between avant-gardism and nationalism, and thus the need to deconstruct the avant-garde myth of originality as a repressive and colonizing technology whose professed faith in renewal and innovation masks its power plays.

Cultural Capital

The artists I interviewed lived in locations scattered throughout Beijing, a megacity at the turn of the millennium of more than 10 million people. The logistics of my research involved spending significant time on the subway, on buses, in cabs, or on carts attached to the back of three-wheeled motorcycles. In a Shijingshan District classroom, a college art teacher painted a wall-sized canvas crowded with popular figures ranging from politicians to movie stars, in a style influenced by propaganda posters and folk art. In the semirural Western Hills, a painter-turned-video artist from Anhui vented about local and global cultural hierarchies in a rudimentary brick dwelling rented from a farmer. In a Chongwen District high-rise, a painter-turned-performance artist living in a concrete-box apartment on the tenth floor took photos from her window of the construction site next door. In Songzhuang artist village, a cluster of studios built on farmland in Tongzhou District, the "political pop" painter whose massive compound I visited with a group of curators wasn't home. Instead, a hired apprentice from the countryside worked away on one of his paintings that fetched record prices on the international market.

In spite of their differences, these artists routinely reiterated Beijing's status as China's "cultural center" (wenhua zhongxin), although their counterparts in the provinces often asserted the freedom of being "far from the emperor's eye." This belief in Beijing's prominence persisted through the 1990s in spite of the fact that contemporary art exhibits in the capital were shut down with greater regularity than in other cities with burgeoning art scenes like Shanghai or Chengdu. The infamous reputation of the Beijing Ministry of Culture led to jokes about how censorship of an exhibit guaranteed foreign attention. When I asked artists, especially those without Beijing residence permits, work units, or familial connections, why they wanted to live there, some mentioned the large number of universities, including the Central Academy of Fine Arts, a historical sense of Beijing as imperial seat of culture, or even the creative tension of official opposition. Others responded along the lines of "because I can meet people like you," meaning a foreigner. Beijing's embassy districts and foreign-owned galleries catering to overseas buyers led to the development of a patronage system that attracted curators and art brokers from abroad. This magnetism eventually became a resource for the state's remaking of Beijing.

After the controversial closures of the China/Avant-Garde exhibit in 1989, followed by the events of June 4, the national Ministry of Culture initially turned its sights toward the south. The first China Art Exposition (Zhongguo yishu bolanhui), the nation's largest showcase of contemporary art, was launched in 1993 in Guangzhou's Chinese Import-Export Commodities Trade Center. This linkage between art and commerce occurred one year after Deng Xiaoping's highly publicized tour of the south. During his visit to the special economic zones of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, he praised their commercial successes and advocated market reform as the way for China to overcome its recent domestic turmoil and open connections with the world through trade.

In 1995, organizers moved the China Art Expo to Beijing, claiming its location in Guangzhou had not garnered sufficient international attention. In the early 2000s, the weeklong art exposition continued to be held every summer in Beijing's International Exhibition Center. Rows of numbered booths, rented by artists, galleries, art schools, publishing houses, antique dealers, and companies promoting art and culture, filled two cavernous halls. Many artists welcomed the Expo, in spite of its Ministry of Culture sponsorship, as an alternative to official exhibition spaces. After an initial period of enthusiasm, some dismissively likened the Expo to a hodgepodge marketplace, a maze of street stall getihu (independent entrepreneurs), with no distinction between good and bad. The most disparaging had begun showing their work in Beijing's foreign-run galleries. Their desire for the distinction of market valuation ran counter to one of the original rationales for the Expo, a commercial twist on the socialist goal of "serving the people": that offering art at affordable prices would combat elitism and make the nation's art accessible to the general public.

The move of the Expo also represented a symbolic struggle between north and south. After Guangzhou proved that promoting cultural festivals and programs was good for business, Beijing adopted the model. Jing Wang notes, "The recent hype about Beijing's capital impact (shoudu xiao-ying) was the result of an intensifying image race orchestrated and monitored closely by the Department of the Strategies of Cultural Development in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing. As Shanghai and Guangzhou shifted their emphasis of urban planning from industrial to cultural economy, Beijing followed suit." In 1996, Beijing's Municipal Political Consultative Committee articulated a new development strategy, "founding the capital through culture" (wenhua lidu). They highlighted Beijing's historical heritage as a reserve of cultural capital that financial or commercial cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou could never attain. The city government soon began investing in the large-scale construction of new cultural institutions, a trend that accelerated after Beijing won the bid in 2001 for the 2008 Olympics.

This race between Beijing and other Chinese cities to develop the "tertiary sector" of culture as proof of their global arrival represented a major shift in national spatial ideology. Maoist rhetoric celebrated the revolutionary qualities of the rural peasantry as a vanguard force in the communist nation's progress. A post-Mao focus on urbanization made cities the new national object of desire and resignified rural people as backward or stuck in the past. State-disseminated discourse on suzhi (quality) reinforced the idea that rural citizens, relative to their urban counterparts, most needed to raise their suzhi, even as official economic strategy led to widening material disparity between city and country. This state redirection and investment in cities corresponded with a transformation from coercive to regulatory forms of governance. For example, the Ministry of Culture, once viewed as a policing body, became the sponsor of the China Art Expo. In Jing Wang's words, "The state's rediscovery of culture as a site where new ruling technologies can be deployed and converted simultaneously into economic capital constitutes one of its most innovative strategies of statecraft since the founding of the People's Republic."

Avant-Guard Genealogies

Shi Xinning's "Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition" in China (figure 1.02) juxtaposes iconic symbols of the avant-garde of Western art and Chinese socialism. In a fictional encounter of "impossible reality" — an altered reproduction of an image taken at an official visit to an industrial exhibition by one of Mao Zedong's official photographers (figure 1.03) — Shi depicts the chairman intently inspecting Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. On the one hand, it references the Great Leap Forward, Mao's campaign beginning in 1958 to transform the country through rapid industrialization, when exhibits of modern amenities became a staple of Cold War politics. A year after Mao's tour of the biogas exhibition, evidence of China's progress toward surpassing capitalist development within fifteen years, Khrushchev and Nixon hotly debated their nations' technological superiority in a model American kitchen on display in Moscow. Mao's gaze turns a stove into a politic symbol of surpassing the enemy. On the other hand, Shi's black-and-white painting references the avant-garde aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp, who promoted conceptual thought over visual pleasure. Duchamp's idea of the readymade became the "antiart" move that secured his place of prominence in modern art history. Through a process of selection and alteration, he transformed ordinary manufactured objects into art. Fountain, the urinal he signed R. Mutt and first exhibited in 1917, has come to serve as a critique of the museum's institutional power to convey artistic value. (Shi's image collision draws the humorous connection between urinal and biogas stove: of excrement powering modernity.) Preparations for a Duchamp retrospective exhibition were in fact contemporaneous with the photo of Mao's exhibition visit; it eventually opened in 1963 at the Pasadena Museum of Art. Shi makes these two avant-garde visions proximal. His documentary style of painting, based on his training in socialist realism at Shenyang's Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, mimics the way artists under Mao reworked historical paintings in response to political winds. The resulting "impossible reality" imbricates the masculinist chess match of Cold War politics with that of Western modernist aesthetics. The readymade in Shi Xinning's painting — the photograph he reproduces, the urinal he places in it — becomes a symbolic fetish animated by opposing versions of historicism and surpassing the other.

In my conversations with artists, they often reflected ambivalently on what it meant to be called avant-garde. One artist had created an altar to Mao Zedong in the corner of his studio, an installation piece as he called it. He provided a revisionist history as he looped avant-garde back to the role of culture in Maoist thought. At the center of the installation was an old dresser mirror purchased at a junk market. The slogan "to serve the people," now chipped and faded, had been painted in red at the top of the mirror. Cultural Revolution images of Mao stuck in its wooden border framed the face of whoever looked into the mirror. Other propaganda images and a pair of red candles were laid as offerings in front of the mirror. His memory of the Cultural Revolution contained scars — police had investigated him as a teenager for allegedly writing an anti-Mao slogan on a village wall — but he remained in awe of the pervasiveness of its aesthetic, the everyday influence of decorated mirrors like the one he'd found discarded. He disparaged the materialistic ethos that permeated the current era and the professionalized circuits of its so-called avant-garde: "In my view, if we're talking about people who make so-called avant-garde art, I think Mao Zedong was the greatest avant-garde artist. He really was unmatched. Under his orchestration, the clothes that people wore, the soldiers' uniforms, were all blue, everything was that kind of thing, with everyone standing together. For avant-garde artists to do this today, that would really be an amazing piece. My worship for Mao is as an artist. ... He was really an artist not a politician. He really couldn't be a politician."

At a dinner party of exactly the kind of artists he disparaged, contradictions still came to the fore. They gathered in a painter's renovated apartment, which had just been featured in an interior design magazine. After discussion about home decorating principles, the pros and cons of IKEA's influence in Beijing, and the travails involved in securing visas for travel to overseas exhibits, the conversation turned toward the position of intellectuals in Chinese society. A debate broke out about Lu Xun, the highly regarded twentieth-century writer, social critic, and proponent of the leftist woodblock movement, canonized by the Chinese Communist Party after his death in 1936. One artist commented that for all their recent material accumulation and aspiration to cultural refinement, they couldn't come close to Lu Xun's lifestyle. He'd been reading Lu Xun's diaries and was struck by the resources he had. Converting Lu Xun's reported income into modern currency, he claimed it would be tens of thousands of yuan a month. In his assessment, Lu Xun spent most of his free time buying things — books, paintings, antiques, even old courtyard homes. Others joked that Lu Xun had become such an acerbic social critic because every morning he would bargain with art and antique dealers on Liulichang Street. Angry at being cheated out of a good price, he would return home and use his pen to curse people. As they debated whether this information about Lu Xun made him a cultural connoisseur to emulate or a leisured and thus hypocritical social critic, I realized that this literary gossip was about trying to figure out, via a reevaluation of a symbol like Lu Xun, their place in the national order of things.


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Table of Contents

Note on the Digital Companion  ix
Illustrations  xi
Acknowledgments  xv
Prologue. Worldly Fables  1
Introduction. Chinese Contemporary Art in the Expanded Field  7
Part I. Art Worldings
1. Xianfeng Beijing  43
2. Showcase Beijing  79
Part II. Zones of Encounter
3. The Besieged City  111
4. The Hinterlands of Feminist Art  135
Part III. Feminist Sight Lines
5. Red Detachment  179
6. Opening the Great Wall  206
7. Camoflaged Histories  236
Epilogue. Recursive Worldly Fables  265
Notes  275
Bibliography  305
Index  323

What People are Saying About This

Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture - Lisa Rofel

"In this exquisite ethnography Sasha Su-Ling Welland charts shifting debates over contemporary art as a zone of encounter. Welland evokes her own moving encounters with especially women artists who highlight the Other visions of imagined worlds that exist around the edges of 'the Chinese dream.' They are artist ethnographers who, in their fraught encounters with Western feminist artists like Judy Chicago, demonstrate how feminist art is an epistemological field of practice rather than a label for static objects. This book is one of a kind and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand not only China and contemporary art, but gendered perspectives on globalizing visions."

The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism - Tani E. Barlow

“Sasha Su-Ling Welland has written an emotionally complex book about women who make contemporary art and their intricate, tiring, and sometimes treacherous environment. In a world of commodities, apartments, W. E. B. Du Bois icons, Ai Weiwei, and Picasso brand cars, violently gifted women manufacture disturbing political art. Intellectually compelling and cast in deceptively fluid prose, Welland's ethnography shows creative logic in the remarkable ways that a feminist critic makes a difference and women artists' choices are ungovernably complex. This is a stunning book.”

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