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What Would Mao Think?

Forget Ming vases and jade. The U.S., at last, is starting to get a glimpse of contemporary Chinese art.

October 11, 1998|Scarlet Cheng | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — "China is different from the U.S. in that way," says Chinese artist Xu Bing, who moved to this country in 1990. "Here, contemporary art is mainstream--in China it's not, it's still underground."

And thus, the added frisson to a show such as "Inside Out: New Chinese Art," which opened last month at the Asia Society and P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. It offers the heady lure of forbidden fruit, as well as the promise of insight into the psyche of that awakening giant: modern China. The exhibition of more than 80 works by 58 artists is more extensive than any previous showing of contemporary Chinese art in North America--and picks up where the Guggenheim's "China: 5000 Years" show earlier this year abruptly left off.

Whether one can justify reading a whole nation's being through a selection of its modern art, one cannot help but try with a show like this, which comes to us relatively uncensored, unlike film and literature from the People's Republic.

That is possible because most avant-garde works never see the light of public display in their homeland, and many of these artists have only sold their art privately and through art galleries abroad. Officially sanctioned genres at art academies, which control the art world in China, remain traditional ink painting on paper (and the typical subjects of landscape, bird-and-flower, etc.) and Realist oil painting, preferably with Socialist tendencies but with at least politically acceptable ones. Those who deviate have been considered subversives and hooligans.

"When I was in China, what I did was considered underground," recalls Gu Wenda, who was trained at one of China's foremost art schools, the China Academy of Art (formerly the Zhejiang Academy of Art), and now lives in New York. In the '80s, Xu and Gu were pioneers of a style that employs "false words," and both have works included in the exhibition. Visits to China tell Gu that change has come. "Now the line between mainstream and underground is more vague--now at least you're not in danger," he says. "When I was found doing this avant-garde art [at the academy], I was kicked from teaching in the Chinese painting department to the education department--basically a demotion."

Gu left China in 1987--one of the many artists who left in the late '80s and early '90s. The irony is that now that he's famous, the art academies often invite him to speak.

"Inside Out" covers the period from 1985 until now, the critical time in which mainland artists discovered Western contemporary visual idioms and began to adopt those expressions as their own. In the liberalizing climate of the 1980s, they were finally allowed to see, mostly through reproductions in magazines and books, what the rest of the world had been doing; at the same time, social and material modernization was coming upon them in an avalanche.

Younger artists were naturally drawn to trying different styles as well as different media, and this show reflects an almost dizzying range of experimentation. "It's as if 100 years of Western art emerged all at once in Chinese art--everything from Surrealism, Dadaism, German Expressionists, and so on," says Gao Minglu, the principal curator of the show.

Gao played a key role in the history of Chinese contemporary art. In February 1989, he was one of the chief organizers of the landmark "China/Avant-Garde" show at the National Gallery in Beijing, a show shut down twice by authorities during its two-week run. The first time was because artists Xiao Lu and Tang Song fired gunshots into their installation as a form of performance art--a cheeky moment captured by photography in "Inside Out." The second time was due to an anonymous bomb threat. Then on June 4, the Student Democracy Movement was violently crushed in Tiananmen Square, and all the arts felt the chill hand of authority forcing them into conformity once more.

As a vocal supporter of the now-discredited avant-garde, Gao eventually fell to a purge at his publication, the popular journal Art Monthly. He was forced to leave his editor's job and go home to study Marxism, which he did for a year. Then in 1991, he accepted an offer to be a visiting fellow at Ohio State University; today, he is completing his doctorate in modern Chinese art at Harvard University.

Gao acknowledges that artists in the 1980s were copying the West, but now, he believes, "Chinese artists are adapting to the strategies of Postmodern Western art, they're not imitating, like in the 1980s. If you look at the exhibition, you'll see lots of stories or concepts from ancient Chinese tradition. Right now, the focus is not on style but on thinking and concerning yourself with contemporary issues, trying to transcend Modern or Postmodern Western art." In short, the latter-day pieces are using Western vehicles--oil painting, assemblage, installation, even performance art--but looking to their own society, be it issues of stultifying tradition or crass materialism.

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