Body Politics: Chinese Contemporary Art as a Metaphor of "the Body" Author:Wu Hong Date: 2012-03-06 Size:
"The Body and Beyond”, a Chinese contemporary art exhibition curated by Gan Yifei employs "body" as the theme of the exhibition which serves as an extremely unique point of view to observe Chinese contemporary art.

"The Body and Beyond”, a Chinese contemporary art exhibition curated by Gan Yifei employs “ body" as the theme of the exhibition which serves as an extremely unique point of view to observe Chinese contemporary art.

As a matter of fact, when we try to develop a panorama of the characteristics of Chinese contemporary art while standing outside the realm of mainland China, we have to confront a problem, that is, how to define and analyze the historical, social background and general condition of Chinese contemporary art. The truth is, due to the abundant, diversified present situation of Chinese contemporary art, any label or emblem used to summarize it will be inevitably influenced by the personal opinions of the organizers with different backgrounds and purposes. Gan Yifei, curator of the exhibition, is an art professor working in America, and accomplished undergraduate and post-graduate education in China in his early years. Moreover, before he went to America, he lived and worked in China for a long time. Thus, he is able to observe the Chinese contemporary art from the perspective of the social reality of China, and he has also gained a broad international view. In addition, the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery that hosts the exhibition lies in the campus of Howard Community College, which makes it possible for us to understand and appreciate Chinese contemporary art in a multicultural environment.

To the social reality of China, the emergence and development of Chinese contemporary art is not a phenomenon merely related to art itself, but a social phenomenon that has been closely connected with the development of Chinese social political culture since 1980’s. Many people, even those who have received western education, are likely to understand the “timeliness” and “ontology of art” based on the dogmatic theories in western textbooks of art. However, to those who know little about the path of China’s social progress in recent decades, it is impossible to comprehend in depth the unique humanistic context and language presented in the works of Chinese contemporary artists. Different from the historical environment of European and America fine arts which has evolved according to its own law, the wave of Chinese contemporary art came up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, along with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the re-evaluation on the past mainstream values and world view. To express fresh ideas and thoughts, new language is required to meet the needs of the changing society. Therefore, the basic values of Chinese contemporary art are originated from what the artists felt in social reality. Since then, the artists who are loyal to their social conscience have involved their creation in the background of the social change in China; consequently, they have formed their unique value system and language system in the development of Chinese contemporary art during the past three decades. “Body” therefore becomes a metaphor. First, it means that Chinese contemporary art is a way of personal experience in a real social environment of China. Only when an individual put his “body” in the historical progress of Chinese society, can his creation be endowed with the signature of the context of Chinese contemporary art. This is why I stress that we shall not understand Chinese contemporary art merely from the perspective of the so-called ontology of art.

However, while emphasizing this “sociality of body”, we shall also discuss “individuality of body”. As we all know, in a social political culture of autocratic state, eminent domain of body does not belongs to individuals. On the one hand, talking and showing body is a social taboo due to the obsession of the sinless in the doctrine of totalitarianism, hence individuals have no right to dominate their own bodies. On the other hand, various kinds of spiritual and physical desires related to body are also controlled by government and authority. Accordingly, individuals become insensate to their bodies and senses. Therefore, the procedure of China’s opening society started with individual’s awareness of body and subjectivity consciousness is also enhanced after the Cultural Revolution. During this “revolution of body”, body/flesh is not merely a cultural symbol of the confrontation of soul and body that has been existed for thousands of years. Actually, whenever people emphasize their secular right of the body, they are fighting for their personal right of independence. In the social environment of 1980’s in China, claiming the right of body alluded to the inhospitality and suppression of individual’s eminent domain to body in Chinese traditional culture, and totalitarian culture’s demolishing individual’s right to one’s body and secular desire resulted from the obsession of asceticism in the political ideology. As a result, Chinese contemporary art, being different from western post-modern art, shoulders the responsibility of “enlightenment movement” to some extent. From 1980’s till now, some art activities became social events proved that Chinese contemporary art is not cut off from the above-mentioned enlightenment of individual’s right to one’s body.

Finally, body is also a historical conception. When we highlight western culture’s influence upon Chinese contemporary art, we shall understand that it is not just a copy of “western contemporary art”. In addition to the social environment we had discussed, there are the factors within Chinese traditional culture. As to the cultural tradition, we may easily fall into a trap — the metanarrative of national culture. While staying outside of the conceptual, emblematical “traditional” narration, the unique way by which we observe and comprehend the world is closely related to our body’s memories. In such memories, body’s accumulation of culture offers us an approach to associate the grand and abstract cultural tradition with specific individuals. Here, “tradition” is concrete and specific, not the nationalistic tradition required by propaganda of the political parties. Experiencing tradition in this way, we see “tradition” is naturally shaped by the procedure of specific, individual body’s perceiving the world and society. Therefore, if the channels of individual’s senses are blocked, we cannot find tradition’s significance to individuals in deed.

With regard to the present exhibition, there is a wide spectrum of the ages of the artists, which reflects the every phases of the development of Chinese contemporary art during the resent thirty years. From different aspects, their works form a main course of the development of Chinese contemporary art, that is, along with the liberation of body, the awakening of the individual right and liberty, the artist's individual significance and subjectivity has been reinforced. A man’s feeling and right have accomplished their values as a metaphor of “body politics” while colliding with the factors of society, cultural, politics, history...

  Feb. 22nd. 2012

  Tongzhou, Beijing

[Editor] Elemy Liu