Abstract Art in China
It has become an essential topic for contemporary artists to build a mature artistic system of the “Chinese abstraction” when the interior and exterior environments have reached maturity.
I. Asethetic Origin
In a world where prevails the contemporary art with the representational form as its subject, a lot of people have forgotten the historical meaning and realistic value of the abstract art, which used to the ultimate of “art for art’s sake” and the maximized high-profile manifestation of the self value of art. Since the birth of the Abstract Art, art has been set free from attempting to represent and present and objective material world. In turn it tries to create a subjective spiritual world parallel to the reality, resulting in a “parallel” instead of the “intertwining” and “intersecting” relationship with the reality. We can safely say after retrospecting the development of modern art that there is no independence and self-sufficiency of the conceptual art without the abstract art, the birth of which has laid a significant foundation of the theory of contemporary art.
Since the first painting of Kandinsky, the western abstract art has enjoyed a history of more than a century while the Chinese counterpart is still learning baby steps. The traditional Chinese art has long enjoyed the appreciation of the abstract beauty in many disciplines despite the lack of “abstract art” in ancient China. The behavior, psychology and words of appreciating the abstract beauty can be easily found in the cultural legacies like calligraphy, traditional Chinese operas, gardens and parks, furnitures, etc. Generally speaking, such appreciation of beauty in “abstract” forms can be traced back to Taoism. There’s not another country in the world that can match China in its obsession with the variety of rare stones, an aesthetic orientation that cannot be separated from the Taoist theories of “unity of heaven and men” and “nature as the ultimate way”. What’s more, the Taoist inclination towards the “void”, the “empty” and “nihility” can be adequately verified by the famous sayings like “the great sounds border on silence”, “the huge forms tend to be intangible”, “the most perfect presents itself as flawed” and “the greatest appears to be the most humble”. This extremely particular value not only provided a theoretical foundation of appreciating the non-representational beauty for the later generations, but also built up the aesthetic characters of simplicity, epitomization, symbol and metaphor in the cultural tradition of the Han Nationality.
The extremely wild scribble style that was born at the peak of calligraphy of the Tang Dynasty was indeed a bizarrerie case in the Chinese aesthetics. Oracle as the origin of the Chinese characters belongs to the category of hieroglyphics - a system of characters and words based on pictographs. Therefore it’s a truly remarkable exception in the world cultural history that somehow an almost unrecognizable calligraphic style evolved from this system and in turn became the insurmountable classic in the history of Chinese calligraphy.
Among the most esteemed artistic standards of generations of scholars, the most impressive falls in the discussion of “not alike”. According to the “Six Criteria” by Xie He of the South Qi Dynasty, the most important criterion should be the “artistic conception and vividness” while the “likeness to the objects” ranked the third. The great writer Su Shi (of the North Song Dynasty) once remarked: “it’s only in the levels of children that drawings are judged by their likeness to the objects”. The great artist Ni Zan from the Yuan Dynasty advocated a departure from the pursuit of similarity in form or appearance. And the modern master in painting Qi Baishi even made a confession of his style as between “the similarity and dissimilarity”. Since the excessive similarity in forms and appearances was condemned by generations of scholars and artists, the Chinese visual art had long given up on the deliberate pursuit of extreme realistic techniques, instead they turned to find the “qi”, “charm” and “spirit” of the way of expression, resulting in the precedence of the spirit over the image.
The Taoist philosophy and the calligraphic aesthetics are the psychological foundation and visual origin for the growth of Chinese contemporary abstract art as well as the root for Chinese abstract art to establish itself on the international stage.
II. Evolution Process
The influence of the western abstract art on the early Chinese modern art started in the 1930s when some artists from The Storm Society (Jue Lan She) had already began their exploration and experiments of the pure visual forms. But with the outburst of the Anti-Japanese War necessitating artists participating in the propaganda of the salvation of China, the realistic art forms were considered to be the more powerful tool of political propaganda and mass mobilization due to its simplicity and popularity while the abstract art inappropriate, for its dallying with forms and out of sync with the time. Since then, China has gone through several a social quake every 10 years, imposing quite some negative effect on the build-up and inheritance of ideology, academics and art, breaking off repeatedly the academic clues of abstract art in mainland China for over half a century.
With the budding of Ideological Emancipation starting from the end of 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, the culture and art circle of mainland China began anew their cognition of the abstract art. But with the ultra-leftism’s influence on ideology still going strong, the abstract art for rather a long time was condemned to be “the decadence of the bourgeoisie” and “the reactionary art form” while words like “abstractionist”, “self-expression” and “formalism” were used by the leftists for smearing and artists who engaged in the exploration of formalism and whose works came with abstract implication were unfairly accused and attacked time and again. During the latter period of the Cultural Revolution, some artists like Wu Dayu and Li Qingping kept on their abstract and semi-abstract exploration in an underground way, and such contribution shouldn’t be forgotten.
The practice of the abstract art reached an unprecedented peak when the “New Wave 85’” was sweeping all over China. In retrospect, quite a lot of famed avant-garde artists who are over 50 had gone through a brief and intriguing “abstract period” during that time. It was obvious that the abstract art was used by them as a tool of rebellion against the stiffed art system while most of the creative works of the abstract art were kind of strategic, serving as a means instead of an end. Among these abstract and semi-abstract artistic exploration, valuable coordinates in the exploration of languages were provided for descendants by artists like Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Wang Keping, Ge Pengren, Zhou Changjiang, Zhang Jianjun, Qiu Deshu, Meng Luding, Yin Qi, Yu Zhenli, Ding Yi, Wang Yigang, Gu Liming, Zhang Fangbai, Liu Ming, Guan Ce, Wang Yi, Jiang Hai, etc. During the late 1980s, the official art institutions’ attitude towards the abstract art was somehow reflected through three events: first being the invitation of Zhao Wuji, a Chinese abstract artist residing in France, by Zhejiang Art Institute to be the guest lecturer, second the opening of the Solo Exhibition of Spanish abstract painter Tapies at the National Art Museum of China, and lastly the silver medal conferred to the abstract work by Zhou Changjiang at the National Art Exhibition.
Since the 1990s, the creation of abstract art in mainland China has been ever on the rise, with artists scattered all over the country got involved in the abstract and semi-abstract language practice and quite a lot independent individual styles gradually established through years of exploration. From the north, the distinguished representatives are Yu Zhenli, Yan Zhenduo, Tan Ping, Qi Haiping, Bai Ming, Zhang Guolong, Shen Weiguang, Yi Ling, Yan Binghui, Zhang Yu, Hu Youben, Liu Xuguang, Lu Qing, Chen Guangwu, Xu Hongming, Zhou Yangming, Sun Kai and Yin Ge while among artists from the south, Ding Yi, Qin Yifeng, Shen Fan, Shi Hui, Fu Zhongwang, Qiu Deshu, Chen Xinmao, Chen Qiang, Xu Hong, Li Lei, Li Huasheng, Yang Shu, Wang Chuan, Liu Zijian, Liang Quan, Zhao Baokang, Pan Wei, Huang Yuanqing, Qu Fengguo, Cao Xiaodong, Zhang Hao, Wang Yuan, Yan Feixiang and Wang Xieda had together formed an even bigger creative group than their northern counterparts with a force to be reckoned with. Artists who had been residing overseas for many years, such as Jiang Dahai, Su Xiaobai, Zhu Jinshi, Meng Luding, Shen Chen, Ma Shuqing, Li Xiangyang, Chen Ruobing had come back in succession, infusing the prosper with brand-new energy. What’s worth mentioning is shanghai as a city with colonial culture tradition made a sudden rise in the development of the abstract art, turning out more than 30 artists who specially engaged in the creation of abstract art and dabbled in the abstract style in the 30 years of development since the beginning of the 1980s, thus establishing the unquestionable status of Shanghai as “the capital of abstract art”. Since “The Intangible Existence - The Abstract Art Exhibition of Shanghai” in 1997, a great many group exhibitions flourished all over Shanghai, among which the most famous one was “The Metaphysical” Abstract Exhibition that had been held successively for 4 times at the Shanghai Art Museum.
Up till today, the abstract art has become more and more alive all over China, with a variety of exhibitions coming one after another, and the heat still rising over exhibitions, discussions and publications centered on the abstract art from Beijing to Shenzhen and from galleries to museums.
III. Problems of the Moment
1. The reality predicament of the formalism
The abstract art is not a genre that has already finished its historical mission, and abstraction is actually a basic language of human beings to know the world and express ideas. Theoretically speaking, there is no limit in the exploration of languages in visual forms, but what we must make clear is that not all explorations and discoveries considered to be artistically valuable - uniqueness doesn’t necessarily mean excellence. For the past 10 years, with the ever rising numbers of abstract artists and exhibitions, the choice of abstraction still should come with conditions, requiring more perseverance and grittiness in the pursuit of this art. Right now the Chinese abstract art is still a toddler in its exploration, quite limited in the depth and width of the exploration and experiment of forms. Actually the abstract world is much more vast and deep than the representational world, the freedom and possibility of form languages much bigger, but extensiveness doesn’t equal limitlessness, and freedom doesn’t come without difficulties. If forms eventually become a patent and technique for boasting, the depth of its inner thoughts and ideas will be greatly reduced, thus failing to touch the viewers from both the perspectives of reason and sensibility, producing only commodities with a decorative function without actually touching people.
2. Visual basis for the exploration of concepts
In the field of visual art, the existence of any concept needs to be verified by visual forms. The development of the conceptual abstract art in China is still in the beginning, with less open horizon for creation and limited means for choice. The common sense that needs to be brought up again and again on this issues is the existence of concepts, the aim of which is not to dissolve forms. The conceptual abstraction should be an abstract approach with unique language, the absolute significance of which cannot be stressed more. What’s more, the so-called conceptual abstraction is not just “extreme simplicity” or “extreme complication”, and “simplicity” in style does not equal “simpleness”. The territory of “the abstract art” is vast indeed, whereas up till today the abstract art in China has only covered painting, sculpture and devices with few individual cases of photographic works of abstract style and extremely rare works of abstract video, films and performances. Once the valid visual proof is lost for the exploration of any artistic concept, that concept will only end up to be a shrivelled corpse
3. The obscurity and subversion of the academic concept
With the rise of the abstract art, more and more critics and curators started to get involved in the field, and the heat still rising over exhibitions, discussions and publications centered on the abstract art, which are undoubtedly good things to see. But what cannot be ignored is that two voices have obscured and even subverted the once-clear academic concept, which is quite alarming. One of the voices came from artists and representatives who used to be good at realism and expression and then turned to the abstract creation. They thought that anything that takes a departure from the academic realism or the traditional representational style could be generally defined as “the abstract”, whereas the more accurate definition for such genre should be “expression”, “symbol” or “image”. The other voice took on the attitude of total denial towards the Chinese abstract art, condemning it to be a mere copycat since the abstraction originated from the west. The fatal error of the argument is that it confuses the deep connotations of “abstraction”, “abstractionism” and “abstract art”.
4. The danger of commercialization and vulgarization
The abstract art will be confronted with the fate of alienation by the market when it makes its entrance into the market and in turn becomes the interest and focus of consumption of the middle class. The ideal decorative function of the abstract art for the modern home environment in addition to collectors’ blind pursuit and superficial understanding of the abstract art, resulted in an inevitable varied jumble in the art market. The shoddy “pseudo-abstraction” is now surging in great quantities in galleries and exhibitions, while the established abstract artists also lost their enterprising spirit and inclined towards conservatism since they’ve got countless orders incoming. The abstract art was a world-astounding event at the beginning of its birth, a rebellion against the stale artistic concepts. The ability to resist the negative effect of commercialization and vulgarization should be the integrity that every single abstract artist sticks to. And if they ignore such threat, the concept of “abstract” won’t be blessed with a bright future here in mainland China.
IV. The Road in the Future
Though the abstract art did not originate from China nor does China have the tradition of the abstract art, the contemporary artists of China possess an outstanding capability to understand the essence of the abstract art, thanks to the centuries-old appreciation of the abstract beauty by the traditional aesthetics. Because of the general existence of the “quasi-abstract” visual legacies in calligraphy, gardens and parks and traditional Chinese operas, Chinese artists are granted with a wide variety of choices in symbols and transformation of images, and the profound historical resources of China also provided for the contemporary art a great deal of natural superiority when it comes to searching for original motifs.
It has become an essential topic for contemporary artists to build a mature artistic system of the “Chinese abstraction” when the interior and exterior environments have reached maturity. Instead of being a mechanical piling of symbols and slogans or the showing off of the “Chinatown culture”, the “Chinese abstraction” should be saturated with the inner speculation of the native culture to express the Chinese aesthetics. With the vast humanistic background and rich visual forms as the basis, the development of the “Chinese abstraction” shall see no boundary. The inevitable course for the “Chinese abstraction” should be the constant exploration of the oriental metaphysical spirit while focusing both on concepts and forms, with Taoist philosophy as its soul, the aesthetics of calligraphy its standards.
Written on Oct. 23, 2012