What is "Apartment Art" ?
Source:Artintern Author:Gao Minglu Date: 2008-09-30 Size:
"Apartment Art" is a term, which I put forward to summarize a very important phenomenon in Chinese contemporary art during the former three or four decades.


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"Apartment Art" is a term, which I put forward to summarize a very important phenomenon in Chinese contemporary art during the former three or four decades. "Apartment" is the symbol of private space. Before the appearance of commercial housing in the 1990s in China, all the family housing, no matter it is bungalows or apartment buildings, is attributed to public or government-owned wealth. Therefore, compared with the term of "apartment" in western countries, which is primarily attributed to private wealth, the living space of Chinese in the latter half of the 20th century is truly "Apartment".

Under the historical context of Chinese contemporary art, Apartment Art is one of the ways in which underground art, experimental art and avant-garde art have committed themselves in creation of critical and radical contemporary artworks.

Therefore, "Apartment" cannot be defined as an ordinary alternative space of exhibitions, but a way of the surviving of underground and avant-garde art. In terms of the activity way, the Chinese "Apartment Art" reflects the originality and characteristics of avant-garde art, because it has been developed for about two decades without sponsors and financial aids from any institution, neither official, nor gallery space. It is a completely independent, spontaneous form of art activities. Apartment Art, therefore has been the space which functioned as studio, exhibition space as well as salon, etc.

In the 1970s, some young artists, distant from official political art, had periodically gathered together and exhibited works of modern art style in their personal "strongholds" ---family apartments, such as activities of the "No Name Group". After the Cultural Revolution, from the late 1970s to the middle 1980s, modern art started to enter into official art galleries. However, some works of radical or avant-garde styles were still unable to be exhibited openly. Therefore, some young artists continued to exhibit their works in "apartments", especially those works in abstract and expressionist forms. (Graph I, Graph I]). During this period, on the one hand, "Apartment Art" adopted academically and politically uncooperative gestures; on the other hand, it continued to explore the modern art style of "art for art's sake". Therefore, it had become the representative of marginal art, in addition to academic and official art (which paid attention to social themes as "Scar", "Rustic" and aesthetic beauty in form). The artists of "Apartment Art" had very close interactive relations with the saloon youth in the late 1970s, which preferred poems, photography and so on. At the same time, they actively took part in the political activities such as "the Xidan Democracy Wall". As a result, from the latter part of the Cultural Revolution to the middle 1980s, "Apartment Art" had become an important part of the Chinese contemporary art which was in pursuit of modernity, and simultaneously it posed as the most radical one.

In the late 1980s, avant-garde art made strong impact on public space, and "Apartment" was no longer considered as the main way of creation of art, exhibition and communication. Various self organized avant-garde groups emerged nation wide around the middle of 1980s, took over the salon-type of the Apartment of the 1970s, which commonly named themselves as Hua hui, or "painting society" , and consequently assumed more functions of direct challenges towards society. Most of the avant-garde groups had already become dissatisfied with exhibiting their art concepts and works in private space, so they moved into public art galleries, the typical example is the "China/Avant-Garde Exhibition" in 1989, which attempted to educate public audience with various types of contemporary artworks featured in all three floor in the National Art Gallery. However, some artists continued to stay at the brink, especially those artists who lived in marginal areas. For example, in Datong, Shanxi province, the artists with the leading figure --Zhang Shengquan continued to create and hold small exhibitions in private space. In Beijing, Wang Luyan, Gu Dexin, Chen Shaoping etc organized the "Tactile Sensation Group" and "New Analysts Group". They held activities at home, and communicated with other artists and critics. In the late 1980s, the artists of the Apartment Art in this period not only surpassed the early salon (huahui) and modernism painting style, and thereby entered into a new phase of "conceptual art" , but also intended to committed their artworks in response to the mainstream avant-garde art. In other words, the Apartment Art of this period shared the similar public interest with the avant-garde groups of the second half of the 1980s.

Artistically, from 1988, Zhang Shengquan in Datong began to use his own body as the major language in performance art, which can be seen as the initiation of the performance by Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, etc from "Beijing East Vallige"(Graph m). The "Apartment" conceptual art nlade by Wang Luyan' s group could be considered as the initiation of Beijing "Apartment Art" in the early 1990s in the terms of the sentiment of self criticism of the avant-garde mainstream.(Graph IV)

Compared with the past, "Apartment Art" in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other places appeared on an even larger scale in the 1990s. Several artist couples who had lived abroad for a long time returned to Beijing, such as Zhu Jinshi and Qin Yufen, Wang Gongxin and Lin Tianmiao, Xu Bing and Cai Jin, Ai Weiwei and Lu Qing, etc. Furthermore, some couples from Bejing, such as Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, as well as the Beijing artists like Wang Peng and Wang Jin, all were involved into the Apartment Art activities. They made their homes as the "strongholds" of private space, where they created and exhibited a large number of small- sealed installations made of "cheap" materials with the concept of randomness. (Graph V) Many works had drawn their materials from families and personal living environments, which could be discarded after exhibition. In Shanghai, there was a group of artists, such as Qian Weikang, Shi Yong, etc, who also created and exhibited various small- sized conceptual works and installation series at home in the early 1990s. (Graph VI) In Hangzhou, leading figures in the period of 1985, such as Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi, led several young artists to create some apartment works that related to private space. Actually, during this period, "Apartment" artists from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou had contacts, and they accomplished some Fang an or "project" apartment artworks with the form of "postcards" by working together for many times.

Related Exhibition:  Apartment Art in China 1970s-1990s

Related Video: Apartment Art in China 1970s-1990s Exhibition Opens


 Exhibition of "Apartment Art 1"

In the 1990s, "Apartment Art" emerged under intensive political oppression. They could not gain the support from official public space, and were forced to make retreat to personal space. On the other hand, avant-garde art moved towards international and received attention from European -US markets and Medias, which nevertheless focused on "political pop" and "cynical realism". In the background of post-cold war international politics and the subsequently-appeared global market ecology, the two types of "short-lived avant-garde art", which had taken the effect of "avant-garde" during the political turmoil in 1989, soon abandoned their critical tone and rapidly turned towards kitsch and opportunities--to make speculative mass productions between political kitsch and commercial kitsch. The "Apartment Art" in the 1990s, on contrary, created many "anti-kitsch" conceptual artworks through their silent criticism towards both international market and internal political systems. Therefore, "Apartment Art" in the 1990s criticized not only the society, but also the avant-garde art itself, which was the prerequisite to protect avant-garde art from corrosion.

At the same time, in the early 1990s, Beijing "East Village" became a living area for artists, which could be attributed to "Apartment Art". However, except for some performance artists and conceptual artists, the "art village" was a gathering place of professional artists who were primarily lived on commercial paintings. Moreover, conceptual art and performance art in the "East Village" did not had close relationship with the concrete art system and art ecology. Artists rented houses primarily as their private living space. It embodied a major characteristic of "grass roots" and "primitive conditions" - pursuit of individual freedom and human survival. The themes and materials of the "Apartment Art" in the same period, however, had very close relations with the modern circumstance of cities and survey of artistic ecology. Both the art of Eastern Village and the Apartment Art reflected the problems of human nature in that period, but the former adopted direct expressions (most of them used body language), and the later conceptually made their critique on the social environment through the demonstration of private space and personal substance. Therefore, "Apartment Art" in 1990s is a kind of strategic "retreat". "Apartment" is not only about home, studio or exhibition space, but also about criticism towards the external environment. In another word, the target of "Apartment Art" is exactly social space. Owning to the concrete state of "Apartment Art", we could seldom see the artists' concept of it. However, we can feel the information of "Apartment" release from their artworks

Since the late 1990s, after the emergence of flocks of art districts and galleries, "Apartment Art" has come to an end. Both the marginal critical gestures and the deliberately "inconspicuous" anti-kitsch forms have seemingly become "meaningless" under the engulfment of extensive auctions, markets and exhibitions. Subsequently, avant-garde art also comes to an end. This "Apartment Art" exhibition series aims to resume the original state of the important historical phenomenon, to display its development processes through large numbers of works, documents and photos. Finally, a printed document is to be made to provide first-hand materials for the researchers and lovers of the Chinese contemporary art. Furthermore, this research project also attempts to achieve a new approach in which one may find that how the development of a specific kind of space of art activity embodied a whole history. This may allow us to make a departure from the conventional ideological narrative or formalist evolutionary history in art history writing.

Related Exhibition:  Apartment Art in China 1970s-1990s

Related Video: Apartment Art in China 1970s-1990s Exhibition Opens

[Editor] Zhang Shuo