Fission Cures an Alienated Chinese Contemporary Art
Source:Artintern Author:Wu Hong Date: 2015-07-31 Size:
​The emergence of Chinese contemporary art is an extension of the intellectual liberation in the visual arts that occurred in the early 1980s. This was an important part of the reform and development……

The emergence of Chinese contemporary art is an extension of the intellectual liberation in the visual arts that occurred in the early 1980s. This was an important part of the reform and development of culture at that time.

People once asked why American or French contemporary art was never designated “American” or “French,” but Chinese contemporary art must always be marked “Chinese?” The reason is simple: Chinese contemporary art was born and raised in a unique environment. First, Chinese contemporary art is not the result of a natural artistic evolution. It is inextricably linked to the intellectual liberation and cultural opening of China during the Reform and Opening period. We would be missing the point if we were to put this background to one side and talk about Chinese contemporary art as an isolated phenomenon. Second, in the more than thirty years since Reform and Opening, Chinese contemporary art has been marked by different stages of development in Chinese society. Society as a whole has always had a significant influence on Chinese contemporary art, whether positive or negative. While Chinese contemporary art has maintained a certain synchronicity with the international art world, it also reflects the important traits of its transient social environment. Chinese contemporary art must use regional references to illustrate and formulate its uniqueness and there is a certain intrinsic rationality to this process.

Simply put, although somewhat repetitive, reform was the theme in 1980s Chinese society. Ever-changing social morality was expressed in art, and anything different from the patterns and forms of the art of the Cultural Revolution could be seen as New Wave Art, so New Wave Art is usually taken to represent the idealism of the 1980s. Its disorderly and blind quest for advancement, akin to that of social movements, is difficult to obscure. By the 1990s, a free market economy hastened the emergence of the marketization of contemporary art, and the market drove independence in the artistic profession. At this time, it became possible for professional artists to work outside the state system. The concrete manifestations of contemporary art had already started to change the ethereal rationalism of the 1980s, and contemporary art gradually began to take on an element of social critique. In the new millennium, the emergence of securities, e-commerce, and real estate made the economy increasingly virtual and financial, which necessarily transformed artworks into “financial products” in a market. In addition to social and cultural transformations, popular entertainment changed things to a certain extent, influencing the expressive forms and value judgments of mainstream culture. Thus, the twin forces of markets and trends constituted the primary characteristics of Chinese contemporary art after 2000.

This simple overview shows that, when we study Chinese contemporary art history and reality, we must stress its unique regional characteristics. From its historical development, it can represent its logical clues to gradual alienation and regulation. Of course, from its overall attributes and positive implications, we can see Chinese contemporary art as promoting social and cultural development, and it is fine to consider the movement to have a positive historical value, but we must correctly realize its limited and vulgar nature. Its limitedness comes from its internal historical logic, and its vulgarity comes from its compromised reality. We must maintain an introspective and reflective attitude towards Chinese contemporary art; it is motivated by the questioning spirit and cultural tradition of contemporary art. Chinese contemporary art is an organic part of contemporary art and a mode of constructive self-criticism. It is poles apart from blind critique and simple negation.

This constructive self-criticism covers several facets:

First, as I have just mentioned, the limitedness of Chinese contemporary art stems from its internal historical logic. When its features are analyzed, we can certainly emphasize its regional and social traits, but the necessary result of an excessive focus on social participation is the simplification of the evolutionary logic of artistic styles and languages, such that art becomes simple negation. Mainstream narrative logic about Chinese contemporary art often overly emphasizes the monolithic impact of society and ignores its referential continuity of other artistic languages. In fact, the outsize strength of this complete external interpretive system overlooks internal continuity, to the point that this internal continuity may be lost. The discursive system for Chinese contemporary art evolved into a vulgar sociological model that is necessarily related to the rupture of an important link in its internal historical logic.

Second, interest from the West was an important driving force in the development of Chinese contemporary art, and especially in the early stages of its marketization. When chosen to augment the cultural diversity of Western-centric art, the passive other panders to this potential interest and becomes an active other. In recent years, domestic Chinese capital has normalized local collections, but Chinese contemporary art has been infused with the psychology of the “active other,” even to the point that this psychology is externalized into patterns, styles, and methods. In particular, when Chinese contemporary art models were noticed for their success in the West, people disregard their original, intrinsic diversity. When we overly emphasize Chinese contemporary art’s external diversity because it is required for a larger ecosystem, its importance in this larger external system creates overwhelming strength and poses a hidden danger to the diversity of the environment that nurtured it.

Third, the marketization of Chinese contemporary art and the Chinese contemporary art market are two linked but inherently different concepts. The “marketization” of art means that the entire art ecology, including art criticism, has become market-focused, which is fundamentally different from the art market, in which artworks enter into a commercial system. A set of popular styles and symbols are the natural results of market circulation. Due to the strong integration of the market environment, it can artificially create popular trends. Many young artists are uncertain what to do in the face of this opportunism; they can simply be wrapped up in the possible benefits. A few successful artists have even found it difficult to shake off the rules set by these powerful market forces. Marketization means that consumers no longer need individual judgment; they blindly follow a manipulated collective unconscious.

Fourth, the popular entertainment industry gradually evolved from a social sub-culture to a mainstream ideology. This culture of popular entertainment is the necessary result of mainstream ideology; trendy, relaxed, ridiculous, and shallow sensory culture is important in mass consumption. Culture is no longer the result of independent thought; it has become a fashionable product that can be mass-produced within an industrialized context. In market consumption, products need to be labeled and distinguishable in order to make consumption more convenient. A market-led, trendy social and cultural environment is the primary reason that Chinese contemporary art has gradually evolved into a symbolic, labeled product.

Fifth, in order to correct an overly sociological approach to the creation and study of Chinese contemporary art, we must emphasize the integrity of art historical logic. In recent years, pedantry has led to the emergence of an Academic School. These pedantic research and critical methods disregard the social specificity of art historical development, simply applying Western modernist art historical logic to stubbornly regulate Chinese contemporary art. This method only results in forced orthodoxy and fossilization. This semblance of pedantic “theoretical integrity” is often used by government-controlled mainstream “contemporary art,” and as a result, the “theory” behind this model can never truly be known. This theoretical backing seems bright and fresh, but is actually utterly devoid of substance; in addition to beautiful essay-like rhetoric, it is simply a pile of rigid philosophical phrases. As a result, contemporary art theory became a religious agnosticism that transcended experience.

Sixth, we are immersed in an omnipresent “online existence,” which means that the internet is no longer a technique or tool; it has already become an ideology and a lifestyle that can create and control thinking. The democracy of the internet is becoming the stuff of legend. Especially in an era of “self-media,” the disappearance of the “center” necessarily implies the death of the individual. When people are enveloped by a “true social nature,” they become part of an undifferentiated entity controlled by a collective unconscious. Regarding this trait of online development, my other essay highlights the relationship between the true nature of society and the errors of art historical writing in the internet era. The consequences of these five types of alienation in Chinese contemporary art can be magnified and strengthened in a self-media environment.

An undercurrent now flows through Chinese contemporary art, and this undercurrent is neither manmade nor external methods. This was born in artists’ hearts, stemming from their intuitive understanding of their dissatisfaction with and reactions to the results of their alienation.

It is time! When these undercurrents are gathered together, they will create a great fission of Chinese contemporary art forms. This prediction comes from my observations of non-mainstream Chinese contemporary art in recent years; the first twenty years of a given century often carry the expectation of a cultural transformation. I see this as a genesis for Chinese contemporary art. Today, they might be fragments splitting off from some main trunk, but they may foreshadow the possibilities of the future development of Chinese contemporary art. We must patiently wait and see!

Based on this prediction, we wanted to present a series of exhibitions that showcase these possibilities. Each exhibition might focus on a specific medium or method, or even a region or group, but we are most interested in the symbolism behind these themes, as these symbols may reflect a trend. Looking back to examine the logical and intellectual sources of these flourishing symbols is the collective risk we now take, and we believe that history will bear out their interest and significance.

May 26, 2015

Songzhuang Art District, Beijing

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[Editor] 张艳