See Robert Rauschenberg's magnum opus at UCCA

'The 1/4 Mile' is on display for the first time in almost 20 years

If the adoption of one’s name as an adjective is any indicator of cultural influence, Robert Rauschenberg was clearly one of the top American artists of his generation. While the names of his contemporaries evoke specific connotations – 'Warholian' conjures soup cans; 'Cagean' means a specific kind of silence – 'Rauschenbergian' remains a hard word to define.

This year will see two major reevaluations of the artist’s legacy. A thorough retrospective – the first since his death in 2008 – will open at London’s Tate Modern in November, later travelling to New York and San Francisco. The other exhibition, Rauschenberg in China, opened last month at Beijing’s UCCA, and arguably gives a better idea of what 'Rauschenbergian' might mean.


Rauschenberg in China centres around a piece made up of sculptures and canvases called The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, which the artist created between 1981 and 1998. The first half of 'the quarter mile', as co-curators Susan Davidson and David White call it, was unveiled at the 1987 inauguration of the Metropolitan Museum’s Wallace Wing for 20th-century art. It was included in a Rauschenberg retrospective organised by New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1997, which travelled to Houston, Cologne and Bilbao, and was last shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999.

Rauschenberg in China is the first time The 1/4 Mile has been exhibited in the 21st century – partly due to the immense logistical challenges inherent in mounting it. Described by the curators as a 'masterwork' and a 'self-contained retrospective', The 1/4 Mile is incredibly large: 305 metres from end-to-end, composed of 191 individual parts incorporating signature elements of Rauschenberg’s work such as junkyard scrap, newspaper clippings and textiles. Assistant curator Helen Hsu calls it a 'retrospective crasher': 'In 1997, it necessitated a makeshift Guggenheim space in an off-site location. In Houston, it spread the retrospective into multiple venues, and it actually was left out in Cologne because there was no space for it.'

For the current show, The 1/4 Mile was relayed between warehouses in the US, before being packed onto a boat bound for Tianjin. Once it cleared customs – two panels that threw up red flags during the government’s screening process had already been omitted – it was shipped to a warehouse in Beijing, unpacked, then loaded into smaller trucks to get it into 798.

If we use The 1/4 Mile as a stand-in for the artist, this is the third time Rauschenberg has come to China. In 1982, he was commissioned to create a piece based on a visit to the oldest paper mill in Anhui Province. Rauschenberg came armed with his Hasselblad camera, and shot 50 rolls of film during his stay. Two years later, he announced the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), a self-funded initiative to use his art as a channel for communication in countries where he perceived a lack of free expression, including Cuba, Venezuela and the Soviet Union. ROCI was a manifestation of his belief that 'one-to-one contact through art contains potent peaceful powers, and is the most non-elitist way to share exotic and common information, seducing us into a creative mutual understanding for the benefit of all.'

Rauschenberg in China pre-opening image for media 14The first stop on his ROCI tour, which would cover ten countries over seven years, was Beijing. ROCI China opened at what is now the National Art Museum of China in November 1985, centred on a 30-metre-long horizontal photograph called Chinese Summerhall. Rauschenberg cut up and reassembled individual negatives of photos taken in ’82 and printed out the resulting collage. 'It remains the largest photograph on a single sheet of paper ever printed,' Hsu says.

ROCI China drew over 300,000 visitors in the three weeks it was shown. It influenced an entire generation of artists emboldened by China’s recent economic and ideological opening, but starved of direct contact with artists of Rauschenberg’s stature.

From Beijing, Rauschenberg travelled west to Lhasa for a second ROCI exhibit. He was received by artist Li Xinjian, who still vividly remembers their first encounter: 'He was standing with his back to the sun, at the crossroads between the Tibetan Autonomous Region government office and the museum hosting his exhibit. He looked burly, wearing jeans, a pair of heavy boots and a glamorous lynx fur coat'.

Li collaborated with Rauschenberg on the ROCI exhibit, which in Lhasa included more than 70 works flown in on decommissioned military aircraft. Rauschenberg’s goal of using art as a 'non-elitist' form of universal communication was not entirely successful. The exhibit included ten video works, some of which featured snippets of Disney cartoons. 'There were not many TVs in Tibet back then,' Li explains, saying that some local viewers were entertained to the point of distraction by the novelty. 'Some of it was cryptic, incomprehensible to the average person. How could they ever understand those paintings? When Rauschenberg saw the Tibetans happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, he got angry and told us to turn off the TVs.'

Rauschenberg’s visit was a revelation to Li. 'He wanted to take the world by storm, to lead a cultural charge into a new geographic territory,' Li says. 'He felt he was an archaeologist of the times, gathering new information to build up an ideal empire in his own artistic vision.'

Li recalls a baijiu-soaked feast that Rauschenberg threw after the exhibit opened, a major event at a time when Lhasa’s single five-star hotel barely had enough hot water for its guests. 'We were giving toasts, he danced with everyone. He was shaking his glass around, saying, "I use military aircraft to carry my works around the world, there will never be any more wars!" In any culture, to gain advantage, you need to expand towards the outside. It’s the same for artists. He knew this well, and wherever he went he planted an American flag.' A few years after his visit to Lhasa, Rauschenberg publicly debuted The 1/4 Mile, which includes material from his time in China.

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Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

Walking through The 1/4 Mile as it unfurls through UCCA’s Great Hall, supplemented by smaller exhibits of photographs and ephemera from Rauschenberg’s China trips, one feels as if a diary is being read aloud. While Rauschenberg’s influence on China has been well documented, this show is as much about China’s influence on him.

'Rauschenberg was a very gutsy man, one of the few world-class artists of his time,' Li says. 'Although Tibet is far from the world’s art centre, New York, and I was like a soldier standing on the border of Chinese contemporary art, I always found his work familiar. Its sophistication is that in its familiarity lies a kind of uncertainty.'

Rauschenberg in China aptly communicates the artist’s uncanny representation of the familiar. Its monumental centrepiece is huge but unassuming, its subject matter broad and diplomatic yet at the same time thoroughly self-absorbed, daring yet stable, comfortably cryptic. In a word: Rauschenbergian.

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