Avant-garde Chinese art in retrospect

A comprehensive and bewildering time capsule of avant-garde Chinese art

There is a short introductory essay at the entrance to Red Brick’s overwhelming new exhibit of works from the Chinese avant-garde archive of Wen Pulin, written by the archivist himself. The essay is titled 'I Happened To Be There', a phrase Wen cribs from his teacher, Tang Chi, a former student of archaeology at Beijing University. Wen Pulin appropriates this phrase to underscore the extraordinary period of time he witnessed and documented, from the mid-1980s through the beginning of the new millennium, when an emergent generation of artists in China experimented with new media, new ideas and new philosophies of what it meant to create in a newly post- socialist artistic context.

The sprawling exhibit is split into four large gallery spaces covering the ’80s, a hallmark 1989 exhibit, the 1990s, and the year 2000. Walking through it feels like sifting through the loosely sorted finds of an archaeological dig. Wen Pulin is a famous critic and academic, and, like any good archivist, an incurable packrat. This show pulls together handwritten documents, magazines, photographs, video documentary and extensive essays written by Wen Pulin to shed light on one of the most volatile and exploratory phases of recent Chinese art history.

89_xiao lu dialogue 2

The late '80s

The first gallery features a chronological timeline of performances and 'art actions' orchestrated in the mid to late '80s. A highlight from this time period was the 1988 Wrapping the Great Wall event, in which students from every major art university in Beijing converged on Mutianyu with white cloth, proceeding to bandage the monument in a symbolic gesture meant to bid farewell to the 20th century. Several of Beijing’s earliest rock ’n’ roll stars, including Cui Jian, were present at the event, and gave performances on the wall.

This gallery gives way to what is, in our opinion, the most impressive part of the exhibition: a sort of callback to another exhibition, 1989’s China/Avant-Garde. Sometimes referred to as 'the ’89 Exhibition', China/Avant-Garde was held at the National Art Museum of China just before that year’s Spring Festival, and according to Wen Pulin ‘marked one of the most significant turning points in the history of contemporary art in China.’ Wen Pulin recounts that one artist, Kang Mu, wrote to the organising committee of the ’89 Exhibition saying that he would show up nude on its opening day. Kang was taken into police custody, and the exhibition’s organising committee gave notice that performance art was banned from the opening. 'Therefore,' Wen says, 'the performances that did occur were destined to be less like incidental events and more like major interventions.'

Wen famously called the performances that did end up being included in the ’89 Exhibition the ‘Seven Sins’. These were provocative, often extreme performances, including Xiao Lu’s 'Dialogue', in which the artist shot a canvas twice with a loaded gun, prompting an immediate shutdown of the exhibition. Red Brick’s recapitulation of the sights and sounds of the ’89 Exhibition captures a period of Chinese art that’s hard to imagine possible today, given the ideological tightening that would come about in thesummer of that year.

The ’90s

Much of the energy of the ’89 Exhibit carried over to the next decade, and the next gallery space focuses on performance art as it evolved in the 1990s, mostly in an area on the outskirts of Beijing that the artists living and working there called the East Village (dongcun, 东村). One of the most famous artists to emerge from this scene is Zhang Huan, who is known for works of extreme endurance such as 1994’s ‘65 KG’, in which he was hung from a ceiling beam while blood was transfused from his body into a heated pan below, slowly cooking.

Photos of performances by Zhang Huan and his contemporaries are rendered in excruciating detail, supplemented by copious notes, news clippings and other related ephemera from the time. Wen’s summary essay at the end of this ’90s chronology notes that the decade saw the forceful wave of capitalism, which was sweeping the rest of China, slowly arrive in the domain of avant-garde art. He says, 'Performance art started in reaction to the capitalist art system, but of course the capitalists were so voracious in their open-minded search for profit that it did not take them long to find a way to conquer it, and so action became performance... Now a photograph of a performance was enough to create a new myth.'


The year 2000

The exhibition concludes with a bittersweet showcase of a few works completed around the turn of the millennium. The centrepiece here is a graffiti-covered, brick and steel structure based on a work by Zhang Shengquan, who performed under the alias Datong Dazhang. Zhang began his art career in the ’80s, gaining notoriety with the participation of his WR Group in the ’89 Exhibition.

Wen notes that other artists’ attitude towards the dawn of the year 2000 ranged from the absurd (‘Sun Ping, all in funeral dress with silica gel breasts, commemorated the end of the millennium by dispersing funerary money from high up in the hall’) to the mystical (‘Yin Xiaofeng invited several blind fortune tellers from the street to perform divination for the new millennium’). Zhang Shengquan’s final performance, however, ends the narrative on a sombre note: the artist hung himself in his apartment in Datong on January 1, 2000.

00_datong dazhang structure 1

The exhibition thus ends with a question mark. The title of Wen’s concluding essay is 'Where Did the Joy Come From?' While we wouldn’t characterise the show overall as joyful, it does provide a certain hope for the future of Chinese avant-garde art, which can only be enriched by this extremely detailed and nuanced meditation on its past.

  • 4 out of 5 stars