From the Archives: Children of Mao and Coca-Cola

Cover of the March 1999 issue of Art in America, showing a detail of Wenda Gu's installation, Temple of Heaven, 1998, human hair, Ming Dynasty-style furniture, video monitors, 13 by 15 by 20 feet, at P.S. 1, Long Island City.


Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” on view through January 7, 2018, at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is an ambitious survey of Chinese art spanning two decades. As Richard Vine notes in our December issue, the curatorial team avoids the spectacle that Western critics tend to associate with the country’s avant-garde, instead focusing on more soberly conceptual work. Contributing editor Eleanor Heartney anticipated this shift in an article for our March 1999 issue about “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” a similarly momentous exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from the mid-1980s onwards, which appeared in New York at MoMA PS1 and the Asia Society. After considering the bold figuration and cutting tone that characterized the painting that flourished after the Tiananmen Square protests, she highlights a group of young, conceptually minded artists, working “behind the scenes when the West’s image of Chinese art was being shaped by Political Pop and Cynical Realism.” These include Huang Yong Ping, Zhang Peili, and Xu Bing—all featured in the Guggenheim show. We present her essay in full below. —Eds.


When the work of the Chinese avant-garde started to appear in the West in the mid-1990s, many mistook it for an Asian version of the “unofficial” Russian art that had gained so much international attention a few years earlier. The confusion was perhaps, understandable: like Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov and the collaborative team of Komar and Melamid, the newly visible Chinese artists crossed Pop art with Communist kitsch, creating wittily subversive paintings and sculptures which seemed to embody individual resistance against a totalitarian regime. Now comes a massive exhibition titled “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” which allows us to see how much more complicated is the full story of the Chinese avant-garde. Spanning the period from the mid-1980s to the present,“Inside Out,” currently on view at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and Asian Art Museum, charts the complex relationship between Chinese artists and the Communist regime through cycles of openness and repression. The 62 artists or artist groups in the show represent not only mainland China but also Hong Kong and Taiwan, allowing the exhibition to address issues relating to Chinese identity and traditions. It thereby broadens our understanding of how modernism and postmodernism have developed outside the West.

The main curator of “Inside Out” is Gao Minglu, who organized the groundbreaking, and officially vilified, exhibition “China/Avant Garde” at the National Gallery in Beijing in 1989. (Gao left China in 1991 and is currently a doctoral candidate in art history at Harvard.) Thanks to his involvement in the tumultuous events of the Tiananmen period, Gao brings a tremendous inside knowledge to bear on the evolution of avant-garde art in mainland China. In putting the exhibition together, he was joined by curators from the two sponsoring U.S. institutions: Gary Garrels from SFMOMA, which initiated the exhibition, and Colin Mackenzie of the Asia Society in New York.

The exhibition is organized into thematic categories which also help make geographical and historical sense out of what might otherwise be an overwhelming mass of material. As part of this structure, the Taiwan and Hong Kong art scenes are dealt with in separate sections, while the lion’s share of the space is devoted, rightfully, to the dramatic twists and turns of which accompanied the development of avant-garde art in the People’s Republic. Offering a more or less chronological account of recent Chinese art, this part of the exhibition includes many artists unfamiliar to most U.S. viewers.

In its New York configuration, where I saw it, “Inside Out” was divided between the Asia Society on Park Avenue and P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Some of the artists whose Pop-influenced paintings burst into international consciousness at the 1993 Venice Biennale and the São Paulo Bienal the following year were represented at the Asia Society in two sections titled “From Idealism to Cultural Cynicism” and “Consumerism and Society in the ’90s.” These sections chronicle the emergence of avant-garde art between 1985 and 1989—a time when the Chinese government, eager to cast off the shadows of the Cultural Revolution, began to officially welcome foreign ideas and cultural activity. This brief moment of openness ended abruptly as the government cut off support for democratic ideas following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Throughout the ’90s, under the slogan “To be rich is wonderful,” the government encouraged entrepreneurship and consumerism, an ideological sea change which pushed artists and intellectuals out of the center of progressive discourse and into the margins of Chinese society.

These shifts are reflected in the works on view. Pre-Tiananmen paintings such as Wang Guangyi’s Mao Zedong No. 1 (1988) and Geng Jianyi’s The Second Situation Nos 1-4 (1987) adopt a generalized representational style that owes something to both Surrealism and American Pop art. In contrast to Pop, these works tend to be rendered in shades of gray, suggesting a critique of the colorless egalitarianism of communist culture. Post-Tiananmen, a number of Chinese artists began to adopt the garish colors of propaganda and advertising posters and to cultivate an often bitterly cynical tone. Paintings from the early ’90s take aim at the venality of the new middle class, the merging of consumer and political icons and the soullessness of a society based on the hierarchy of wealth. These tendencies received such expressive monikers as Political Pop and Cynical Realism, and are represented by works which range from Wang Guangyi’s Coca-Cola (1993) from the “Great Castigation” series, in which the stalwart worker heroes of Cultural Revolution propaganda find themselves promoting a classic American beverage, to Liu Wei’s New Generation (1992), which shows a pair of strangely misshapen toddlers lolling before a giant portrait of Mao. Given the anticapitalist bent of much of this work, there is a certain irony in the fact this was the faction of the Chinese avant-garde which had the biggest commercial success in the West.

One of the great virtues of this exhibition is that it reveals how much else was going on behind the scenes when the West’s image of Chinese art was being shaped by Political Pop and Cynical Realism. In a section titled “Conceptual Art and Dada,” the focus is on the artists who bridge the pre- and post-Tiananmen years with works which combine the Zen renunciation of self and a Fluxus-style attack on the preciousness of art. One of the leaders of this group was Huang Yong Ping, who has since become well known in the West for installations that often include live animals and Asian-inspired architectural motifs. (In the SoHo Guggenheim’s 1998 show of Hugo Boss finalists, Huang presented a work featuring spiders in podlike cages). In “Inside Out” Huang is represented with several works from the ’80s which attack the marketing of art and art theory. For Roulette Wheel (1985), he made abstract paintings according to instructions determined by spins of a wooden wheel. In a 1987 work, seminal texts on Chinese and Western art were immersed in a washing machine and reduced to a pile of paper pulp.

The slipperiness of language is a theme which recurs throughout the exhibition. In the West, language-based works often seek to subvert surface meanings in order to undermine the absolutism of Western rationalism, while in China, language-based art seems both more overtly political and more embedded in a sense of Chinese cultural identity. Falling across many of these works is the lingering shadow of the Cultural Revolution; for 10 years (1966-76) educated use of language was suspect and words were remade to suit revolutionary ideals. Use of language is also affected by the complicated relationship to visual art of the pictographic forms of the written Chinese language.

In Zhang Peili’s videotape Water—The Standard Version Read from the ‘Ci Hai’ Dictionary (1989-92), a well-known Chinese newscaster from the state-controlled news service is seen reading what appears to be the day’s news. In fact, as any Chinese-speaking viewer would quickly realize, the text she recites is simply the dictionary definition of the word “water.” It’s hard not to see the work as a sly critique of the government-approved information that is broadcast so authoritatively over the Chinese airwaves every day.

Less overtly political was Qui Zhijie’s Writing the ‘Orchard Pavilion Preface’ One Thousand Times (1986). The title refers to a famous literary text whose ancient version is a touchstone for the Chinese calligraphic tradition. However, because the original was buried with an art-loving emperor, the Orchard Pavilion Preface only survives through copies. In a move which highlights contemporary China’s tenuous relation to its own history, Qui hand-copied it 1,000 times onto the same sheet of paper, eventually creating a solid field of black ink.

Other forays into language appeared in separate room-size installations at P.S. 1. Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (1987-91) is a breathtakingly labor-intensive work which consists of hundreds of open books laid out on the floor. Hanging above this carpet of books is a canopy created from strips of uncut book pages. Both canopy and books are covered with markings that look like Chinese characters but were in fact invented by the artist. Xu created 4,000 of these pseudo-characters, which he carved into wood blocks and hand printed onto the oversized books. In the context of Chinese society, Book from the Sky can be seen as a comment on the subtle erosion of language effected by propaganda; it also suggests the difficulty of transmitting tradition in post-Cultural Revolution China.

More optimistic was Wenda Gu’s transformation of P.S. l’s café into an unorthodox tea house. The installation involved swaths of translucent scrim which enshrouded the café like boudoir curtains. These were composed of bits of human hair (collected from barbershops around the world) which the artist had shaped into forms that suggest letters and characters from various Eastern and Western languages. While Gu shares Xu’s interest in pseudo-characters, his message seems more hopeful—the cafe installation celebrated the linguistic stew which is emerging from the fusion of cultures and languages in the global community.

Meanwhile, Wu Shan Zhuan deals with the cacophony of messages within the New China. The Big Characters from the “Red Humor” series (1986), is an installation in which the walls of a small room are lined with an array of red and black Chinese street posters and graffiti that give equal weight to political slogans, advertisements, traffic directions, poetry and weather forecasts. Wu is unlikely to have been familiar with the contemporaneous work of Jenny Holzer, but The Big Characters bears striking parallels to the American artist’s early wheat-pasted posters, which draw on the language of advertising and public service announcements. The parallels between Wu and Holzer suggest that Communist and capitalist societies can adopt similar forms of media persuasion.

Walking through this show, one has the feeling of viewing a vibrant, multifaceted art scene from the inside, with all its loose ends and contradictions still very much in evidence.

Another tendency the exhibition chronicles, in a section titled “Transcendence of Tradition: Contemporary Ink Painting,” is the reinvention of one of China’s most venerable art forms. Stretching back over 15 centuries, Chinese ink painting preserves a set of artistic methods which its students are expected to master before attempting any creative departure of their own. Traditional art education in China consisted, therefore, of emulating the masters of ink painting, and even today many painters carry on the old ways. Given the continuing hold of ink painting on the Chinese artistic imagination, one suspects that its deconstruction serves the same function for the Chinese artist as the deconstruction of the nude might for an artist from the West. In contrast to the often biting political nature of the conceptual artists’ attack on language, the individuals in this part of the show seemed to explore more internal avenues of escape from the oppressions of Communist reality. Interestingly, this section includes a number of artists who have since emigrated to the West and have become well known for very different work.

Wenda Gu, who is one these, is represented here with an enormous three-panel work from 1984 in which an invented character combination of the words for “spirit” and “imagination” floats over a gorgeous black and white field abstracted from traditional ink-painting techniques. Cai Guo-Qiang, who was the subject of an exhibition at the Queens Museum in 1997, is well known in the West for dramatic installations and performances which play off Chinese rituals and history. Here he contributed one such work, newly minted, in the form of an enormous boat hanging in midair in the two-story gallery just off P.S. 1’s lobby. Stuck with arrows, it commemorates a battle in which a savvy Chinese general captured a supply of enemy ammunition by luring his opponents into shooting fruitlessly at his vessel. In the ink-painting section of the show, Cai is represented by an older less-well-known work. A 1985 painting titled Traces of Ancient Explosions is an early version of the explosion performances for which he has become known. The carbon deposits left on the canvas by detonated gun powder create abstract compositions which have an uncanny resemblance to paintings by Tapiès and Dubuffet.

However, the most dramatic work of this section is an over-98-foot-long scroll painting by Ren Jian titled Primeval Chaos (1086-87). Wrapped around the four walls of a gallery, this mysterious creation narrative includes a surrealistic landscape that serves as backdrop to roiling clouds and spinning organic shapes which gradually metamorphose into generalized animal and human forms. Cinematic in scope, Ren’s vision is escapist in the extreme.

In the performance-art section, a bitterly satiric sensibility returns to the fore. Concentrated in the second half of the ’80s, when such public expressions of deviant behavior were more tolerated, Chinese performance art tended toward the absurd and outrageous. Videos and photographs document artists engaged in extreme activities: Wang Jin marrying a mule, honey-covered Zhang Huang sitting on a public toilet to attract flies. On the more poetic side, Song Dong “printed” on water, raising and lowering a wooden seal from the surface of a river. Perhaps the most telling in terms of social commentary was Wang Jin’s Ice: Central China (1996). For this work, the artist froze a selection of new consumer items in a wall of ice as part of the opening ceremony for a new shopping mall. Wang’s original plan was for the items to become available once the ice had melted, but before that could happen members of the public chopped the ice apart in a frenzied effort to get at the goods.

The mainland portion of the show closes with a set of rooms devoted to “Apartment Act,” a category that involves using humble objects and materials which can be fashioned in small Chinese apartments. (Interestingly, there are parallels with Soviet dissident artists who, during the 1970s, developed “AptArt,” a movement named for the fact that most of its manifestations occurred in the ‘artists’ apartments.) “Inside Out” presented “Apartment Art” as a response to the more marginalized position of the artist in the post-Tiananmen era. The rise of such work also seems to reflect the greater role of private life and private concerns in the New China. Given the domestic setting and the constraints Apartment Art addresses, it’s not surprising that many of the artists working in this mode are women. One particularly touching work is by Yin Xiuzhen, who unraveled two piles of sweaters, one in the bright colors usually worn by women and the other more neutral male hues. These have been knitted together into a new garment which brings the two often-divided sexes together. The notion of “women’s work” is also present in Lin Tin-miao’s Bound and Unbound (1995-97), for which the artist transformed dozens of household objects—a sewing machine, plates, pots, a baby carriage and the like—into ghostlike presences by wrapping them completely with white thread.

The mainland sections of “Inside Out” suggest the contradictory responses of the Chinese avant-garde as the political ground continually shifts beneath them. The artists taunt officialdom with satiric sallies, flaunt their individuality or intentionally repress it, turn inward to domestic life and spiritual concerns, rage, acquiesce, celebrate small pleasures and, when possible, fly the coop. The selection made by Gao and his associates tells the complex story with great skill and compassion.

By contrast, the treatment of Taiwan and Hong Kong seems to rely more on an outsider’s perspective. In these sections we get a more conventional selection of prominent artists rather than a gripping tale of private and political artistic explorations.

In the Hong Kong section, the curators have gathered a group of artists who reflect the anxieties which flow from the peculiar nature of Hong Kong’s relationship with China. A British colony for 99 years, aware of the inevitability of its return to China for 13 years leading up to the 1997 handover, Hong Kong is “Chinese” in a more provisional way that the mainland. A number of older Hong Kong artists, not represented in “Inside Out,” have attempted to reaffirm their connection to Chinese history through a revival ink painting. Much like the ink painters in the mainland section of the show, they see their work as a marriage of modernity and tradition. In Hong Kong this developed into a commercially successful style, in part, perhaps, because it shored up the former colony’s shaky sense of identity. However, this exhibition took more interest in younger artists who inclined toward the performance-and-installation-oriented formats of the international art world.

The latter impulse is evident in Danny Ning Tsun Yung’s Gifts from China (1994). This work consists of eight small boxes displayed in vitrines. Some of the boxes are packed with film canisters full of food, stationary and toys. Others hold Plexiglas-coated newspaper articles about the pre-’89 Democracy movement which led to the Tiananmen massacre, seen by many in Hong Kong residents as a frightening omen for their own more open society after the handover. These displays suggest relics or time capsules intended to outlast the potentially seismic changes to come.

This section also features documentation of a number of performances, including a faux funeral by a group of artists (Pan Xing Lei, To Weun, Tim Yu and Ma Jian) in 1996 which expressed concern over the materialist, culturally dismissive atmosphere of this finance-driven metropolis. A video documents an acrobatic performance by Ho Siu-kee. Attempting to remain upright as he balances on two large balls, Ho provides an apt metaphor for the precarious position of Hong Kong between East and West.

Taiwan, as presented here, also suffers from identity problems. A former Japanese colony which became the headquarters of the nationalist government after the Communist revolution, Taiwan has been served notice that the mainland wants it back. Though ethnically Chinese, the Taiwanese display varying degrees of nationalism. In fact, one prominent Taiwanese painter declined to be in the exhibition because he doesn’t want to be labeled Chinese.

In New York, Taiwanese art was divided between the Asia Society and P.S. 1. The work at P.S. 1 drew on Taiwanese—and Chinese—art history with a sophisticated, postmodern abandon. Ho Chung Ming reworked the woodblock tradition in large screen works which relayed a mildly pornographic fable about the emergence of a powerful female sex out of an androgynous original race. Wu Tien-chang’s assemblage paintings are amusing mixes of kitsch references from East and West. Blinking strings of illuminated plastic flowers surround the representation of a man with an Elvis pompadour who relaxes in a classic retro interior. In another work by Wu, the lights frame a painting of a young Chinese girl from the pre-Mao era who flaunts her Westernized finery without losing the clichés associated with the “exotic” East. Meanwhile, Wang Jun Jieh caters to the dream of fast palace food with a display of plastic dumplings based on a traditional holiday dish of Chinese royalty.

At the Asia Society, the Taiwanese selections for the most part eschewed references to painting and Asian culture for a more conceptual approach. The one exception was Huang Chih-Yang, whose enormous hanging scroll paintings dominated the lobby. Each contained a single personage that coalesces out of ink strokes joined into strange organic shapes which, taken in isolation, are as reminiscent of landscape and animals as of human beings. Suspended from the ceiling like primeval guardian figures, they were startlingly forceful, suggesting masses of inchoate energy on the verge of assuming more coherent form.

By contrast, the rest of the Taiwanese work in the show tends toward the cerebral. Chen Shunchu’s Family Parade, which is reminiscent of work by Christian Boltanski, offers a long swath of framed photographs showing modern Taiwanese men and women. A documentary photograph reveals that these images were originally installed in grid pattern on a crumbling house in his native village. Chen Hui-chiao’s room scattered with tiny roses pierced with needles evokes both purity and pain. Shu-Min Lin presents a holograph which melds two separate, supine male bodies in a meditation on the annihilation of individual identity. And Wu Mali provides a female take on various 20th-century Taiwanese battles in a video installation accompanied by glass plates inscribed with texts which focus on the forgotten sorrow of women during wartime.

The title “Inside Out” ends up being an accurate summation of the exhibition’s approach. One has the feeling of viewing a vibrant and multi-faceted art scene from the inside, with all its lose ends and contradictions still very much in evidence. But while the show provides an unprecedented glimpse at the art world in mainland China, it is less successful in telling the story of Chinese art centers elsewhere. (One of the most glaring omissions, in this respect, is that of Paris-based installation artist Chen Zhen, who along with Cai Guo-Qiang, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping, has been among the most active

As China’s politics change, artists taunt officialdom with satiric sallies, display their individuality or intentionally repress it, turn inward to domestic or spiritual life, rage, acquiesce or fly the coop.
and influential expatriate Chinese artists.) This wider dispersal of Chinese artists and the questions it raises about what makes expatriate art, or artists, “Chinese” would be an excellent theme for another show.

Despite these quibbles—and perhaps no single exhibition could adequately encompass all the aspects of Chinese art which this show set out to present—“Inside Out” is a remarkable accomplishment. By remaining free of official government influence and support—in contrast to the Guggenheim’s recent “China, 5,000 Years,” which featured a most peculiar set of selections in its modern section [see A.i.A., Sept. ’98]—the curators are able to deal with the reality of Chinese life. The presence on the team of a well-informed insider also ensures that the selections avoid the trap of exoticism which leads many surveys of Asian art to focus on obvious trappings of ethnic identity. In fact, visible markers of “Chineseness” are absent from many works in the exhibition. The sense of identity emerges, instead, from the confluence of esthetic, social, personal and political influences.

“Inside Out” also serves notice, if any were still needed, that it’s a mistake to see modernism and postmodernism solely in Western terms. The exhibition made clear that Chinese history and tradition offer contemporary Chinese artists their own set of influences to extend or battle against, while also reminding us that Chinese artists are buffeted by the same tumultuous, global changes that affect their Western counterparts. In its thoughtful, multidimensional presentation of a largely unfamiliar art scene, “Inside Out” opens up a passageway between China and the rest of the world, one that will no doubt be seeing some heavy two-way traffic in the years ahead.