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Dreaming of an Expedition to the West


Hi Art, July 2007


A crosstalk riff by Guo Degang runs as follow: “Someone spends 200 yuan on a piglet. The piglet is healthy enough to eat and drink if you feed it water and beans. To your surprise, the piglet dies after being thrown over a wall.”  

China’s gang of contemporary artists born in the 1960s has almost entirely been thrown out of the country. Some were thrown out by foreign painting merchants, some by foreign exhibition planners, some by foreign cultural cheats, and some by themselves. Even those with slow responses were thrown out.  

When we started out, there was just one gallery in Wangfujing and several in the Azure Stone Workshop, all of which were state owned and mainly sold picture frames and nails. Shop assistants would nibble away at sunflower seeds from behind the counter. The only major gallery was the National Museum of Art, where retired senior cadres would practice qigong, and shunned artistic exploration. In an art scene like this, one can easily guess the living condition of artists.  

In 1992, a former People’s University student Brian Wallace opened the Red Gate Gallery. It was the only place that conforms to the standards of a gallery, and still operates today. Indeed, the Red Gate celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, with a big crowd of celebrities and much ceremony.  

Brian reminisced what it was like opening the gallery. At that time, the group of artists thrown out of the country had already set up their own spaces. Banners such as “Post-89”, “Political Pop Art”, and “Cynical Realism” were prominently displayed. The group had not died, and some had even yielded fruit. The news of the new gallery spread like the steam from a bamboo steamer of dumplings spreads across surface.   

Chinese people became very conservative during the reform and opening, and became reluctant to accept new or exotic things. People felt, however, that they could accept things that came from overseas. Even those who were too old to adapt to foreign ways came back to each you how to eat Chinese bread with preserved vegetables. At first, everyone thought that this was how foreigners behaved, and thought that copying this behavior was the right thing to do. Soon, though, as time lapsed, people realized that it was in fact abnormal.  

In fact, culture is the last card a state can play if it wants to distinguish itself from the others, especially in an era of global and regional economic integration. Culture cannot and must not be integrated with others, otherwise it would become dull and boring.  

The popularity of contemporary Chinese art in foreign countries is really a way to supplement the Western scene. It is evidence that the game rules are set down by Westerners, especially given the popularity and influence of the Western tradition of oil painting in contemporary Chinese art. .

Over the last couple of decades, those artists from 1985 and 1989 who engaged conscientiously in art and had a sense of cultural responsibility felt increasingly depressed. Dreams of glory were shattered. Just as when we pounded pizza dough in a kitchen at someone’s house, we would be complimented on the great cooking skills of the Chinese. Should you suggest making a Chinese pancake instead, the visitors would become sulky and irritated in a flash.  

In a sense, culture is a dream shared by everyone of one nation or nationality. The dream, sometimes, is intangible, and sometimes attaches itself to human beings of all forms and shapes. You are either lying or squatting while dreaming, but you must feel comfortable in yourself before being able to move others.

I will not make any comment on those who were thrown out of the nation and painted a dream in oils. For those who have made the grade by cheating foreigners with Chinese water and wash paintings are still dreaming. For Xu Bing and Gu Wenda in the 1950s, Wei Dong and me in the 1960s, we see that none came up in the 1970s and 1980s.   

Zhu Wei

Thursday June 21, 2007