ART ABSOLUTE, the inaugural issue, August 2015
30 Years of Contemporary Art
By Zhu Wei
Being indulging in painting for a long time, I have become more and more conservative toward new things. Painting is a kind of craft. As the more meals you have eaten, the less you want to improvise each meal. I become more critical. Chinese value the feelings on the tongue, while Japanese value the good intention in delicious food. My friends who are familiar with me all know, that in this day and age, I still do not use blog or Wechat, and adhere to my seven-year-old Nokia. However, for a tasty battercake, I can run as far as a kilometer, to pick out accurately from a dozen battercake vendors, a battercake without parsley. A word: Elegant. A word to describe rich people nowadays: Capricious. To the extreme it's like a high standard that aristocrats left over from the late Qing Dynasty could reach: I would rather starve to death than cook.
In the thirty years of Chinese contemporary art, although I didn't catch the parade of defending constitution with the Star Arts Society, I have kept creating art for 27 years. It is full of snot and tears and stumbling. In recent years I made room for breathing and having fun, and then, I realize I cannot go back. Having been busy in painting and exhibitions but without thinking deeply is like squeezing in a long-distance bus over mountains and rivers day and night, and when I get off to urinate, suddenly I want to ask: where are we going now?
Almost everyone knows the Italian Renaissance, and the Three Giants of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. In fact the Three Giants of the Renaissance in Italy are not these three, but the three humanist thinkers 200 years ago: Dante, Petra Grams, and Boccaccio. It's the theory of the three thinkers and their "Divine Comedy", "The Decameron" and sonnets that guided the creation of later artists. Before the birth of contemporary art, the Western art was affected by famous philosopher and thinkers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Spencer, and John Dewey, and then by Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, Jean Paul Sartre, and Derrida. Foucault died in 1984. The structuralism master Derrida went along with contemporary art till 2004. Idea goes before action, just like what people often say, theory guides practice. People decide what they want to eat at home, and then carry a basket to market, while few people go to market and purchase whatever they see. Frankly speaking, theories of these Western thinkers were for their own opera, drama, classical ballet, classical painting, poetry, literature, having nothing to do with Chinese. So, since Chinese contemporary art have been bustling for thirty years, have we produced our own ideological and theoretical system? If we do, what are they? If not, where did our Chinese contemporary art come from? In other words, does China have contemporary art?
It seems difficult to explain this situation, as if to explain the chicken-and-egg problem. If China does not have contemporary art, what are the massive contemporary artworks? Actually it's easy to divulge facts. About what has China been doing in thousands years of history, Teresa Teng sang it clearly in her song: "I can't forget you, but you have forgotten me. You even called me the wrong name. You said you would come to see me two days later, but I have waited for more than a year." Most of our energy has been spent in intriguing against each other, complaining, undermining our credit, without any creativity. If I'm not mistaken, in the Chinese modern art exhibition held in 1989, the curator stood on the door step of the National Art Museum of China, and announced loudly to the world: "Chinese artists spent only ten years, to accomplish the process which Western contemporary artists spent a hundred years on." So it obviously told us that Chinese contemporary art had taken a shortcut. It's an imitation.
Imitation is not a shame, but a bad imitation which leads to internecine is. The inspiration of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Marquez, the master of magical realism in Latin American, was derived from Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo". Juan Rulfo used two generations to place a family into a lonely situation, while Marquez used seven generations. However, Marquez made the whole story more dynamic, more fascinating. Therefore, he was called "the most brilliant master of imitation in the world". Pop art was originated in the United States. When Andy Warhol put popular symbols and trademarks which people were familiar with into painting, it became the pop art. Pop art contained sarcasm towards consumer culture in capitalist society, resistance against the authority of art and easel art, and denial of modern art, but when pop art spread to the Soviet Union, it evolved into Political Pop and succeeded. The examples include Kosolapov's representative work "Lenin and Coca Cola" and Kabakov's installatoin "the Red Wagon". It also results in a famous Soviet contemporary art genre, Moscow Conceptualism. Even the Chinese revolution is not an exception. The salvoes of the October Revolution brought us marxism-leninism, which has been mentioned up to now. Before that, the gunshot of Opium War had brought two Misters to China: democracy and science.
Comparing to the various Western contemporary art schools, Chinese contemporary art couldn't be simpler. Basically they are still Easel paintings, in which the introspection on Cultural Revolution is used as coordinates, the distance from Cultural Revolution is taken as standards, and the symbols of Cultural Revolution is considered as artistic features. This is how the generation born after 50s, 60s and 70s in contemporary art, as well as the 85 Art Movement and Post 89, came out. Their art mixed with some installations, action art, multimedia art that are neither Chinese nor Western, neither corny nor fashionable, and could not be understood by many professional artists. I always think these artists who dare to make artworks that can only be accepted by audiences in post-industrial countries are real fighters. Cultural Revolution is not a result but a phenomenon. To criticize and satirize a phenomenon without any explanation turned the phenomenon into a result. It shows that the Chinese contemporary art is not matured, or lack of expert's advice.
After 1949, state advances while the private sector retreats. With several revolutions and movements, almost all industries have been nationalized, and even Qi Baishi, who had a vendor of seal engraving near Qianmen, was accepted into painting academy by the people's government. I think it was a pity. The shrimp, crab, Chinese cabbage, radish, and bean curd, no matter whether these ingredients of spicy hot pot painted by Qi Baishi are majestic enough to represent the momentum of a booming country and a flourishing nation, the most suitable soil for Qi was still the mass and people. It's like the TV program of super girl competition. Those girls are capable of singing, talking, refreshing, distracting attention, so we offer them certificate of merit, encourage them with words, and if it doesn't work, we pay them money. Then they can make a living by themselves. If each girl were awarded a title of People's Artist, how these kids find their ways in the future? During the Reform and Opening Up, the biggest change that the emergence of contemporary art brought to Chinese art is the change of living environment. This change is revolutionary, epoch-making, and landmark. Artists have done this for almost 20 years. First of all, they used the strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside, and then, they bought a flat in the city. I'm unacquainted with other cities, but the several suburbs around Beijing, Tongxian, Yanjiao, Daxing, Shunyi, Miyun, Huairou, Shijingshan, Yanqing, Sunhe, Songzhuang, Cuigezhuang, Hegezhuang, Tiejiangying, Feijiacun, Suojiacun, Caochangdi, Heiqiao, even Zhoukoudian, the Peking-Man-rich region in Fangshan district, has built a large art park. Secondly, they launched the people's war. They persuaded, educated, and warned the village cadres and ordinary farmers of consequences, changing them from incomprehension at beginning to uniting as one at last, until these locals and artists become a harmonious whole, and everyone is pleasing to each other's eye. Thirdly, they played a war of attrition. Their houses have been dismantled and rebuilt, rebuilt and dismantled. No prairie fire can destroy the grass, while it shoots up again with the spring.
When people enjoy artworks, they always hope to see something other than the artwork itself. The requirement is quite modest. Some artworks went too far to leave nothing behind. Thirty years of Chinese contemporary art is not long, but quite short. The European oil painting has a history of 700 years, and more than 170 years since it has been imported in China. The exploration of their modern and contemporary art has gone through a journey of more than a hundred years. Chinese ink and wash painting has a history of 3000 years. Should our exploration of contemporary art go further? If nothing goes wrong, let's make it an even hundred, shall we?!
人们在欣赏完艺术作品的时候，总希望能透过作品看到些什么，这种要求其实并不过分。过分的是有些作品看完就看完了，丝毫留不下什么。中国当代艺术三十年，说长不长说短倒是真短 ，欧洲油画诞生至今七百多年了，传到中国也有一百七十多年，他们的现当代艺术探索已经走过了一百多年的路程，中国的水墨画诞生至今有三千多年的历史， 我们的当代艺术探索之路是不是应该走的更远一点呢，如果不出啥乱子，凑一整数，一百年，行不？！