1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition

Redefining Art in the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition


Xiao Lu, Dialogue, 1989.

Art need not be beautiful but can be highly conceptual and meaningful in the context of the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition

Li Xianting, the esteemed Chinese art critic said that ‘it does not mean anything when one looks at the surface or the beauty of the work and does not take into consideration its concept or value behind it’. From this statement, he implied that the concept of a work is more important and valuable than the aesthetics or the surface beauty which many tend to associate art with. This essay thus seeks to define the notion of what art is and explores the notion that art need not be beautiful but can be highly conceptual and meaningful, through the ground breaking 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition.

The China/Avant-Garde exhibition was conceptualised in 1986 and came into existence on February 1989 with 297 works ranging from paintings and sculptures of the more ‘modern’ style to photographs, installations and even performance art. The exhibition was spread over three levels and installations and impromptu performance art, art forms that were previously not seen in public or in the setting of a museum, were located on the first floor while more traditional forms like paintings and sculptures were mostly located on the third floor. This showed that the exhibition placed importance and emphasis on newer and more experimental forms of art works. Li Xianting, the curator and exhibition designer said that art should not be limited to just traditional landscape or academic paintings. He conceptualised such a layout as he wanted to ‘provoke the audience out of their cultural inertia’ and taste for traditional Chinese ink and realistic paintings (Wu Hung, 2010) and evict the elitism associated with museums. Performance art where the artists become part of the art work by using their bodies and a series of actions to communicate a message (Berghuis, 2006) therefore were also openly performed without approval from the organisers as seen in Wu Shanzhuan’s ‘Big Business’ and without anyone’s knowledge as seen in Xiao Lu’s ‘Dialogue’. What these artists demonstrated was a spirit of rebellion against the old cultural system of propaganda paintings and academic paintings. They proposed to and provoked the audience that art need not be your traditional idea of beauty like the Cultural Revolution’s model painting, ‘Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan’ with its vast expanse of nature and cloudy sky. However, these works China/Avant-Garde exhibition are not just provocative or sensational in nature. They hold much social, political and conceptual significance and were hence conveyed the status of art as demonstrated in the works- Huang Yongping’s ‘The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes’, Xiao Lu’s ‘Dialogue’, Wu Shanzhuan’s ‘Big Business’ and Xu Bing’s ‘A Book from the Sky’.

Huang Yongping, “The History of Chinese Painting” and the “History of Modern Western Art,” Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987, installation, paper pulp, wood, glass.

In Huang Yongping’s ‘The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes’, two books of contrasting culture and aesthetic ideologies were thrown into the washing machine for two minutes and the crumpled lump of books were subsequently dumped in a pile atop a broken glass and a wooden tea crate with the title scrawled in a matter-of-fact way on the opened lid. For viewers used to admiring beautiful landscape paintings or the realism of paintings like Luo Zhongli’s ‘Father’, it would come as a shock to see this crude installation in the National Art Museum of China, one of Beijing’s ‘Ten Great Constructions in 1958 and the symbol of the highest authority in art’ (Gao, 2011). However, Li Xianting in an interview with Asian Art Archive, questioned viewers’ and society’s basis of judging whether an art work is good or bad and declared that we should change our value system when looking at art works and learn to appreciate works of other forms and nature. No matter how experimental or avant-garde are the art works, they should not be denied a place in a museum as art is not just limited to landscape or academic paintings. Be it contemporary or traditional art, they are all works of art that convey different themes and messages in different forms. Hence in Huang’s work, he was actually conveying a strong social statement that past art styles as represented by the history books should be destroyed to pave the way for more contemporary and newer forms of art rather than displaying technical virtuosity and aesthetic beauty.

Destroying works of art outside the Xiamen Art Museum by the Xiamen Dada group, 1986

“A lot of the work we made as a collective was relatively spontaneous. After our exhibition ended, we decided to burn all the works because it just felt fitting.”

– Huang Yongping

Huang was the founder of the Xiamen Dada group who often relied on chance and used unorthodox or found objects for their works. Hence, in Huang’s work, the two books were subjected to the chance happening of being washed in the washing machine. That was a radical way of creating art work in the post cultural revolution era where chance and not systematic arrangement of motifs and elements (as seen in the Mao propaganda paintings) determined the outcome of the artwork. Although, the use of chance was already employed as an artistic practice by the Dada group in the West, it was a breakthrough in artistic practice in China as art began to shift from the government control propagandistic paintings during the Cultural Revolution to more experimental ways of art. It is also only with an open and creative mind of trying out different ways of making art that art is able to progress and go forward rather than stagnate at the academic or landscape painting state and genre. Therefore, Huang’s work should be considered as a form of art or contemporary art. The force of the washing machine in his work led to the outcome of the work being direct and impactful where the contrasting writings of eastern and western culture were pulverised to the point of illegibility. Huang was passing on the message that in a more globalised world, there is no one distinct or ‘pure’ artistic culture (Fei, 2005) as cultures and the various art forms interact with each other to produce something even more ‘chaotic’, less formalistic and hence more vibrant and interesting forms of art.

Li Xianting also said in an interview that ‘realism is not the only correct path’ for art and that the ‘insistence of one’s freedom and independence is the most important aspect of Chinese Contemporary Art’, rather than aesthetic beauty. This is exemplified by Xiao Lu’s ‘Dialogue’, an installation cum performance, where the artist made two impromptu shots of her own installation without prior approval from the organisers or the knowledge of anybody except for Tang Song who was present at the scene. Her ability to execute the performance was seen in that it was the post cultural revolution era where the government loosened its hold on artistic creation and modern or contemporary art became a medium which allow the expression of the individual’s rather than the government’s thoughts and ideas about art, politics or society. The ‘insistence of one’s freedom and independence’ will hence allow artists to break conventional boundaries and produce more creative and impactful works which by themselves are more powerful works of art than traditional paintings with surface beauty but no concept or messages behind it.

Xiao Lu, Two Gunshots Fired at the Installation “Dialogue” in the China Avant-Garde Exhibition, Beijing Feb 1989. Performance.

Xiao Lu’s ‘Dialogue’ consists of two telephone booths with photographic cut-outs of a male and female student talking to each other on the phone. In the middle of the booth, lies a mirror with a red cross and a receiver dangling off the hook. The installation does not reflect the conventional idea of beauty with the reconstruction of everyday telephone booths situated atop cement pavements. However it holds much meaning just by the artist’s choice and arrangement of the everyday objects. The figures are seemingly locked up in their respective booths placed side by side to each other. They appear to have a conversation or dialogue with each other but this dialogue is going nowhere as symbolised by the dangling telephone receiver between their booths. Each party’s message is not reaching the other as they seem to be within their own world and hence not communicating effectively with each other. The installation can thus be an expression of Xiao Lu’s personal life or estranged relationship with a loved one. To complete the work, Xiao Lu shot her own installation- the mirror between the booths twice, adding a deeper layer of meaning to her work and transforming her installation into a performance piece. Art is also therefore about expressing oneself and what better way to express one’s pent-up frustration and emotion than to shoot one’s own installation about a failed dialogue? Many people including both foreign media and the local government authorities read Xiao Lu’s performance as a politically charged event where her shooting demonstrates her rebellion and direct opposition to the communist government which was known for clamping down on avant-garde artworks. Her performance also caused shockwaves across the country and internationally and it was labelled as the ‘most sensational’ work of art in the exhibition. This demonstrated the power and impact that performance art have over more traditional and passive form of medium like paintings as performance art allows the viewers to directly experience the art work, not only visually but also aurally and in real time when the performance was executed. Performance art should hence be rightfully conveyed the status of art when the message of the artist is effectively communicated to the audience. However, that is not to say that traditional mediums like paintings are not impactful. Fan Kuan’s ‘Travellers among Mountains and Streams’ is largely admired for its aesthetic beauty and the scale of its monumental mountain landscape scene. However, it lacks the real time and ‘live’ aspect of performance art where the concept of the work is directly translated into a live experience for the viewer (Berghuis, 2006) which is hence more impactful. Li Xianting also remarked one month after the gun shot incident that Xiao Lu’s performance is regarded as art because the ‘meaning of her work cannot be separated from its contexts and time’. It was 1989, post Cultural Revolution era where art began to see some form of liberalization as symbolically and metaphorically represented by Xiao Lu’s gunshot and breaking of the mirror. However, Xiao Lu states that her performance had nothing to do with politics and that it was merely a ‘celebration of a completed installation’ (Gao, 2011), an artistic choice and a pure happening. Despite that, Gao Minglu, the chief curator of the exhibition said that the gunshot might be something more personal rather than political as Xiao Lu was raped by a godfather who was a socialist painter when she was a teenager. Hence, the incident might subconsciously cause her to rebel against conventional art forms and to veer towards the avant-garde. The violence in the gun shots also expressed Xiao Lu’s feminist power and release of all pent-up emotions. Performance art is therefore a valid form of art and a powerful tool of expression as seen in the shockwaves that it sent and the closure of the exhibition. Performance art and installations therefore compensate their lack of aesthetics with strong concepts that hold many meanings and interpretations and engages the mind. This is seen in that Xiao Lu’s work continues to be a talking point till today and is best remembered as the most impactful and sensational work of art in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition.

Wu Shanzuan setting up 'Big Business' (Selling Shrimps) at the National Gallery

Wu Shanzuan, Big Business (Selling Shrimps)

Wu Shanzuan taking down Big Business (Selling Shrimps) at the National Gallery

Wu Shanzhuan’s ‘Big Business’ is also not your typical art form. A performance piece of him selling shrimps in the formal setting of a museum; it is an in-your-face piece about going against the elitism of the museum where he likened the ‘museum to a court that judges the artwork’. This opinion reflected the statement by Li Xianting who questioned on ‘what basis does people judge good art or bad art?’ The performance by Wu is thus an effective expression of rebelling against the oppression on avant-garde artists who are not very welcomed by big gallery owners (the China/Avant-Garde exhibition could only be held when performance art was not included in the programming) especially when the shrimps start to smell within the formalistic National Art Museum. The ‘ugly smell’ from the shrimps also challenged the conventional idea of art and beauty (Berghuis, 2006) and hence showed that art need not be beautiful as long as it conveys the artist’s message. Wu’s performance was soon stopped by the police on grounds that he did not have a business permit. However, the short-lived work was successful as it showed the whole cycle of rebelling (selling shrimps) and submitting to authorities (stopping the performance). This performance had no sense of aesthetic beauty- there were no formalistic lines, colours or compositions, no scenic landscapes. It was just crudely made up of the shrimp box and a business sign. However, it should not be denied the status of art as it effectively expressed the oppression of artists and the lack of openness towards avant-garde in China when the performance was stopped. Performance art is hence a valid art form because it is only through a performance that the above message could be communicated succinctly and in an impactful manner as compared to a still painting or sculpture.

Xu Bing, “Book in the Sky”, 1989, Installation with mixed media.

Xu Bing, Book in the Sky, 1989 (detail)

However, art can be highly conceptual and beautiful too. This is seen in Xu Bing’s ‘Tian Shu’ or ‘Book in the Sky’. Xu Bing’s ‘Tian Shu’ is a site-specific installation consisting of a room filled with self-created, carved and printed Chinese-looking but ‘meaningless’ characters on large scrolls draped from the ceiling, newspaper articles pasted around the walls, and on rows of books displayed on the ground. The beauty and impact of the work lie in the ‘sheer vastness of its scale and its painstaking attention to detail’ with its four thousand self-created and carved characters (Taylor, 1993). The characters were so meticulously invented and made that Chinese viewers often mistake them for real Chinese characters and spent ages at the exhibit trying to discover or read a real Chinese character. That was what made the work amazing as it managed to effect a change in the people’s thinking and behaviour when it drew people to decode the self-created language. However, there were people who felt that viewing the work, especially the nonsensical characters was a pure waste of their time and hence a meaningless piece of art. However, that was only a surface interpretation by the ignorant viewers. ‘Book in the Sky’ actually holds many meanings and interpretations (a characteristic of Chinese Contemporary works) just that one had to think deeper and look deeper to unveil the concept behind the work. The work first originated when the artist was inspired by the patterns left on the skin of a person after being struck dead by lighting. The abstract patterns seemed to look like words given and written by the heavens and hence the nonsensical characters were created so that people could not understand them. The nonsensical characters can thus be interpreted as a reaction against the Chinese language and the grand tradition where during the Cultural Revolution era, people were bombarded with senseless propaganda messages and untruths, just like Xu’s nonsensical characters and people read false information into the propaganda messages. No matter how hard they tried, the truth would not be revealed. ‘Tian Shu’ thus acts as a metaphor for the propagandistic communication between the communist government and the common people. However, sometimes, art critics may be reading too much into a piece of work. A piece of art work may be created because the artist is trying to explore an artistic technique or make a creative choice rather than to pass on any heavy-handed socio-political messages. Xu Bing himself said in an interview with the Asian Art Archive that he was influenced by his constant trips to the library where the ‘texture of the books, the typography and the quality of the paper’ interest him. He was fed up with reading and absorbing too many words in books that he decided to create a work that was devoid of any content and readable characters. Therefore, an artwork can be appreciated just for its creative technique- in this case, Xu Bing’s nonsensical characters atop the drapery and across the floors and walls. According to Taylor (1993), she mentions that the initial reaction of the work is viewers’ frustration at his inability to ‘decode the written language’ but once the person is able to let go of the urge to read, he will be able to ‘appreciate the beauty of the art work’. Art therefore can be both beautiful and highly conceptual, depending on how much the audience would like to engage with it.

In conclusion, the definition of art is highly varied and not limited to just appreciation of its surface beauty. The China/Avant-garde exhibition thus showed that art transcends beyond just beautiful or socialist realist paintings and that installations and performance art should also be rightfully conveyed the status of art as they are valid and impactful expressions of the artists’ individual thoughts and feelings. Although they were created in unconventional forms with everyday objects and the artist’s own body and performances, installations and performance art are not necessarily ineffective medium of expression. The works in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition also proved they need not necessarily be beautiful to be conveyed the status of art as their impactful messages, concepts and performances more than compensate for their lack of aesthetic beauty.

Copyright © 2012 Liau Shu Juan.


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