This exhibition is titled “Streetwise of the Humbles” which refers generally to the grass roots that earn a living in the streets and specifically to unlicensed street vendors today. Such street vendors actually bear remarkable resemblance to the contemporary Chinese artists in earlier years, particularly the avant-garde artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s who are often called vagrant artists as well for their similar social status to that of peddlers as they either quitted their permanent jobs in public or governmental institutions or have never worked in any such institutions. While peddlers or street vendors, typical victims of social management in the process of urbanization, are associated with such problems as poor hygiene, disorganization, inferior quality, tax evasion, lack of integrity, disruption of market order and defacement of cityscape, they have actually become part of and therefore enriched the urban life by nourishing vibrant community cultures.

The subtitle of this exhibition is “Shi-jing”(street and marketplaces in Chinese), which refers generally to streets or urban communities with spontaneous and dynamic culture and art that is also unruly to some extent. As the centerpiece of popular art, shijing culture also harbors filth and shelters evil, which is particularly true with the Chinese “shijing” where interpersonal relations are permeated by unhealthy factors including deception, hypocrisy, betrayal, dishonesty and double-dealing. However, contemporary art does not seek to avoid the filth of the “Shijing” as such; quite the contrary, it vigorously reveals and reviews the dark sides of the society today.

As a matter of fact, the practice of contemporary art, be it in painting, photography, video or performance, in the 1990s, has been fruitful in dealing with the issue of Chinese urbanization, a process driven by the sweeping market-oriented economic reform following Deng Xiaoping’s historic tour to South China and by the irresistible trend of globalization. Urbanization may be a declining topic for contemporary art, but it is still worth further exploration. Within the context of continuously accelerating urbanization today, adopting different perspectives and artistic forms is all it takes to deepen the query over this long-standing issue.

About the exhibition

Curator: Duan Jun

Dates: Dec 2, 2017 – Feb 13, 2018

Opening: Dec 2, 2017, 4:30pm

Artists: Li Zhanyang, Song Yonghong, Wang Sishun, Wu Tao, Xia Guo, Xu Bacheng, Ying Ping, Yu Xuan, Zhan Wang, Zhang Dali, Zhong Biao

Venue: 33 Contemporary Art Center

Address: 33/F, Tower A, Victory Plaza, 103 Tiyu West Road, Guangzhou

STREETWISE OF THE HUMBLES – CONFRONTATION BETWEEN ART AND URBANIZATION

By Duan Jun

While contemporary art emphasizes inclusiveness and diversity, it still has its own threshold, which, as a matter of fact, means its own commitment and stance. Departing from preoccupation with techniques, it turns towards in-depth penetration into mentalities and conceptions. Forsaking superiority and nobility, it seeks rebellion and revolution from bottom up. Despising hierarchical classification, it embraces equality and ease in exchange and communication.

Recent years have seen the mushrooming of art exhibitions, especially massive biennales that are gaining global popularity. Admittedly, the existence or even overabundance of large exhibitions is not without reason because they can present the ramifications of contemporary art and amass a multitude of art works from all corners of the globe, which propels the evolution of art by demonstrating the intricacies of scenes and links within the world of art. I, however, am more inclined to dedicate myself to organizing small and medium exhibitions where works by several or dozens of artists gathered on a specific topic can also intrigue effective discussions.

This exhibition is titled “Streetwise of the Humbles” which refers generally to the grass roots that earn a living in the streets and specifically to unlicensed street vendors today. Such street vendors actually bear remarkable resemblance to the contemporary Chinese artists in earlier years, particularly the avant-garde artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s who are often called vagrant artists as well for their similar social status to that of peddlers as they either quitted their permanent jobs in public or governmental institutions or have never worked in any such institutions. While peddlers or street vendors, typical victims of social management in the process of urbanization, are associated with such problems as poor hygiene, disorganization, inferior quality, tax evasion, lack of integrity, disruption of market order and defacement of cityscape, they have actually become part of and therefore enriched the urban life by nourishing vibrant community cultures. In response to the unfriendly management, they either resort to violence or the Guerrilla tactics of “run and hide” in defense of their right to live, inviting sustained concern from the whole society.

The sustained resistance and violent conflicts ultimately prompted the authority to meticulously humanize the approaches to and regulations in city management. A case in point is the regulations recently adopted by the Chinese State Council on investigating and punishing unlicensed business operations, effective from October 2017, which exempt individuals from obtaining licenses and certification for distributing certain agricultural and sideline products as well as daily necessities or rendering personal-skill-based services in areas and time specified by local governments above county level and in accordance with relevant laws,administrative decrees and decisions by the State Council. The introduction of this policy will hopefully expand the space of business activities for peddlers while further alleviating the stress and conflicts arising from the current city management.

The subtitle of this exhibition is “Shi-jing”(street and marketplaces in Chinese), which refers generally to streets or urban communities with spontaneous and dynamic culture and art that is also unruly to some extent. As the centerpiece of popular art, shijing culture also harbors filth and shelters evil, which is particularly true with the Chinese “shijing” where interpersonal relations are permeated by unhealthy factors including deception, hypocrisy, betrayal, dishonesty and double-dealing. However, contemporary art does not seek to avoid the filth of the “Shijing” as such; quite the contrary, it vigorously reveals and reviews the dark sides of the society today.

The shijing life in Guangzhou has been known for its nationwide appeal that attracts working people from all corners of China with the joy and sorrow in its urban communities, the hustle and bustle in the day time, the round-the-clock operation of the catering trade, the feasting and revelry of the recreational industries as well as potential opportunities of all kinds. Correspondingly, the tradition of art in Guangzhou bears the indelible marks of Shijing and secularity, starting from the export-oriented works handled by Thirteen Factories of Canton in the Qing Dynasty to the Lingnan School of painting that took shape in the first half of the 20th century and then to Post-Lingnanism proposed by the community of contemporary art in the 1990s. Without any attempt to avoid elements of commercialization, Guangzhou’s secularized art elaborates on social phenomena that mirror the reality of consumerism in an attempt to draw our attention to the truth hidden behind the surface of prosperity. Although such works may inevitably appear superficial and pompous in some degree, they have given rise to a unique scene of artistic creation and won their position in the history of art.

Viewed from a wider perspective, the artistic theme of “Shijing” is by no means a regional phenomenon but a nationwide trend. “Scar Art” was the first attempt to explore the pains and trauma inflicted upon the general public. In this movement artists freed themselves from the swirl of blind glorification that dominated the Cultural Revolution art and shifted their focus on exposing the flaws of a “promising and prosperous” society. “Scar Art” can be regarded as the starting point of Chinese contemporary art valuing real life itself and the genuine feelings of individuals.

While “Scar Art” is still unfolding and evolving, “Rural Realism” and “Life Stream” emerged that share similar focus on the working population at the grassroots. The artists depict the life of ordinary people through plain graphics imbued with emotions, somewhat bringing the essential simplicity back to realism. The subsequent ’85 New Wave Art Movement, while emphasizing the elitist values, also triggered many performance artists to intervene in social issues. Such artistic intervention is typified by “Fabric Sculpture Along the Streets” in Shanghai and “Conception 21” in Beijing where performance artists took to the streets and interacted with local residents and students through their art, sending shockwaves to ordinary people’s life in certain aspects.

Thanks to the market-oriented economic reform throughout the 1990s, contemporary art making was more intricately intertwined with streets or “Shijing” as indicated by the rise of such movements as “Cynical Realism” and “the new generation” where artists voluntarily forsook the condescending posture of “enlightenment” by focusing on their own feelings of living as a marginal social group and their experience of the mediocrity in everyday life. “Kitsch Art” that took shape in the latter half of the 1990s, in particular, deals directly with commercialized images and popularized items in paintings and installations, satirizing the “nouveau riche” mentality permeating the “Shijing” life as well as the widespread superficiality and insensitivity of people in the waves of commercialism.

Performance artists who were over-eager to promote their art resorted frequently to violent approaches around 2000, which ended up much tension and fossilization in the relationship between art and the public. The situation fortunately has started to improve in recent years as many artists are making art with a more peaceful mind in wiser ways to effectively intervene in social issues, which improved the relationship between the general public and art. As a result, the life in “Shijing” resurfaces as the source of artistic inspiration. It is against such background that this exhibition adopts “Peddlers” and “Shijing” as the theme, in an attempt to encourage active intervention of contemporary art in reality, so that art will never degenerate into affected, self-pitying and purely formalist hollow experimentation. An artist never fears criticism of his work but looks forward to communications with the audience. Such artist-audience relation is best illustrated in the book Live like Wild Dogs where Fang Lijun, the author, announced: “I’m never afraid of meeting or bonding with my audience, nor am I afraid of confronting them. Whether they are interested in, excited about or sick of or even indifferent to my works, they’re all doing good to what’s between us. We may be narrow-minded if we always expect the audience’s approval and appreciation of our works on display. In fact works of art are admirable as long as they inspire communication and enables mutual influences between art and the public.”

To bring some external impetus to the development of art in Guangzhou, this exhibition only invites artists from outside Guangzhou so as to create contrast with the local art. Those invited have all explored or are exploring more or less the topic of urbanization and have created a number of works on the various issues thereof. As a matter of fact, the practice of contemporary art, be it in painting, photography, video or performance, in the 1990s, has been fruitful in dealing with the issue of Chinese urbanization, a process driven by the sweeping market-oriented economic reform following Deng Xiaoping’s historic tour to South China and by the irresistible trend of globalization.

Urbanization may be a declining topic for contemporary art, but it is still worth further exploration. Within the context of continuously accelerating urbanization today, adopting different perspectives and artistic forms is all it takes to deepen the query over this long-standing issue. New approaches can be taken for exploring old issues while new issues unseen in the 1990s are also emerging including Internet-driven logistics, shared economy, intelligent operation and energy revolution, which are all ways to reshape life and art in the future.

To Alain Badiou, a renowned French philosopher, philosophy is a matter of choice and real philosophers decide on the most important issue based on their independent consideration. If you expect your life to have certain meanings, you must accept events, distance yourself from power and be unswerving in your resolution. As artists vary in their attitude towards art and their development in art, which exhibitions to attend is also a matter of choice for them. The participating artists in this exhibition are either leading figures in the 1990s or rising stars in the recent years, all of whom have worked on urbanization issues, particularly those concerning urbanity and rurality, based on their independent thinking. As their works on display convey the authors’ respective feelings and views that are converging or conflicting, this exhibition is destined to be as much a congregation as a confrontation.

Li Xianting has a popular and classic assertion that it is not art itself but the evaluation criteria for art that matters. This assertion is later interpreted from different perspectives, hence various views. In my humble opinion, it is not art but life experienced by and therefore exclusive to every individual that matters. People today can no longer hold aloof by living a secluded life in mountains and forests like those in ancient times because the contemporary social environment makes such social isolation practically impossible. While artists can choose the “They are none of my business” attitude towards social issues, they are by no means immune from the immense influence of the external environment. The old saying that “Everyone is responsible for his country’s welfare” is never an empty slogan. As a common individual in contemporary art, each and every artist has his or her share of duty in building better communities and systems as well as in caring for the wellbeing of other people. For practitioners in contemporary art who may find social affairs “external” or irrelevant to their central concern, they could still contribute positively to social development by doing their best in their own duties, like artists looking after the quality of their own works, curators putting meticulous efforts in organizing exhibitions or investors guiding the development of spaces of art, particularly in guiding the audience in viewing and interpreting art works. Such efforts, small as they may seem, will translate into incremental improvement of our society.

October 2017

Courtesy of the artists and 33 Contemporary Art Center.

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