From Sculpture to Conceptual Art
As in the case of Chinese oil painting, Chinese academic sculpture has taken root in China with the introduction of the modern art educational system based on the early twentieth century European model. Whereas oil painting lacks antecedents in Chinese art, sculpture has its own particular long and rich tradition in China, which is represented in religious caves, temples, and tombs and in the field of folk art.[xxxiii]
Within art academies, the socialist realist tradition displaced classic academic realism in the mid-century and dominated art education into the 1980s.
A real breakthrough in modern sculpture happened in the 1990s due to the efforts of young graduates from various academies in China. A crucial event was the 1994 exhibition entitled Sculpture ’94 at the Gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition raised the important issue of the relationship between sculpture and installation art included the works by Sui Jianguo, Zhan Wang, Fu Zhongwang, Zhang Yongjian, and Jiang Jie.[xxxiv] The exhibition strongly emphasized contemporary reality and had a far-reaching effect in the 1990’s. In these artists’ work, materials were not to be employed simply for their own sake, but were rather to be a medium for conceptual expression. Their discovery of the materials of everyday life in modern society exemplified the major transformation of Chinese sculpture from the hand-craftsmanship of traditional sculpture to the industrial production of modern sculpture. More importantly, for the first time this exhibition broke down the boundaries between sculpture and installation art in the academy, in the way the elements of space, materials, and ready-made objects were combined.
Zhan Wang, the young lecturer from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, emerged from this exhibition. Zhan Wang’s Youhuo(Temptation )(1994) has at its core the Mao suit. Each headless and bodiless figure in a Mao suit frozen in dramatic poses look like a cicada’s slough and signifies the emptiness left by the missing subject. For this work, Zhan Wang used a stiffening agent to permanently mould Mao Suits into the shapes they would take were there a contorted body within each one. He arranged the writhing forms as a group upon a pile of dirt and suspended them from a scaffold. The material of the sculptural forms is inert, so is the inner being of life. It looked like Mao Suits were both physically and spiritually disembodied and discarded, reflecting the loss of a once powerful symbolic force. Temptation is about the state of transformation: the hollowed human shells register the torture and pain at the moment of the subject’s disappearance. The work unfolds a metaphorical scene in which the spirits of faith had seemingly been abandoned in a barren wasteland. Artistically, it might signify the fate of social realism in Chinese modern art; politically, it might refer to the transformation of Chinese society.
After more than one decade Deng’s economic reform and his creation of a ‘modestly prosperous’ (Xiao Kang) society have paved the way for the dissolution of not only Maoism as a utopian ideal but also an early-twentieth-century type of ideology of modernization shared by both Mao and Deng. Where post-Maoism designated the ambiguous place of Chinese society in the grand narrative of the modern, the latest project of modernity signified an emerging vision of a form of life corresponding and bringing cultural affirmation to such economic reality. For most Chinese the Mao Suit no longer represents the psychological control in terms of individuality. Zhan Wang’s work is a symbol of socio-political transformation that happened in Chinese society, when the political culture began to fragment under the pressure of commercialism in the early 1990s.
Zhan Wang is an iconoclast who introduced bold changes to free sculpture from its old mould. In the 1998 exhibition ‘Trace of Existence’, Zhan Wang composed an event: the “Xin yishu sucheng chejian” (New Art Training Workshop), sacrificially commenting on the Chinese art education system.[xxxv]The audience was invited to participate by the promise that ‘you could be a master’. They were to select a plaster copy of some masterpiece of European sculpture, of the type used as plaster models in Chinese art academies, and create a new work of art by covering their chosen piece with clay. A leaflet announcing the workshop described its aims, followed by a list of instructions, which stated: [xxxvi]
Offered here is the fastest and easiest method of becoming a great artist, the only way to instantly create works on the level of a master.
Only requires five minutes
Enables you to experience the glorious acclaim of the master, and create the works of a master.
Included in the list of eight ‘Instructions and Important Points’ are:
1 Applying clay to the existing sculpture, making certain to cover all contours with at least a thin layer of clay.
2 The thickness of this layer is up to you, but if the original work is completely obscured so no one will recognize your talent.
3 Although you no longer need ponder questions of modelling, composition, or form, you still can give free reign to your own style and technique, and although your work is inseparable from the original, you can create a new mould on the surface.
4 You need not assiduously guard the secret of the original within the clay sculpture, but if no one asks, then you can pretend not to know and say nothing.
5 It is best to use your own hands to mould the clay, then you will leave a mark, proving that the work is yours.
6 Do not forget to photograph the finished piece.
Mirroring the Chinese academic canon and its inherent norms, Zhan Wang’s ‘New Art Training Workshop’ was iconoclastic as it not only blurred the line between the audience and artists, the copy and original, but also broke the myth of the academic art system as derived from the European tradition.
Graduated and teaching in the same department with Zhan Wang, Sui Jianguo also made a critical comment on the academic art system that he was trained in. His sculpture Yiwen yanjiu(Study on the Folding of Clothes Series )(1998) took its title from the name of a course for students that studied European classic realism in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. In this series, Sui Jianguo amusingly put Michelangelo’s Bound Slaves and other famous heroic sculptural icons into a Mao suit. By appropriating sculptural works from the European Renaissance as a symbolic form of academic tradition, the artist questioned the validity of Chinese academic training towards modern art. Meanwhile, it humorously and with sophistication hides the political significance underneath an aesthetic obligation. Karl Marx Wears the Mao Suit, in particular, indicated the Maoist innovation of ‘Making Marxism Chinese’.[xxxvii]
Sui Jianguo‘s Yibo(Legacy Mantle )(1998) directly employed the imagery of the Mao suit. Contrary to Zhan Wang’s project using the Mao suit – an object that lost its air of respectability and ideological authority – Sui Jianguo re-employed the characteristics of Maoist socialist realist art, that is, in grandiose dimensions and the upright visual qualities. It seemed that the artist was attempting to recover the psychological reality of history. Like European Avant-garde, Maoist socialist realist art used to be a revolutionary force in Chinese art history. But it ran counter to the modern artistic development in the West in a number of fundamental ways. It emphasized the social role of art; it insisted on the superiority of content over form; it required classic realist art skills; it regarded the history of European art from the Renaissance onwards as a living source of inspiration. Companioned with the socialist revolution, Maoist socialist realist art embodied the spirit of social justice and criticism, which were crucial for the transformation of Chinese culture into modern society. But as Maoist socialist realism was built into the academic training system after 1949, its revolutionary spirit has faded away.
Seen within the commercialised society of a Socialist nation, Sui Jianguo’s Legacy Mantle represents the collective moral concerns of intellectuals in the field of socio-culture: the significant emptiness of the Mao Suit suggests social criticism, which was the core of Maoist Marxism, absent in Chinese modern arts and modern politics. Sui Jianguo pays his tribute to the Chinese socialist realist art as the legacy of the modern revolution. [xxxviii] His work manifests the modern values of China’s preceding politics and culture as the country liberates itself from feudal rule and modern colonialism. While post-socialist China disengaged from its revolutionary past, the revolutionary spirit embodied in Chinese socialist realism may potentially remain a challenge to the conservatism of the academic system, as well as a resource to develop Chinese modern art, which may possibly resist the problematic globalisation. As an academic artist, Sui Jianguo’s serious attitude towards Chinese art and history distanced himself from the art that simply played with, parodied, ridiculed or satirized Mao as a political symbol that had been so popular in the 1990s.
In the past two decades, generations of academic artists have established their own respective approach to modern art. Instead of considering modern art as the site for an ‘avant-garde’ revolt against academics, these artists have illustrated the positive contribution that art academies in China have made on the development of modern art. Their work evolved from the Chinese academic tradition of realism and faithfully recorded the great social transition in China. As China emerges as a player in the global, political, and economic arena, Chinese modern visual culture is far more concerned with not only the inevitability of integration into the international art world but also avoiding the previous isolationist stance of Chinese “official” art.
However, to examine Chinese art in its own historical context, the relativity of the idea of the “modern” has to be considered. The purpose is not to limit Chinese modern art within a discussion of its own socio-political context but to reveal the struggle of Chinese cultural politics in relation to the legacy of the past and the forces of the present. Only when the cultural context of modernity or post-modernity is set within the specific sphere of China can modern Chinese art deal with its own historical shift in political cultures other than Euro-American postmodernism. As some academic artists have already observed, the existing academic training did not suit them, or sufficient to say, did not overcome the task of making modern artists for rapid social progress in China. Although academic modern art such as “neo-realism” has retained the edge with social critique, the genre of “academic” art as a whole has undergone a process of commoditization in a new consumerist society. Mainstream academic art has had a limited ability in developing within the current system and in communicating with the outside world. The academies need to open up more space for modern art to be developed so that the academy then, as an institution, can hope to find a place for itself among the emerging pluralism of contemporary society.
[xxxiii] See Wang Ziyun, Zhongguo gudai diaosushi, Renmin meishu, 1986.
[xxxiv] For a review of this exhibition, see Shao Yiyang, “Diaosu 94, zhanshi diaosu xin gainian”. Yanhuang yishu, July, 1994.
[xxxv] Shengcun shouji, Trace of Existence: A Private Showing of Chinese Contemporary Art ’98, curated by Feng Boyi, 1998.
[xxxvi] Translated by Britta Erickson, ‘Material Illusion: Adrift with the Conceptual Sculptor Zhan Wang,’ Art Journal, Summer, 2001.
[xxxvii] For Mao’s solution of the ‘Signification of Marxism’, see Liu Kang, Aesthetics and Marxism: Chinese Marxist and Their Western Contemporaries, Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2000.
[xxxviii] For Sui Jianguo’s views on socialist realism see Sui Jiangguo, ‘Yindu dangdai yishu zhong de xianshi zhuyi, Dongfang issue 3, 1995.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.
This article was originally published in Peter J. Schneeman edited book Kunstausbildung, Aneignung und Vermittlung künstlerischer Kompetenz , Vereinigung der Kunsthistorikerinnen und Kunsthistoriker in der Schweiz, Bern, München 2009.