Originally published in Jason C.Kuo ed. Contemporary Chinese Art and Film, Theory Applied and Resisted, New Academia Publishing, 2013

The end of the Cold War contributed to a unification of differing political systems around the world. As one of the most rapidly changing regions in the world, China gained international attention both economically and politically as part of this unification. During the 1990s, Chinese ‘avant-garde’ art was included in numerous international art exhibitions that promised the ‘hybridity’ of cross-national collaboration. Among the most prominent of these international exhibitions was the 48th Venice Biennale which took place in 1999. It featured the work of 20 artists from mainland China, the largest number of works from all of the nations that participated in the Biennale.

However, the West’s ‘recognition’ of Chinese contemporary art had no legitimacy domestically within the PRC, since China had not set up its own official national pavilion in Venice. This ‘international recognition’ without Chinese internal support coincided with the increasing independence of Chinese contemporary art from international modes of production and art discourses as well as its increasing dependence on external sites of display and external sources for financial support.[ See John Clark’s opening essay in John Clark ed. Chinese art at the end of Millennium, Beijing & Hong Kong, New Art Media, 1999.]

During the early 1990s, artworks identified with the movements know as ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ were exhibited internationally as exemplars of Chinese ‘avant-garde’ art for the first time. Major international exhibitions of the early 1990s that showcased examples of Political pop and Cynical Realism include two held in 1993: ‘China’s New Art Post-‘89’ at the Hanart Gallery in Hong Kong and ‘China Avant-Garde’ exhibition’in Berlin; as well as three staged during the following year: ‘Mao Goes Pop’ in Sydney (which was a restaging of ‘China’s New Art Post-‘89’), the section ‘Passaggio ad Orient’ of the Venice Biennale and the 22nd São Paolo Biennale. In all of these exhibitions, Chinese contemporary art was presented as a focus for political rebellion against established authority within China.

‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’―which attracted tremendous attention from the international art world―were terms that had been used internationally since the early 1990s to signify paintings and sculptures involving the ironic appropriation of socialist propaganda icons often juxtaposed with symbols of Western consumerism. The cynical realist artist Fang Lijun, for example, painted portraits of himself and his friends in the midst of executing giant yawns. Fang also created his own unique lexicon of symbols based on what might be termed ‘bald cynicism.’ Another important cynical realist painter, Liu Wei, created an irreverently cynical pictorial language centred on a series of distorted family portraits, using his own playful vocabulary to render ridiculous the solemn postures of army cadres and even the poses of his own family members. Both of their works, particularly the bizarre portraits of soldiers and war heroes produced by Liu, illustrate the world of the Liumang (rogue). Fang sums up their common view as follows:

Only a stupid bastard would allow himself to be cheated time and time again. We would rather be called the lost, bored, climacteric, rogues and confused than be cheated again. Don’t try any old tricks on us, for all dogma will be thoroughly questioned, negated and thrown into the rubbish bin.[ Cited by Li Xianting, op.cit., 1992, 2.]

According to the critic Li Xianting ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ are characterized by ‘an immersion in popular culture and a de-constructionist approach’ In Li’s view, the artists made cynical images ‘based on political propaganda of the Maoist period’ as a ‘comment on a society in which they no longer had any faith’.[ Li Xianting, ‘Dangqian zhongguo yishu de wuliaogan-xi wanshi xianshizhuyi shaoliu.’ Ershiyi Shiji, 1992, 2.] The ‘attitude of malaise adopted by the Cynical Realist artists’ was moreover, argues Li, ‘their means of expressing their rejection of the idealism and heroism of the 1980s movements, and particularly of the ‘85 New-Wave.’[ Li Xiangting, ‘Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art’, China’s New Art, Post-1989. Hanart TZ Gallery, XX.]

‘Zhengzhi Bopo’ (Political Pop) combines political themes associated with the Cultural Revolution and the formal charactersistics of American Pop Art. Li Xianting, again, provides a critical frame of reference for this movement:

The nucleus of the Political Pop movement consists of artists from the ’85 New-Wave movement who have given up the serious metaphysical concerns of their earlier work and have instead adopted a de-constructionist approach matched to a Pop technique, to execute works of comic satire which illustrate their view of influential political figures, particularly Mao, and major political events.[ Li Xiangting, ‘Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art’, in China’s New art, Post-1989. Hanart TZ Gallery, XX.]

Political Pop tends to borrow a whole range of images from the Cultural Revolution era. Stylistically, it shares the decorative effects of ‘red, bright and shining,’ which are regarded as the basic aesthetic principles for public art produced during the Cultural Revolution. The key proponent of Political Pop, Wang Guangyi, began his Great Criticism series in 1990, in which he employed slogans from the big character posters and propaganda paintings of the Cultural Revolution juxtaposed with images of popular Western consumer products such as Coca-Cola. Yu Youhan’s and Li Shan’s respective ‘Mao series’ followed the basic principles of Maoist art, using folk art elements such as a bright palette reminiscent of traditional peasant New Year’s pictures. Yu Youhan’s Chairman Mao Talking with the Peasants of Shaoshan is a typical example. Yu appropriated a famous 1940s photograph of Mao taken with a family of cheerfully smiling peasants in his hometown village of shaoshan, and manipulated it with brightly patterned pop colour which recalled the decorative style of Chinese folk art. The simulated naïve language used by Yu satirized this important Maoist propaganda image and the whole of Mao’s socialist realist art policy. Li Shan’s Rouge Series, which he started in the late 1980s, plays directly with Mao’s image in a style highly reminiscent of the flattened design of political posters during the time of the Cultural Revolution.

Li Xianting believes that the characteristic elements of Political Pop and Cynical Realism are in many ways interchangeable and overlapping; both of them being the results of consumerist culture. He comments, ‘In a sense’, “Mao Fever” and Political Pop are alike in that there is inherent in both the use of past icons or “gods” to criticize, or in the case of the latter, to satirize, current reality’.[ Li Xiangting, op.cit.1993, XXI.] Whether it be Cynical Realism’s depiction of ‘popi’ (the rogue), or Political Pop’s use of consumer images and its toying with political images, the underlying trend was to express a political position, even when the work had no direct relationship with politics. Roguish humour and political irreverence were displayed in much of the work.

Soon after the first major exhibition dedicated to Political Pop and Cynical Realism organized by the Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong in early 1993, both ‘movements’ achieved widespread international recognition as superficially kitsch forms of art that would go on to flood the international market. At the time, many critics argued that Cynical Realism and Political Pop had gained international visibility mainly for political rather than artistic reasons. In a contemporaneous review, John Clark criticized the exhibition ‘Mao Goes Pop’ as ‘something of a loss’, stating also that it ‘represents a necessary and difficult beginning.’ Clark pointed out astutely that most exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art ‘are put together by small groups with a restricted view,’ and that ‘Mao Goes Pop’, which was staged in Sydney, was not a thorough attempt ‘to appraise the full range of visual arts activity in China or to elucidate the various types of work and their relative quality in relation to Australian values.’ He concludes: ‘Accepting value from others requires knowing what you yourself think valuable.’[ John Clark, ‘Pop Goes the Maosell’, in Art Monthly Australia. July 1993, No.61. ‘Pop goes the Maosell’ is apparently a deliberate pun on the English nursery rhyme ‘Round and round the mulberry bush, Pop! Goes the weasel’, weasel being an untrustworthy rodent. ]

Clark’s line of argument is in part significant because it can be understood to echo the Chinese intellectual’s desire to fight for the equal status of Chinese contemporary art. As part of this struggle the content of Political Pop has been criticised by Chinese intellectuals speaking from non-artistic perspectives. In an article entitled ‘Who Plays with Whom’, You You, a political dissident and writer within the Chinese diaspora, strongly criticized the exhibition ‘Mao Goes Pop’, arguing that it represented an ‘opportunist’ attitude expected as part of the Communist heritage:

The ideology expressed in this work has little difference with the Communist’s obsession towards power. But what makes this sort of work so popular in the West? Firstly, because what they think about is not art, but only about politics and media attention. With their own wishful thinking, they think all Chinese art has to have political colour, so that Mao’s face as political capital, not only can be sold in China, but also can make a profit in the West. Secondly, Chinese art has become a commodity, which the Westerner can identify with. It seems Chinese contemporary art has to find its place in the Western textbook. Li Xianting mentioned the Chinese Way in his speech, but he did not give this word an exact definition, we hope this Way is not the way of Communist thinking! [ You You, ‘Who play with who? A Review of Mao Goes Pop’, Yishu Chaoliu, 1997, Oct. 2-29.]

This article makes clear that the success of ‘Mao Goes Pop’ was built on a residual cold war ideological antagonism between East and West still prevalent in the international news media and art world at the time. The change of title from ‘China’s New Art, Post-1989’ to ‘Mao Goes Pop’ when the exhibition moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney illustrated an inclination prevalent in Western institutions to stress the ‘dissident’ aspect of such art. This enhanced the exhibition’s sensationalist quality and assisted it in breaking attendance records; but it may also have limited the voice of the exhibition to one of Western-friendly political passivity from a Chinese point of view.

In another article about ‘Mao Goes Pop’, Fan Di’an connected the exhibition with the wider circumstances of Chinese culture at the time, placing it squarely in relation to a post-colonialist theoretical framework:

It is amazing to see how quickly and widely that post-colonialism has spread. In its early period, Pop Art was quite shocking and rebellious, and the Neo-Realism of New Generation (xin shengdai) was also vigorous in the 1990s and broke out of the spiritual shackles. But within no more than two years, they seemed to join together, and turned into ‘Pan-Pop’. In essence, it fell into the Post-colonialist cultural condition, and it meant pushing forward the trend without anything at the heart. Mao Goes Pop showed this condition to the Western world.

In particular, Fan singled out the entrance installation Consuming Socialism as a typical example of Western hegemony under the power of post-colonialism:

When they piled up everything they could get from China’s everyday life, including political leaders’ images, coins, public voices and public images, it almost overwhelmed all the work inside the exhibition itself – this indeed made people think. Such a little trick seemed to have handled a part of Chinese art history. This indeed gave us a warning…under the situation of post-colonialism, the independent value of Chinese culture has been completely lost.[ Fan Di’an, ‘Jing yanjiazhi yu houzhimin wenhua zhong de zhongguo jingyan’, 1993, July 12, in Wang Lin ed, China-Art of Post 89, Yishu chaoliu, April, 1997. 35.]

What Fan saw in relation to this exhibition is an example of how contemporary art has become a commodity when made accessible to a wide global audience. Once art becomes a commodity in the global market, he argues, ‘the power is once again returned to the power of the rich and industrialized countries, the gaze is perpetuated. The spectacle of the global market economy functions through commodity’.[ Debord, Guy, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, translated by Malcolm Imrie. London, Verso, 1998.] Chinese Pop Art can therefore be interpreted as being subject to the dominance of the Euro-American global art markets and their shaping of other cultural art forms.

Although Political Pop and Cynical Realism in exhibitions such as ‘Mao Goes Pop’ was criticized strongly by Chinese and non-Chinese art scholars alike, it was nevertheless upheld as representative of the Chinese ‘avant-garde’ at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993. This inclusion in the Venice Biennale was widely questioned at the time provoking intensive criticism from both Chinese artists and art critics. Many saw the inclusion of Political Pop and Cynical Realism in the Venice Biennale as the choice of the West and, therefore, as one not based on the Chinese situation. The critic Yin Shuangxi argued that Chinese art was still at the margins of international achievements after 1989 at a time when some international art institutions and media had not yet abandoned the opposing ideology of the Cold War and were constantly looking for ‘anti-official art’. This situation was most evident at the 45th Venice Biennial. ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ were chosen as the representatives of Chinese contemporary art, while Chinese experimental art, which had made serious enquiries into the daily lives of Chinese people, was not given the attention that it deserved because it lacked readily recognisable Chinese characteristics.[ Yin Shuangxi, ‘Kai fang de kongjian’, in Yataidiqu Dangdai Yishu Yaoqingzhan Zuopinji, Fuzhou, 1998.]

Yi Ying questioned the genuineness of the political criticism presented by Political Pop, arguing that,

‘China today is no longer what it was in the 1980s with idealist critique as its standard. The commercialization of political subject matter has made political pop into a commodity. As a result, the choice of subject for the artists does not come from political consciousness and criticism, but rather from the market.’[ Yi Ying, ‘Shehuibiange yu zhongguoxiandaiyishu’, Tianya, no.5, 1998.]

Alongside this, Wang Lin directly questioned the authority of the West to choose Chinese art.[ See Wang Lin, ‘Oliva bushi zhongguo yishu de jiuxing’, Dushu, Oct., 1993.] He pointed out that Political Pop and Cynical Realism are similar in content to art produced in the former Soviet Union and in East European. In the eyes of some Westerners, China was the last bastion of the clash between the East and West; a living fossil of the Cold War. Human rights issues were still seen as the main problem in China. At the same time, on the other side some Chinese artists pretended to fit their needs into Western perspectives on political power. As a result, Chinese art remained in the opinion of many Westerners still in the past tense; at best, offering examples for Western human rights activists.[ Wang Lin, Yishu zai dangdai de shiming, in Wang Lin ed., Zhongguo hou bajiu yishu (China-Art of Post 89), yishu chaoliu, 7, 1997. ] Overseas Chinese art curator Hou Hanru also expressed his deep disappointment at the choice for Venice:

At the time Chinese art had undergone more than ten years of development, with so many highly qualified and meaningful artists around the world. Still, why won’t those who first participated in the Venice Biennial still adopt ‘official’ academic techniques and art conceptions to express their personal plight in desire and illusion? One of the reasons, at least, is that their work simply conveyed the mental state of the young people who have no ideals. It is a weak cynical state to go against invented official ideology. It is also what the Westerners who remain within the stereotyped ideology of the Cold War are interested in, are capable of imaging and are happy to ‘sympathize’ with. …Such works in the exhibition do not show that Oliva (Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva, the Curator of 45th Venice Biennale) understood Chinese art, but that he made a statement by this opportunity to Westerners, that he had been to China, and that the sphere of his influence had already extended to China. Then we have to ask a question: Is it a real peaceful coexistence?[ Hou Hanru, ‘Di 45 jie weinisi shuangnianzhan de xianshi yu misi’, Xiongshi meishu, 2, 1992. ]

Due to the frequent participation of the Chinese ‘avant-garde’ in international exhibitions, during the 1990s the related issues of Chinese ‘modernity’ and ‘international identity’ were widely discussed within the Chinese art world. In a ‘pan-discussion’, Zhu Qingshen, Wang Lin and Wang Nanming examined the issue of how Chinese art could confront globalization, especially American cultural hegemony, as well as how it could establish its own cultural identity.[ Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin, Wang Nanming, ‘Zhonguo dangdai yishu de guoji chujing’, Dushu, 11, 1998, 107-116] Zhu Qingsheng believed that the participation of Wang Jianwei and Feng Mengbo in Documenta X (Kassel, 1997) could be seen as a success for Chinese art, after being anticipated by discussions during the 1993 Venice Biennale. Here Zhu begins by asserting that ‘The leading tendency of the Chinese art world (which does not include Chinese art of the Artists’ Association system) is to be controlled by exhibitions chosen by the West, as well as by the external intervention of compradors, which is culturally still universal in China due to a passive colonial mentality.’ Zhu then goes on to cite the ‘China!’ exhibition held at Bonn in 1996 as an example of this tendency, which, he contends, only included works satirizing China and Chinese culture.[ Zhu Qingsheng claims in this article that on the occasion he wrote a letter to the organizers to exchange opinions and analyzed their ‘European culturally colonialist attitude’, however, he did not get appropriate response, finally withdrawing his application through the Chinese embassy. ] Zhu also registers a deep anger ‘at the obstacles to Chinese artists brought about by the priority given to oil painting as well as to foreign curators’, stating,

When the master considers his creation he uses what materials he requires. If he thinks of something he uses it, but when it involves the understanding of modernization one stops short with perplexity. Modernization is a historical process, which the cultures of all countries must encounter. However, every state and nation has own way to achieve it, there is no universal modernization. Chinese civilization will never become American civilization based on universal modernization unless the state was destroyed.

In light of which, Zhu puts forward an argument that the state should support Chinese modern art. He warns, ‘if cultural creation has no capacity to generate itself then it could have no other way than that employed by the force of Euro-American internationalization based on universal principles’. Zhu concludes with the assertion that ‘after 1997, when the aim of “stepping towards the world” had already been reached, hope for Chinese art is aimed at its two basic supports, “culture” and “quality”, once again.’[ Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin, Wang Nanming, ‘Zhonguo dangdai yishu de guoji chujing’, Dushu, 11, 1998, 107-110.]

Wang Lin, who also opposed those presenting Chinese contemporary art abroad, argued that Chinese art is facing ‘a real loss’ after participating in the major international art exhibitions of the 1990s.’ In his view, the so-called ‘joining the international track’ was only an urge to participate in the exhibitions, which involved a heightened illusion of success dreamed of by the artists. He also argued that Chinese participants in Venice and Documenta were being used as part of the political strategies of foreign curators, thereby becoming a ‘dish in the menu of a polarized Western selection.’ The picture drawn by Wang is a vivid one: ‘powerful’ art dealers and artists pretentiously dressed in 1930s Chinese costumes matching the image they were supposed to have at the Venice Biennale and catering to that banquet. In Wang’s view it was a great source of sadness that such a big country as China did not have its own international art exhibition.[ Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin, Wang Nanming, ‘Zhonguo dangdai yishu de guoji chujing’, Dushu, 11, 1998, 111-114.]

Regarding national modernization, Wang does, however, disagree with Zhu’s comments that ‘there is no universal modernization’. He warns that ‘without further explanation, national modernization could lead to excessive nationalist sentiment, and even to an increase in feudalism.’ He believes that modernization is comprised of two meanings: first, the development of production brought about by the growth of science and the rise in people’s living standards, which might be referred to as ‘secular’ modernization; and second, the degree of people’s freedom. Zhu argues that we cannot see the freedom of the people just as the spirit of Western culture (thereby detaching it from nationalist attitudes) because the need for freedom as part of the historical process is not the exclusive privilege of one particular nation, but the common aim of all people. At the same time, concerning China’s own cultural construction, Zhu argues that it is necessary to warn against global Westernization and American cultural hegemony.

Wang Lin raises three other issues related to China’s cultural identity, alongside those discussed above, which point towards the possible construction of a cultural system involving a division of rights in world culture. First, he asks: what is the objective in establishing a national cultural position as well as international status? In response Wang contends that it is spiritual freedom for the Chinese people not only to be free from the culture of feudalism but also from the culture of colonialism. For many Chinese people cultural colonialism has already become a habitual state of mind. Only under the presupposition of a liberated person can we discuss the international strategy of Chinese art. Second, at issue is the question of a specifically Chinese experience. Unlike most other Chinese art critics, Wang does not see Chinese art as belonging to the concept of the state. For him, ‘joining the international track’ (guoji jiegui) is only meaningful as a communication tool between regions. In Wang’s view, ‘Speaking from the point of cultural studies we cannot regard the Chinese experience as all one thing, and should regard it as the existential situation surrounding us as well as a spiritual experience. For individual artists, it is a concrete, detailed, genuine existential experience.’ Third, in the spirit of criticism contemporary art must insist on its intellectuality. Intellectuals are a group of people who, Wang argues, stand for the progress of society in the domain of spiritual culture as well as the possibility of searching for the development of humanity. Intellectuality is represented, above all, as reflective thinking (sixiang fanxing) and spiritual criticism. But, as Wang sees it, criticism is different from rebellion―rebellion is normally based on the negation of reality, but criticism is based on responsibility for the future. Wang asserts that most post-1989 Chinese music and cynical realist paintings are strongly characterised by a tendency towards rebellion. He also asserts that they were weak critically, since they were aimed at the Maoist problem―that is to say, counterfeit political illusion and empty social ideals―and were therefore based on the outmoded oppositional ideology of the Cold War between the East and the West.

In the same article, Wang points out that ‘the situation of a lack of autonomous rights pushes Chinese contemporary art in international exhibitions into an increasingly dependent status.’ In his view, the ‘contemporaneity’ of contemporary Chinese art was misrepresented by contemporary Chinese art exhibitions held abroad, and that ‘Fed by Western art institutions, Chinese art has lost its contesting character, either against Western hegemonism, or for its own culture and system within that context.’ In particular, Wang seeks to emphasise differences in the role of Chinese intellectuals during the 1980s and 1990s. As Wang’s puts it, ‘In the eighties, we could raise the slogan of a new wave art, and we could have the exhibition of ‘New Wave’ art. But this can be seen more or less as motivated by the system.’ The true transformation of ideology during the 1990s, he believes, was the separation of intellectuals and the system, thus pushing intellectuals into their own specialised role. In Wang’s opinion, Chinese contemporary art at that time ‘seemed more and more like a narrowed form of racial iconography.’ Wang argues that contemporary art does not depend on a single context, but comes from a mutual exchange between the context and its discourse. An audience, critic or curator does not understand the art until they understand the specific discourse. Therefore, the more powerful nations often see third world culture from the point of view of a tourist. This has caused Chinese contemporary art to be represented in the West as a code of Western media and international political strategy, and, as such, it has barely been involved in academic discussion as part of the whole contemporary art scene.[ Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin, Wang Nanming, ‘Zhonguo dangdai yishu de guoji chujing’, Dushu, 11, 1998, 115-116.]

Like most art critics and historians within China during the 1990s, Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin and Wang Nanming were concerned about the lack of contemporary art venues to produce and exhibit art within China. The fact that Chinese contemporary art could only be exhibited abroad gave audiences the impression of an ‘art in exile’. This also put Chinese curators in the unfortunate position of having to think constantly about how to present Chinese contemporary art in ways that would make sense to Western audiences. Due to its pre-determined position in the mainstream of the international art market, Chinese art and culture was only able to make a passive entrance onto the international stage and its significance could not be fully recognized.

Debates on the relations between Chinese art and international art gradually evolved into an exposure of dissatisfaction about participation in international events. As a response to the extensive criticism of major exhibitions held in the West, the controversial art curator Li Xianting defended himself and the art he curated by posing the questions ‘what does it mean to “step onto the international stage”? Step onto the international stage―is this a political statement, or is it a cultural strategy? Or, is it simply artistic orientation?’[ Chinese Art: Egg Roll at an International Banquet? – The Impact of Western Consumer Culture on a Chinese Socialist Stronghold, Speech by Li Xianting (at Taipei conference, 1998), in Yishujia, vol. 2. no.1, 1998.] In Li’s view, Western interest in the Post ’89 New Chinese Art exhibition was due to two things strongly related to the prevailing context of the time: first, the end of the Cold War; and second, the influence of post-colonialism. For Westerners, post-colonialism is an expression born of their search for pluralism and their attempt to downplay the cultural dominance of Euro-American logocentrism. Nevertheless, as the world becomes increasingly global, the motivation of the West is still to maintain its position at the helm of world art. For this, the West requires the presence of non-Western, peripheral cultures on the Western serving plate. Under these circumstances, China’s role in this dinner is that of a ‘spring roll’. As Li would have it:

The real reason for such a broad Western interest actually had more to do with the timing of the exhibition, as it happened at the end of the Cold War. As the last red bastion, even if it was still a bastion, China was beginning to show cracks. The art exhibited at this exhibition shed light on the cracks appearing in the cultural realm.

The question was how to make a genuinely Chinese art that would be accepted as part of the international artworld. The strategy to bring this about is, Li suggests, the turning of politics to the advantage of Chinese art. Li contends, ‘To begin with, we will have to acknowledge the importance of the political dimension and the cultural dimension in the international art world.’ In the process of ‘stepping onto the international stage’, he says, ‘we will inevitably lose some of our innocence/idealism.’ Faced with the dilemma of an international hors d’oeuvres plate, he argues ‘spring rolls’ are politics:

If you don’t play the spring roll, there is a good possibility you will be passed over or ignored altogether. This is the harsh reality.’ if we want to ‘step onto the international stage’, we need to face the facts: the international stage only wants spring rolls. There is nothing we can do to change this fact. So what do we do? We can always play the Spring Roll in a pro-active way and to a certain degree alter the content of the Spring Roll over time while all the time realistically reckoning with issues of our own contemporary culture.[ Ibid.]

Here, Li acknowledges that Chinese Contemporary art has to reach the Euro-American standard and that the criteria for selection may not be justified. But he also argues that Chinese art has no other choice than that of establishing its international identity by participating in more and more international exhibitions. Li looks at the fears that the changes in global power relations had unleashed during the 1990s. For him, the misery of being exploited is nothing when compared to the misery of not even being exploited at all.

Other art critics, however, warned that the misinterpretation of Chinese art in the context of the international art world of the 1990s could eventually mislead Chinese art. In a conversation with Francesca Dal Largo, Gao Minglu indicated that Western perceptions of Chinese contemporary art travelled back to China and influenced the way Chinese artists thought of themselves:

The Political Pop movement is a good example. It actually appeared before the political events of 1989, but because of western anti-communist expectations following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 4 June crackdown, Political Pop and the avant-garde in general received unprecedented attention after 1989, and not only in political terms, but commercially and within the context of the international museum world. Since there was an anticommunist political movement, necessarily there had to be an anti-communist avant-garde after 4 June. Ironically, Political Pop is not anti-communist. With more accurate observation you may notice how artists such as Wang Guangyi, for example, in fact carry some strong nationalist connotations in their work.[ Francesca Dal Lago, ‘Inside Out: Chinese Avant-garde Art (A Conversation with Gao Minglu), Art AsiaPacific issue, 20, 1998. ]

Huang Du also observed how the power of ‘Western colonialism’ manipulated Chinese art during the 1990s:

Art movements such as ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ echoed Western colonialism and power politics after the Cold War, while serving as an example of the connection between art and commerce. Since then, pragmatism and a utilitarian outlook have spread rapidly, causing hordes of artists to blindly mimic and pursue these trends. Needless to say, such courses of action, have, so far, governed the direction of contemporary Chinese art.[ Huang Du, ‘Existence of Art and Cultural Identity: The Position and Changes of Chinese art in 1990s’, Chinese-art.com on line magazine, volume, 3, issue, 2.]

International identification has been a concern for Chinese modernity since the 1980s. The official slogans from ‘going to the world’ in the 1980s to ‘joining the international track’ in the 1990s have reverberated within Chinese artistic and cultural circles.[ Croizier, Ralph, ‘“Going to the World: Art and Culture on the Cosmopolitan Tide’, China Briefing, 1989, New York, China Council of the Asia Society, 1989.] The linear view of history, embedded in Western enlightenment discourses, has been internalized to a large extent by Chinese intellectuals in the search for modernity. The replacement of historicity and spatiality with universality and temporality has meant that Chinese intellectual discourse in modernity has been inevitably reduced to a subset of the ‘universal project’. Therefore, during the 1980s modernity or modernization, for Chinese intellectuals, was the basic means to achieve a modern, wealthy and powerful nation-state. It was also perceived as a process whereby Chinese tradition and culture should be critically reexamined in terms of the norms and value system of Western modernity.[ Wang Hui, ‘Dangdai zhongguo de sixiang zhuangkuang yu xiandaixing wenti’, Tianya, no.5, 1997.] The dominant mode of thinking among Chinese intellectuals during the period was thus the dualistic notion of the West versus China, and modernity versus tradition. China’s modernization increased in its intensity particularly during the mid-1980s. For some Chinese art critics and artists who were actively involved in the ’85 New-Wave, it seemed that ‘Chinese art should be similar to Chinese soccer, in that some day it should go out of the county and enter the international arena.’[ Hou Hanru and Gao Minglu, ‘Strategies of Survival in the Third Space, A conversation on the Situation of overseas Chinese Artists in the 1990s.’ In Gao Minglu,ed Inside Out: New Chinese Art, University of California Press, Berkerley, 1998.183.] This ‘Olympic attitude’ was labelled by Gao Minglu as a ‘defensive modernity’ bound up with the articulation of a national identity and subjectivity. Even though the issue of modernity had already been debated within Chinese societies, until the late 1980s the practical and theoretical concerns of this modernity were rooted in a desire for international strengthening in reaction to Western influences.[ Gao Minglu, ‘Towards Transactional Modernity: An Overview of the Exhibition’, in Gao Minglu ed, Inside Out: New Chinese Art, University of California Press, Berkerley, 1998.16.] This situation was further explained by Hou Hanru, who asserts that ‘At the time of the ’85 Movement (or New-Wave) of Chinese avant-garde art, the central issue that we faced was cultural and artistic modernization. Our concerns focused mainly on China’s own reality, and the attempt to introduce Western modern/contemporary art and culture to influence the situation and hence to solve some urgent problems.’[ Hou Hanru and Gao Minglu, op.cit. 1998, 183.] Here Hou goes on to argue that, not until the basis of society had been altered by the global economic system would any real interplay or clash of the East and the West ever become possible.[ Ibid.]

This discrepancy in China’s ever changing agenda had grown out of an increasingly unstable self-identity and the stagnant frame of reference known as post-colonialism in whose terms the West, according to many interpretations, fabricates the representation of China. The artist’s role in participating in the post-colonial spectacle plays into the gaze of the obvious. Guy Debord put it very succinctly by describing the spectacle as follows:

The individual who in the service of the spectacle is placed in stardom’s spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual, and as clearly the enemy of the individual in himself as of the individual in others―he renounces all autonomy in order himself to identify with the general law of obedience to the course of things.[ Debord, Guy, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, (translated by Malcolm Imrie). London Verso, 1998.]

Opposing this ‘post-colonial spectacle’, young art critics like Huang Du argued that contemporary Chinese art within 1990’s China had become ‘a part of the process of re-negotiation between the local and global’ and that this very process was generating a new and constantly mutating cultural and artistic structure on a global scale. Huang saw the new trends in the art of the time as follows:

Recent art history relating to Chinese art shows that there are a number of identifiable and fixed styles indicating that there is no continuation on from either ‘Political Pop’ or ‘Cynical Realism’ and that the terms cannot avoid being narrowed into historical periods. In fact, the Venice Biennale heralded the end of these movements in 1993. Certainly, contemporary Chinese art has been creating new trends, in response to sudden changes in China’s social values and structure, especially with the rise of a borderless information society. In recent years many young artists constantly search for freedom through the practice of artistic creativity, dismantling the rigid authority and dominant position of socialist realism and succeed in overcoming the narrow political outlook of ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism.’ Instead, Conceptual art, Installation art, Environmental art, and Performance art all impact on their work and makes for a more multi-dimensional and complex response to art and society.[ Huang Du, ‘Existence of Art and Cultural Identity: The position and Changes of Chinese Contemporary Art’, at Chinese –art.com online art magazine, vol.3, issue 2.]

The structural determinants of this new artistic and cultural identity were undoubtedly a reflection of economics. After 1992, with the onset of China’s new market socialism on the economic front and new authoritarianism on the political front, urban society began a transformation towards a set of values that at their core were about commerce, trade and material happiness. The significant phenomenon in China during the early 1990s was the development of consumer culture. Hollywood movies, fashion trends, the Internet and computer culture; all things of an increasingly globalized world culture, began to creep into the everyday lives of Chinese people. Japanese comic strips, Hong Kong commercial films and other pop culture phenomena also tooktheir place in the mainstream culture of the urban population in China. These influences continue to be visible not only in the store fronts lining the streets of today’s Chinese cities, but in advertisements, apparel, and even the daily headlines of the local news media. Without a doubt, this phenomenon has had a profound impact on the Chinese people’s aesthetics and sensibility, and has forced artists to ponder the meaning of individual life in a society based on material desires.

The shift within the Chinese art world away from the political concerns of the 1980s to the economic concerns of the 1990s is evidence that domination by government ideology was giving way to the dynamic style of the individual, fashion and materialistic trends. The rise of individualism was a major difference between the 1980s and 1990s in China. As Huang Du makes clear Chinese contemporary art of the 1990s reflected this difference: ‘The difference between the 1980s and 1990s lies in the “disappearance of collective groups in Chinese contemporary art and the emergence of personalization and individuality”’.[ Huang Du, ‘Jiushi niandai zhongguo dangdai yishu fazhen yu guojijiandangdai yishu fazhan de jige wenti’ in Huang Zhuang et al, Shoujiedangdai yishu xueshu yaoqingzhan, 1996/1997, Guandong Lingnan.] Yi Ying also saw the significant emergence of individualism in Chinese art of the 1990s when that art changed direction and began to address individual concerns, individual observations and individual experience. However, these artistic changes took place quietly, unlike the spectacular movements of the 1980s that strove towards ideological liberation. [Yi Ying, ‘Mundane and Profound’, Chinese contemporary art online bulletin volume 4, issue 3, 2001. ]

Chinese Pop art, which developed along with the consumer culture of the 1990s, was re-examined by art historian Gu Chengfeng (editor of Jiangsu Huakan). He divided Chinese Pop art of the 1990s into two categories: one focused on Mao’s image and popular icons of the Cultural Revolution; the other focused on the immediate social and cultural context and consumer culture. He therefore disagreed with the generally held view of the time that Chinese Pop art was specifically a form of ‘Political Pop’. Gu believed that the non-political tendency was more obviously seen in the work of Xinshengdai (the New Generation) artists. He writes, ‘Compared to the old generation who were major participants in the ‘85 Art Movement, these artists worked in a more relaxed manner.’ For example, in Wang Guanyi’s work subject and technique created focus and intensity, while in young artists’ work political images became de-constructed and mixed up with disparate commercial symbols. Consider here, for example, Gong Weijia’s paintings Yaoge (Inviting Song) and Xingfu Shike (Happy Moment). Like Wang Guangyi, the artist took popular images from the Cultural Revolution, creating a strong sense of displacement by transposing political symbols from Wangpai (Triumph Cards) and Wushu (Martial Arts). In a similar vein, Zhang Pin’s painting Dahushangshan (Beating Tiger on the Way up to the Mountain) demonstrates a comedy-like humorous effect. [Gu Chengfeng, Zhongguo bopu qingxiang, in Zhang Qing ed. Jiushi niandai zhongguo meishu: 1990-1992, Xinjiang meishu sheying chubanshe, 1996.] In this sense, Pop art produced by the younger generation was aimed more at individual rather than political concerns.

That the Chinese social consciousness could be cleansed so soon of the memory of the summer of 1989 and be filled anew with the fetishism of consumerism is a reality that Chinese intellectuals confronted with mixed emotions. In a conference organized by CAFA at Shanxi in 1998, art historians and critics summarized the significance of Chinese contemporary art during the 1990s and its difference from that of the 1980s. They expressed their concerns on the late art trends emerging under consumerism.[Shao Dazhen and others, ‘90 niandai zhongguo meishu xianzhaung yu qushi yantaohui’, Meishu Yanjiu, 1, 1999. The conference organized by Zhongyang meishuxueyuan yanjiubu and Zhongyang meishu yanjiu zazhishe, was held at Shanxi Wangjiadayuan zhonguo minju yishuguan, from Oct. 27 to Oct. 30, 1998. Participants included art critics and historian from all over the country : Shao Dazhen, Wang Hongjian, Fan Di’an, Yi Ying, Yin Shuangxi, Zou Yuejin, Pi Daojian, Jia Fangzhou, Huang Zhuan, Lu Long, Huang Du, Feng Boyi, Chen Xiaoxin, Gu Chengfeng, Wang Yigang, Wang Nanming, Gao Ling, Shao Jianwu, Wang Zhaozhong, Lanping.] Shao Dazhen observed that, overall, Chinese art in the 1990s was greatly influenced by the media and the impact of the market and was characteristic of the ‘emergence of neo-conservatism, pluralism, loss of center and authority’. The dramatic impact of the various groups of artists and schools of art during the New-Wave art movement of the 1980s had now lost its power. Rather than revolutionary utopianism, a cultural ‘neo-conservatism’ that would outgrow itself as pluralism took root in Chinese society and its consciousness of reform. Shao Dazhen believed that the effect of the so-called neo-conservatism of the 1990s was to neutralize the radicalism of Chinese contemporary art during the 1980s. However, this was not the same as adhering to the conservative standards of passive or vulgar conservatism. He argued that the distancing and cynicism that prevailed in the new art of 1990s, which came from cultural conservatism, should not be seen as a sign of a completely negative or nihilist rejection of reality. Rather than responding to the impasse by ignoring the problem, it could be seen as a way forward involving a positive attitude to engaging with real life. [Also see Shao Dazhen, ‘90 niandai zhongguo meishu fazhen de tedian yu qushi’, in Wenhua Yuekan, 1999, 3.] Wang Nanming believed that the major issue of the 1990s was how to make Chinese contemporary art accepted systematically. Yi Ying warned that the ‘neo-colonialism’ of the West, which was particularly emphasised by the American media, had threatened the serious intent of Chinese modern art. Huang Zhuan argued that the main aim of Chinese contemporary art was still cultural enlightenment and its fight against cultural totalitarianism; the rise of consumer culture during the 1990s having vulgarized the issue. However, he also argued that cultural relativism and nihilism do not oppose cultural totalitarianism as it appears on the surface, but on the contrary assist it and ‘legalize’ it. Huang criticized internationally fashionable Political Pop and Gaudy Art for having covered but not disposed of the real problem of Chinese contemporary art. To call them ‘Avant-garde’ was a tragedy for Chinese contemporary art. On the whole, the discussion at the conference indicated an internalised vision of Chinese contemporary art during the 1990s and revealed the major concerns of academic Chinese art historians and critics at the time. It testified to a pluralism that had taken shape in relation to Chinese art of the 1990s as a well as a sympathetic appreciation of values such as toleration, autonomy, rights and equality.

In addition to the formal theoretical papers given at the academic conference accompanying the ’98 Asia-Pacific Contemporary Art Exhibition, which was held in Fuzhou, some Chinese art critics and artists also made personal statements. The exhibition comprised Chinese-recognized contemporary art and some international art. At the Fuzhou conference, delegates focused on the issue of modernity in Chinese art at the end of the 1990s. The major curator Fan Di’an believed the problem to be one of cultural conflicts between East and West. During the conference, Fan argued that ‘The impulse and radical actions of taking Western art as the model was once popular among young artists. They tried to achieve individual freedom for their art by the route of modernism’. Fan also warned that it was important to have a correct view of tradition. When the word ‘modern’ becomes the artists’ focus, the value of traditional art is likely to be ignored. He advocated that artists re-examine their own tradition and search for what is valuable in it ‘from its spirit and character instead of from the level of material and technique’. Fan argued that it was the rise of mass consumer culture in 1990s that had reduced the audience’s capability of appreciating beauty to a superficial level and that weakness of cultural intention and mediocrity of spiritual quality had become the common problem of many art works. Under such circumstances he stressed the importance of cultural ideals and the cultural values of art:

Only artists with a deep understanding of the change in China’s social history and progress, with a correct view on the problems of social development, together with social consciousness and a sense of responsibility as the motive for creation, and with a decent personality and high spiritual pursuit can fulfil this historical task. [ Fan Di’an et al, ‘98 [Fuzhou] Yataidiqu Dangdai Yishu Yaoqingzhan Zuopinji, Fuzhou, 1998. The participants included Wang Lin, Yin Shuangxi, Yi Ying, Gu Cheng Feng.]

At the same conference, Yi Ying addressed China’s own social conditions for the transformation of contemporary art in the 1990s. He saw that ‘the speed of Chinese social development in the 1990s surpasses the speed of the imitation of western modern art in the 1980s. The “demonstration of the ego” raised in the 1980s only turned out to be an imitation of western modern art styles, because society did not provide the conditions for individual independence. The social conditions of the 1990s made it possible for one to lead an individual lifestyle, and for individualization to become a potential subject of art’. He also contended that Chinese artists have turned away from both multiculturalism and Eurocentrism ‘because the methods suggested by the ideas are not compatible with the Chinese artists’ life experience in Chinese society.’ ‘Only in this moment’, he argued, ‘can we feel the existence, and the formation, of the Chinese art language on its own terms.’[ Ibid.]

Wang Lin restated his criticism that Chinese contemporary art exhibited abroad had been dominated by Western choices that interpreted Chinese art of the 1990s in terms of political rebellion. He writes, ‘In the 1990s, the Chinese lived in a cultural environment where pre-modernism, modernism, and post-modernism simultaneously existed’, and that ‘Being a cultural giant instead of a small nation without a cultural tradition, China definitely will not be satisfied by only having a token booth in the western organized international exhibition. China is responsible for the world’s future cultural development. We cannot identify ourselves with the idea that culture of the future will merely be the globalization of Western culture, not in the field of spiritual culture at least. Only in an independent, natural and spontaneous state can Chinese art create contemporary art achievements and an independent art history’.

Looking from the vantage point of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, which is located in a relatively marginal geopolitical position, Wang Lin was more aware of regional culture. He criticized the culture of the Chinese central plains (zhongyuan wenhua) and Confucianism as the representatives of China and all cultures in China. The Southern culture in Shanghai, Guangzhou and the Southwest culture, such as in Sichuan, are varied, he asserted, but are often presented as a single entity in the political and cultural center. He noted that art exchanges were often conducted through political channels. Thus art was likely to become an invisible weapon; a tool to gain political and cultural power. In contrast, regional exchanges are closer to the essence of art exchange. Regional exchange is impossible if Chinese art and culture are regarded as an integral part of the whole. For Wang the reappearance of Chinese experience can be regarded as the ratification of regional culture and its artistic value.[ Ibid.]

Yin Shuangxi pointed out that the specific political situation of Hong Kong and Taiwan led to foreign choices typified by the 1993 Venice Biennale when ‘Political Pop’ and ‘Cynical Realism’ were chosen to represent China. He observed three characteristics of Chinese contemporary art since 1994: first, there were no more major art movements to be found; second, there had been an enhancement of artistic personality and an elimination of any sense of authority and centrality; the artist’s attention had turned from ideological critique to daily life and the public environment, and rapid changes in the market economy had forced artists to ponder the meaning of individual life in a society based on material desires; third, there had been significant changes in art media and the emergence of multiple styles of expression.[ Ibid.]

Gu Chengfeng called for idealism once again. He saw the faded remnants of 1980s humanism during the 1990s, particularly in the form of Pop and Gaudy Art.[ Ibid.] But he also argued that a healthy and well constructed cultural mechanism was still needed, even in relation to the prevailing economically directed cultural background. Idealism, he argued, is always profoundly associated with the aim of truth, goodness, and beauty. It might be adjusted and shelved in the short term. But laughing at idealism is akin to laughing at ourselves, he warned, and, moreover, that cultural nationalism could be even more dangerous than cultural colonialism.

The 1998 Shanxi conference and ’98 Asia-Pacific Contemporary Art Exhibition with the conference at Fuzhou signified the emergence of an internalised vision of modernity in relation to Chinese art. A number of Chinese critics refused to accept the position assigned to their country as part of Western-dominated global discourse through an attempt to regain their lost subjectivity. They advocated the idea of a Chinese version of modernity by creating a new sense of national cultural identity. They also demanded a return of their legitimate rights as self-defined historical subjects, capable of developing their own narrative of modernity relating their own experience and mapping out their own future. This vision recognised the importance of cultural difference. At the same time, it also emphasized dialectics rather than absolute difference between the two poles, and hence went beyond confrontational logic of the self versus the other, and beyond the desire to assert its own subject position as an overpowering one. While May Fourth intellectuals during the early twentieth century could only conceive of and emulate a single Eurocentric mode of modernity, a number of Chinese art critics during the 1990s became conscious of the historical nature and cultural origins of modernity. They began to locate modernity within a global context. The absolute nature of Western modernity was de-constructed, and the myth became a reality defined in the mundane day to day process of Chinese modernization.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

About the writer


Shao Yiyang is Associate Professor of Art history and Theory, head of the World Art Studies at Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing. She received her Ph.D in 2003 in art history and theory from the University of Sydney, and master’s degree at the University of Western Sydney respectively. She is currently the leader of the major research project on visual culture studies committed by the Culture Ministry of China. Her teaching and research focus on Western art History, theory and Chinese modern/contemporary art. She has published widely on contemporary art and theory in Chinese in recent years including a book hou xian dai zhi hou( Art After Postmodern). Her writing on Chinese modern art were presented at the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art, CIHA Melbourne, 2008, and the 29th Art history conference organised by Verband deutscher Kunsthistoriker (Association of German Art Historians)in Regensburg, 2007.

Selected Publications:

Hou xian dai zhi hou( Art After Postmodern), Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2008

Chinese Modern Art 1980s & 1990s, UMI.il.proquest, USA, 2005

“Chinese Art and Education in 1980-1990s”, (translated into German), in Peter J. Schneemann und Wolfgang Brückle (Hg.) Kunstausbildung, Aneignung und Vermittlung künstlerischer Kompetenz , Vereinigung der Kunsthistorikerinnen und Kunsthistoriker in der Schweiz, Bern, München 2009

“Why Realism?”in Anderson, Jaynie (ed), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence : The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art (Comite International d’Histoire de l’Art, CIHA) The University of Melbourne, 2008

“Art Exhibitions Since 1949”, in Pong, David,ed. Encyclopedia of Modern China. vol 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Detroit,. 2009.

“Art History and Visual Culture”, in Meishu yanjiu, Beijing. 2008

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