Eastern promise

The Hayward’s "Art of Change: New Directions from China" captures a pivotal moment in the country’s art scene.

A woman freezes mid-fall; the sound of feeding silkworms filters through; a column of human fat towers overhead.  The Hayward’s decision to present a collection of Chinese installation art in its latest exhibition, "Art of Change: New Directions from China", seems right on trend. But for an audience at best only familiar with the polar opposites of Chinese art, either the polemic of Ai Weiwei or Mao pop art, this kaleidoscopic glimpse is disorienting. Are these displaced stories a snapshot of modern China? A common Chinese term for performance art is “xingwei yishu”, literally “behavioural art”. But attempting to find a social situation for the works on display, within what little we know of China’s strands of tradition and modernity, makes for a discomforting experience. This lack of traceability is not helped by the country’s overnight transformation, or its problematic relationship with its own history. The new millennium saw a sea change in our appreciation of Chinese art. But this art has been wrought with tension, with its reliance on external commercial appreciation. "Art of Change" looks to embody something of China’s rapid change. This is a change felt within the ephemeral nature of performance itself, but also within a scene that has global implications.

The Chinese avant-garde is, of course, well versed in Western themes. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, two graduates of Beijing’s Central Academy who have worked together since 2000, respond to commercialism via the brutality of the everyday. The four-metre tall Civilization Pillar, encasing a steel column in human fat collected from beauty clinics, delights in notoriety. But political provocation is a different matter. MadeIn Company’s Revolution Castings, casts of rocks thrown in protest (with the casting process itself forming part of performance), should fit the part. Yet it feels strangely lacking in dissent – a silent forest of steles that says more about the art market than politics. The exhibition features an archive detailing how Chinese artists looked to the western avant-garde and rediscovered traditional culture in a gesture of self-liberalisation, from the early steps of the Beijing Spring during the 1970s through to the 1985 New Wave. This Chinese avant-garde all too often coincided with democratic movements. But the artists here are all heirs to Tiananmen’s legacy. Critique actively avoids the political, instead looking to social conditions.

The Shanghainese Xu Zhen, born in 1977, is the youngest practitioner here. In The Starving of Sudan, Xu deals with agency and authenticity in a video recreation of Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture watching a starving Sudanese girl. The onus is now shifted to the audience in this unambiguous critique of China’s African interests. While Xu made his name with a piece in which he swung a dead cat around a room for 45 minutes, he is equally capable of providing a softer answer to the violent escalation of 1990s Chinese performance art. With In just the Blink of an Eye, an individual is frozen mid-fall, held by hidden braces. But above all, China’s installation art has been conditioned by the post-Cultural Revolution’s first-generation émigrés. These included Chen Zhen, who studied in Paris in 1986, crafting a spiritual and social critique out of his interest in everyday traditional culture. On display here are his pieces of furniture converted into drums, as well as the deceptively static Purification Room, a room covered in mud, slowly drying throughout the exhibition’s duration. Meanwhile Liang Shaoji’s Listening to the Silkworm, where the sounds of worms feeding and spinning trickle through headphones, provides a moment of minimalist retreat. But most enthralling is Gu Dexin, a lifelong Beijinger without formal training, who worked in a plastics factory and used similar methods to create large-scale, melted sculptures. Gu rejects discussion, marking his work by date alone. His images of raw flesh, sometimes encased in glass, are typical of China’s 1990s sensibilities.

If there is any danger of over-glitz, this is more than balanced out by Yingmei Duan’s dreamy, hazy performance in Happy Yingmei, with the artist herself drifting through a miniature forest before engaging in unnerving encounters with strangers. Here the medium is at its best, offering something both cathartic and mysterious. Yingmei moved from Beijing’s legendary East Village (where artists lived alongside migrant workers) to Germany in the 1990s. Her work clearly cites external influences, whether it is an interest in Egon Schiele from time spent in Vienna or her studies with the doyenne of performance art, Marina Abramović. Happy Yingmei perpetuates a dreaming state – that liminal zone between the physical and the psychological. But this is also a place where nostalgia and globalisation meet, where the competing processes of emulation and absorption of Western forms join traces of longstanding traditions – old religion and folk tales. As I leave, Yingmei hands me a note: “maybe this will be the only time we meet in our lives”.

The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, writing in the Guardian, sharply argued, “I don’t think it’s worth discussing new directions in the context of Chinese art”. Ai’s complaint is that "Art of Change" is guilty of simplification and fails to address the vital issues at hand, akin to “a restaurant in Chinatown”. Ai is right to call out the state’s use of the avant-garde for what it is – a form of soft power. The health of China’s booming art scene has always been a tender subject. In an excellent piece for the New Yorker, the critic Alex Ross examined how China’s creative climate, even within the minimal domain of classical music, “with its systems of punishments and rewards, still resembles that of the late-period Soviet Union”. The problems are all too visible on the ground. In 2007 the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened in Beijing’s 798 art district, with early exhibitions including a survey of the ’85 New Wave movement. When I visited last month, the Center was holding an exhibition of luxury Swiss watches.

The truth is that Chinese art faces a pivotal moment. The once meagre prospects of the avant-garde have escalated into the full speculative fever of a gold rush. The art may look familiar, but it operates under different rules. Many of the artists in "Art of Change" artists, growing up between the end of the Cultural Revolution and China’s new advent, have always seen art’s ulterior motives, from propaganda through to advertising. The Chinese attitude proposes a new model, rejecting western niceties and opening itself up to the cultural-financial realities. In an interview earlier this year) , the Hayward’s curator Stephanie Rosenthal observed: “in the east the copy is something that can often be more valuable than the original”. Post-Tiananmen artists such as Chen Zhen have created a legacy whereby artists manage their own affairs, bypassing the art dealer. This is a world in which dealer-artist exclusivity and copyright are no longer givens. But China’s path is itself uncertain. Today the 798 art district prospers and artists are content to be used in a game of soft power. The question becomes: what will happen tomorrow?

Work by MadeIn Company on display at the Hayward Gallery (Photo: Linda Nylind)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Beren and Lúthien: Love, war and Tolkien’s lost tales

Expanded and augmented version of tale which first appeared in Silmarillion mirrors Tolkien's own relationship with wife Edith.

In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.

Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three “holy jewels” called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole “legendarium”. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.

There is much to relish, even for those who have read The Silmarillion. Of all the 1916-19 “Lost Tales”, this one changed most. The early version, doubtless written for Edith, is a rollicking fairy tale crossed with a kind of “Just So Story” about why cats fear dogs; yet in its latter stages it steps up several gears and attains a mythic power. The verse Leithian is in this higher gear all along, setting the tone for The Silmarillion. Germanic saga rises to the surface, and so do war memories:

. . . the mighty field . . . turned to dust,

to drifting sand and yellow rust,

to thirsty dunes where many bones

lay broken among barren stones.

Nothing shows the gear change more clearly than that Beren’s captor in the earliest version is a demonic cat but in later versions the captor is the wolvish Necromancer – whom Tolkien in 1937 renamed Sauron. When in The Lord of the Rings Frodo first sees a vision of Sauron’s eye, “yellow as a cat’s”, he gazes into the deep well of Tolkien’s creative past.

In all the forms of the story here, Lúthien is the key figure, “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” but also more resourceful than Beren. It is she who springs him from prison and defeats his captor. When together they reach the end of the quest in Morgoth’s throne room, everything falls to her. If this is meant to be the lost original of “Rapunzel”, it is strikingly in tune with much more recent, female-centred fairy-tale revisionings. It is also a hymn to Edith – and to her power to lift Tolkien out of the depths. 

Beren and Lúthien
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 288pp, £20

John Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War” and is writing a book on Tolkien and the 20th century, “Tolkien’s Mirror”

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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