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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.