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

Photo: Getty
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.