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

Getty
Show Hide image

As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.