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?