Provocations: Avant-Garde Art in China in the 1980s

An exhibition curated by Bingqing Wei and Minerva Inwald

Exhibition Space, Level 2, Fisher Library

31 August 2017 - 15 July 2018

Provocations: Avant-Garde Art in China in the 1980s

Zhang Peili's X? Series 1986

he 1980s was a period of dramatic political, cultural, and economic change in the People’s Republic of China. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), socialist ideology penetrated every facet of China’s social and cultural realms. After the Cultural Revolution concluded, the Chinese Communist Party shifted towards a policy of “opening and reform.” China’s cultural authorities loosened their control over the artistic sphere, ushering in a period of discussion, debate, and artistic experimentation. For thirty years, official cultural policy had demanded that artistic production “serve the masses” and “serve politics.” In the liberal atmosphere of the mid-1980s, a new generation of path-breaking artists emerged across China, forming “avant-garde” groups collectively known as the ’85 New Wave movement. Concerned with the future of China’s artistic culture, ’85 New Wave artists critically engaged with Western artistic and philosophical concepts and experimented with artistic form, expanding and diversifying the artistic field. Supported by a coterie of art critics, theorists, and curators, these avant-garde artists held provocative exhibitions and published iconoclastic manifestoes. In 1989, the government’s violent crackdown on student protestors brought a decisive end to this period of avant-garde exploration, extinguishing the optimistic spirit of avant-gardism that characterised the 1980s.

This exhibition introduces materials relating to China’s avant-garde held in University of Sydney library collections, including the East Asian Collection and the Schaeffer Fine Arts Library. Focusing on important Chinese fine art periodicals donated to the University of Sydney by Professor John Clark, this exhibition explores the artworks, exhibitions, and ideas that animated the Chinese art world of the 1980s. Supplementing these primary sources with important art historical texts, this exhibition seeks to demonstrate how materials in University of Sydney library collections can be used to explore this dynamic period of art history.

Art Periodicals in the 1980s

Art periodicals were central to the development of avant-garde art in China. In the latter half of the 1980s, new art journals such Fine Arts in China and The Trend of Art Thought reported on the activities of ’85 New Wave groups around the country and provided a platform for artists to publish their manifestoes. Editors and art critics, such as Gao Minglu and Li Xianting, played an important role in the movement. Publishing their own analyses of the avant-garde phenomena, art critics created new terms to characterise emerging artistic trends.

Art is the academic journal of the Chinese Artists Association, China’s official professional organisation for artists. Established in the 1950s, Art temporarily ceased publication during the Cultural Revolution. The journal was then revived in 1976. Art published articles debating theoretical and aesthetic issues and reported on events such as art exhibitions and symposia.

Art Research is the academic journal of Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The journal published articles discussing both contemporary and historical artworks.

Fine Arts in China

Fine Arts in China 1986(4)

Fine Arts in China was in publication from July 1985 up until the end of 1989. Published by the Research Institute of Fine Arts at the China Arts Research Academy, this privately financed magazine was crucial to spreading information about the ’85 New Wave movement around China.

The Trend of Art Thought

The Trend of Art Thought was published between 1984 and 1987 by the Hubei Provincial Artists Association. This journal provided a forum for discussions of Chinese and Western artistic theories and contemporary art. The Trend of Art Thought was recently revived in 2013.

Luo Zhongli’s Father

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, two new trends emerged in academic realist painting: Scar Art and Native Soil Art. These new approaches to academic realist painting were associated in particular with the students who had entered the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts when classes resumed in 1977. These sombre, contemplative paintings differed from the optimistic style of socialist realist painting that was mandated during the Cultural Revolution period.

One of the most famous examples of this new direction in academic painting was Luo Zhongli’s monumental photorealist oil painting Father (1980). Father depicted a peasant, a subject typical of socialist realist painting. However, by detailing every wrinkle on the subject’s face with unsettling precision, the painting broke socialist realist conventions. Father won the top prize in the 1980 Second National Youth Arts Exhibition, but the painting also sparked controversy. This cabinet displays the art critic Yang Aiqi’s analysis of Father published in The Trend of Art Thought. The following cabinet displays a letter from Luo Zhongli published in Art, articulating his desire to use painting to communicate human emotion.

The Stars Art Exhibition

In September 1979, twenty-three young artists hung their work in the park next National Art Museum of China in Beijing, calling their unofficial event the Stars Art Exhibition. At that time, the National Art Museum of China represented the centre of China’s “official” art world, housing the offices of the official organisation for professional artists – the Chinese Artists Association. Most of the Stars group had no formal artistic training. The artworks they exhibited were radical both politically and formally. The preface to their exhibition stated: “We, twenty-three art explorers, place the fruits of our labour here. The world leaves unlimited possibilities for explorers.”

The exhibition was open for two days before the local Public Security Bureau closed it down. This prompted the Stars artists, along with other organisations, to march to Beijing’s “Democracy Wall” on October 1, the National Day of the People’s Republic, demanding “artistic freedom.” The exhibition later reopened in Beijing’s Beihai Park, and in 1980 the Stars were granted a two-week long exhibition at the National Art Museum.

The first and second Stars exhibitions generated a great deal of discussion in art circles. This cabinet displays an open letter published in the journal Art criticising the second Stars Art Exhibition for being incomprehensible. Art also published a response by the Stars artist Wang Keping, in which he used an imagined two-person dialogue to argue that the audience should find their own meaning within artworks.

Western Modernism in China

During the Maoist period (1949-1976), modernist artistic styles were condemned as part of Western capitalist culture, and few materials relating to modern Western art found their way into the People’s Republic of China. During the Cultural Revolution, opportunities for Chinese artists to come into contact with art from overseas were especially limited.

The 1980s saw a huge influx of information about Western philosophy, modernist art, and art theory into China. As well as translations of Western philosophical and art historical texts, periodicals such as Art and Fine Arts in China published articles introducing Western artistic movements to Chinese audiences.

In 1985, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange organised an exhibition of the work of the American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The exhibition was a significant event in Chinese art circles, offering artists an opportunity to see American contemporary art in person.

The Rauschenberg exhibition prompted some debate amongst artists and art critics. This cabinet displays various responses to the Rauschenberg exhibition published in Fine Arts in China, including an article by Zheng Shengtian, professor of oil painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Zhao Jianhai, member of the Concept 21 art group, and art critic Li Xianting (written under the pseudonym “Li Jiatun”).

The cabinet also displays Fine Arts in China’s report on a performance by the French artist Arman at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and an article by the art critic Fei Dawei introducing the international activities of the Fluxus art group.

Experimental Art Practice

Fine Arts in China 1988(35)

In the mid to late 1980s, avant-garde art groups experimented with transient, ephemeral forms of artmaking, and groups such as the Southern Artists Salon and the Concept 21 Group began to explore performance as a form of artistic practice.

The Beijing-based Concept 21 group was made up of students from the Central Academy of Fine Art and the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, including Sheng Qi, Zhao Jianhai, Kang Mu, and Zheng Yuke. In December 1986 the group undertook an action at Beijing University. Covering themselves in cloth and pouring paint down their bodies, the group then wandered around the university campus yelling the names of China’s famous heritage sites. This cabinet features an article from Fine Arts in China reporting on a site-specific, ritualistic performance held by the Concept 21 group on the Great Wall of China in October 1988. The action raised questions about the nature of artistic culture. Zheng Yuke, one of the artists, stated “I only want to raise questions. What are people? What does life imply? What is art for? What does culture encompass? All I want to say is that a person spends their whole life experiencing these questions.

The China/Avant-Garde Exhibition

China/Avant-Garde Exhibition (known in Chinese as the Chinese Modern Art Exhibition) opened at the National Art Museum of China in February 1989. The large-scale exhibition surveyed the various art activities of the ’85 New Wave. The idea for the exhibition had initially been proposed in 1986, at the peak of ’85 New Wave movement. When the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition finally opened in 1989, some felt that the exhibition had come too late.

The exhibition was a milestone in the history of contemporary Chinese art. The forecourt of the National Art Museum, then the most prestigious exhibition space in the People’s Republic, was draped with black banners bearing the exhibition’s distinctive “No U-Turns” emblem. Although the exhibition agreement banned performance art, one of the exhibition’s organisers, Li Xianting, secretly arranged for artists to perform their works, including Wang Deren, who scattered condoms around the Museum, and Wu Shanzhuan, who sold shrimp to exhibition visitors.

On February 5, two young artists from Shanghai, Xiao Lu and Tang Song, surprised both the exhibition organisers and the audience by firing two shots into Xiao Lu’s installation Dialogue. The Beijing Public Security Bureau arrived and temporarily closed the exhibition. After some negotiation, the exhibition reopened on February 10, only to close again on February 15, after the National Art Museum received bomb threats.

The exhibition proved to be a dramatic end to the avant-garde art movement in China. The failure of the Tiananmen Square protests and the June Fourth Incident in 1989, coupled with China’s increasing economic growth, changed the conditions of the art world significantly. The “avant-garde” ideals of the 1980s waned as China entered the international contemporary art world in the 1990s.

This cabinet displays the exhibition catalogue for the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition.

Statements by members of the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition organisational committee

This cabinet displays statements by members of the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition organisational committee, including the head of the committee, Gao Minglu, the art critics Li Xianting and Fan Di’an, and the curator Hou Hanru. The statements were published in Fine Arts In China before the exhibition opened.

This cabinet also displays a report published in Art on the unfolding events at the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition.

Responses to the gunshot event

Xiao Lu and Tang Song’s gunshot event prompted a number of different responses. This cabinet displays two articles published in Fine Arts in China: one written by the art critic Li Xianting defending the artists for pushing forward the “threshold” of New Wave art, and the other by Li Yang, pointing out the action’s flaws.

Student protests in Tiananmen Square

In 1989, young editors from Fine Arts In China marched in support of the students’ hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, carrying a banner bearing the China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition’s “No U-Turns” emblem.

This cabinet displays articles from Fine Arts In China reporting on the art world’s support for the student protests in Tiananmen Square. It was reportedly because of these articles that Fine Arts In China was shut down in 1989.

The ’85 New Wave

A period of liberalisation and ideological relaxation that began in early 1985 ignited debates and discussions over the future of China’s artistic culture. All across China, young artists formed themselves into “avant-garde” art groups. In early 1986, the art critic Gao Minglu first used the term ’85 New Wave to describe this phenomenon. Critically engaging with Western philosophy and interrogating Chinese artistic traditions, these avant-garde groups created their own distinct and complex theories of artistic practice. These groups held deliberately controversial exhibitions that attracted the interest of other artists and art critics.

New art periodicals such as The Trend of Art Thought and Fine Arts in China lent support to the ’85 New Wave movement. Although these avant-garde groups were “unofficial” in the sense that they were not affiliated with the Chinese Artists Association, the Association still helped promote the ’85 New Wave in their journal Art.

In an effort to examine the ’85 New Wave movement on a national scale, the Zhuhai Painting Institute and Fine Arts in China co-hosted a symposium discussing the ’85 New Wave in Guangdong Province in August 1986. The Zhuhai symposium brought together representatives from “unofficial” art groups and senior figures from the Chinese Artists Association (China’s “official” organisation for professional artists) to analyse the character of the ’85 New Wave phenomenon.

This cabinet displays Fine Arts in China’s special edition “’85 Art Trends Reviewing the Past and Prospects for the Future,” which featured an article by the art critic Gao Minglu describing the distinctive characteristics of the movement, as well as a report on the Zhuhai symposium. The cabinet also displays the artist Wang Guangyi’s manifesto, “We, the Participants of the ‘85 New Wave Movement.”

The Northern Art Group

The Northern Art Group was one of the most notable avant-garde art groups to emerge in the ’85 New Wave movement. Established in 1984 in north China’s Heilongjiang province, the group included the artists Shu Qun, Wang Guangyi, Ren Jian, and Liu Yian. Throughout 1985 and 1986, the Northern Art Group published manifestoes articulating their concept of a “civilisation of the North” that would replace both Eastern and Western cultures. Northern Art Group artists sought a style of oil painting that reflected the frigidity and strength they perceived in the cold northern climate. The art critic Gao Minglu created the term “rationalist painting” to describe this deliberately “cool” style of oil painting.

Influenced by Western philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzsche, the Northern Art Group adopted a highly theoretical approach to art. The group became well known in artistic circles throughout China for their essays published in periodicals such as Fine Arts in China and Art. This cabinet displays two Northern Art Group manifestoes written by Shu Qun, the group’s most prominent writer, titled “The Spirit of the ‘Northern Art Group’” and “Content Determines Form – Old Wine in New Bottles and Old Bottles with New Wine.”

The cabinet also displays an issue of Fine Arts In China which reproduced the Northern Art Group artist Wang Guangyi’s paintings Post Classical – The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1986), Black Rationality – Pathology Analysis (1987), and Red Rationality – The Revision of Idols (1987).

The Pond Society

Zhang Peili’s X? Series, appearing in Fine arts in China, 1987 (45).

In May 1986, the artists Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi established the Pond Society in Hangzhou. The Pond Society engaged in a range of artistic activities, creating installation and performance works. In 1986, the Pond Society held their first public art event, Yang’s Taiqi Series No.1, (Yang-Style Taiqi). For this event, the group pasted up white paper-cut silhouettes of figures engaged in taiqi moves along a wall on the shore of Hangzhou’s scenic West Lake.

In 1987, Pond Society artists began to experiment with conceptual painting. Zhang Peili engaged directly with issues of artistic methodology in his X? Series. The artist prepared a set of instructions for the painting that he then followed in order to complete the artwork. These instructions were later published in Fine Arts in China. In 1987, Geng Jianyi created his Second State series of oil paintings, which reproduced images of a human face laughing, with slight variations, over and over again. Applying realism to mundane subject matter and employing techniques of repetition, the conceptual paintings of the Pond Society deliberately denied the audience aesthetic pleasure.

This cabinet displays an article on the Pond Society published in Fine Arts in China as part of their “New Wave Artists Series.” Alongside the article, Fine Arts in China reproduced works from Geng Jiangyi’s Second State series (1987), Song Ling’s Meaningless Choice? series (1986-1987), and Zhang Peili’s X? Series (1987). This cabinet also displays the oil painter Wen Lipeng’s reflections on the development of oil painting since the end of the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by the image of Zhang Peili’s No Jazz Tonight (1987).

Xiamen Dada

In May 1983, Huang Yongping, Lin Jiahua, Xu Chengdou, Yu Xiaogang, and Jiao Yaoming held the Five Person Modern Art Exhibition at the Xiamen Mass Art Centre. After a period of restricted viewing, the provincial cultural authorities eventually determined that the experimental exhibition was not appropriate for the general public.

The young artists in the Five Person Modern Art Exhibition, most of whom had trained at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, formed a group called “Xiamen Dada,” taking their name from the European Dadaist movement of the early twentieth century. In the latter half of 1986, the Xiamen Dada group held two more experimental exhibitions: the Xiamen Dada Modern Art Exhibition, which culminated in the artists burning their artworks, and an exhibition of rubbish and construction materials at the Fujian Provincial Art Gallery.

Huang Yongping, the leader of the Xiamen Dada group, published articles outlining the group’s artistic agenda and discussing the relationship he perceived between Dadaist concepts, postmodernism, and Zen Buddhism. This cabinet displays two of Huang Yongping’s articles “The Art Exhibition that Could Not Open to the Public” and “Xiamen Dada: A Kind of Postmodernism?”

Gu Wenda

Photo of Gu Wenda, from Wenda Gu : the mythos of lost dynasties 1984-1997 (1997).

Gu Wenda was a prominent figure in the ’85 New Wave movement. His conceptual ink-wash paintings interrogating traditional Chinese calligraphic forms attracted substantial analysis in art journals. In the early 1980s, Gu Wenda studied Chinese-style painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art, but he disliked the traditional teaching methods that required students to learn techniques by copying canonical brush-and-ink artworks. Although he was influenced by Western modernist concepts, such the ideas of Marcel Duchamp, Gu Wenda sought to use traditional Chinese forms to challenge Western modernist ideals, experimenting with synthesising the two artistic cultures. In 1986, the art theorist Fan Jingzhong described Gu Wenda as “a person who seems to have a homesick-like yearning for old traditions and an irresistible desire to assimilate new things.”

This cabinet displays an article by Fan Jingzhong published in Art analysing Gu Wenda’s conceptual approach to ink-wash painting, as well the catalogue for the 2014 exhibition surveying Gu Wenda’s ink-wash works held at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong.

Xu Bing

Xu Bing was one of China’s many “sent-down youth” who had been transferred to the countryside for political re-education during the Cultural Revolution. After the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, he returned to Beijing and was accepted to study printmaking at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Art.

In 1988, Xu Bing’s ground-breaking artwork Mirror to Analyse the World (later renamed A Book from the Sky) was exhibited at the National Art Museum of China. For this work, the artist invented thousands of fake Chinese characters, which he then spent a year diligently carving into printing blocks to print the artwork. The art critic Fan Di’an described the artwork as generating “a kind of absurdity that blocks understanding.” Xu Bing’s decomposition of Chinese characters, an integral aspect of China’s self-perception of its own culture, provoked considerable discussion in the art world.

This cabinet displays an article from Art, in which several art critics and artists offered their perspectives on A Book from the Sky. This cabinet also contains an article by Fan Di’an discussing Xu Bing’s work, published in Art Research.

The Artistic Diaspora

Many artists and curators left the People’s Republic of China during the 1980s to pursue opportunities in Europe, the United States, Japan, and Australia. Most of the Stars Group left China during the early 1980s, including the artist Ai Weiwei, who lived in the United States from 1981 until 1993. Gu Wenda went to the United States in 1987. Huang Yongping of the Xiamen Dada Group moved to Paris in 1989. The curators Fei Dawei and Hou Hanru, both of whom had been on the organisational committee of the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, moved to Paris at the end of the 1980s.

This cabinet displays the first issue of quarterly Chinese-language poetry journal Front Line (also known as First Line), founded by the poet and artists Yan Li in New York City in 1987. Yan Li was a former member of the Stars Group who moved to New York. This issue of Front Line contains drawings and poems by Ai Weiwei. This cabinet also displays a letter written by Gu Wenda published in Fine Arts in China in 1988 discussing his upcoming solo exhibition at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Contemporary Chinese Art in the International Art World

Cover image of the book Inside/out : new Chinese art (c1998)

Contemporary Chinese art entered a new phase in the 1990s. State-sponsored art institutions were hostile towards New Wave art in the aftermath of the events of 1989. However new opportunities arose as international curators sought to exhibit works of contemporary Chinese art overseas. In 1993, Li Xianting and Chang Tsong-zung curated the exhibition China’s New Art, Post-1989 in Hong Kong. A selection of the works from this exhibition were then shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for the exhibition Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989.

Many of these exhibitions included artworks produced by artists during the 1980s. This cabinet displays the catalogue for the exhibition Inside/Out: New Chinese Art, held at the Asia Society Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Curated by Gao Minglu, the exhibition displayed a number of significant artworks created during the peak of the ’85 New Wave movement.

This cabinet also displays the catalogue for the exhibition Mahjong, Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, held in Switzerland and Germany. The Sigg collection is considered the largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art. Recently, the majority of the Sigg collection was donated to the M+ Museum in Hong Kong.