Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2001
Wu Hung Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century University of Chicago Press, 1999. (0935573275)
David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, February 18-April 18, 1999; University of Oregon Museum of Art, Eugene, OR, July 17-September 12, 1999; Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, October 13-December 9, 1999

Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century is the catalogue for a small but well-focused exhibition of contemporary Chinese art held at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago, from February 18 to April 18, 1999 and subsequently exhibited at the University of Oregon Museum of Art and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. Author and exhibition curator, Wu Hung, Harrie Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Chinese Art History at University of Chicago, begins his book with a reflection upon the general state of the field. His introduction, “Pushing the Limits, Chinese Experimental Art, 1949 to 1999,” defines major trends in art after Mao and establishes a periodization of art in this era that is new to English-language writing. The author should be commended for proposing a fresh alternative to the surprisingly small number of interpretive frameworks for contemporary Chinese art that have emerged during the past two decades. We believe that his effort is a significant contribution to a growing trend. By contrasting the subject of his exhibition, which he calls “Chinese experimental art (shiyan yishu),” with four other artistic traditions or realms (a highly politicized official art under direct control of the party; an academic art that emphasizes technical training; popular urban culture; and an “international” commercial art), he contextualizes his scholarly project in a helpful way. The boundaries between the five trends are permeable, as he points out, with academically trained and employed artists making experimental art at one moment and slipping into commercial art the next. One can even think of a few examples, although they are increasingly rare as official art withers, of individuals moving in and out of the realm of party-sponsored political art.

In defining his terms, the author warns against the common practice of applying highly charged notions from Western terminology to the Chinese art world. He correctly points to misconceptions that have led to contemporary Chinese art being considered “‘underground art’ in a totalitarian society,” when a great deal of it seems to be as much a product of the dramatic opening up of Chinese society since 1979 as a protest against it. Similarly, he abandons the hotly disputed term “avant-garde,” which in practice is often applied to any Chinese work in contemporary Western forms, and adopts instead the more neutral, if time-worn term, “experimental art,” which he found that many artists in contemporary China currently use to refer to their own work. He thus rejects style and political stance as the defining elements in contemporary Chinese art, and instead argues that the artist’s own self-positioning at the border of contemporary Chinese art and society are key factors in defining “experimental art.” In Wu Hung’s view, to operate at the borders, for experimental artists, is a self-imposed marginalization from the mainstream, and their acts of border-crossing may threaten those at the center. Just as he suggests that politics do not directly propel the new art, so he identifies a major turning point not at 1989, the June 4th massacre, as many previous writers have done, but at 1993, a date that corresponds to the reopening of China’s economy to the outside. He defines the first phase, 1979-1993, as a post-Cultural Revolution art, which is itself comprised of three short (four or five year) generations (1979-1984; 1985-1989; 1990-1993). The second phase, his primary interest, no longer reacts against the Cultural Revolution and has gone beyond the mentality of the yundong, the political and social mass movements of the high Maoist era. Until 1993, artists and critics continued to operate within the social and political conventions of their pre-Cultural Revolution and Cultural Revolution period training and thus sought to organize the new art into yundong. Artists represented in the exhibition have freed themselves from these aspects of the past and their works respond instead to a rapidly changing contemporary Chinese society. In characterizing the new art, the author describes the artists’ resistance to associating themselves with preexisting ideological trends or with stylistic identifications that, like brand names, might affiliate them with consumer culture. Consequently, instead of defining schools or groups of contemporary Chinese artists himself, Wu Hung divides the material into three general thematic categories, “Demystification,” “Ruins,” and “Transience,” which serve to structure the catalogue, as they did the exhibition. Within each of the book’s three parts one finds short illustrated chapters that combine knowledgeable discussions of an artist and his or her art with personal meditations on the work. Wu Hung’s own background as both a Harvard-trained art historian and a graduate of Maoist China’s premier art school informs his reading of the recent past in a way that most American readers will find profound and compelling. The intensity of the personal memories he brings to the material is highlighted in one illustration that represents the author posed in 1971 beneath the same portrait of Mao Zedong referred to in a work of more than two decades later. Perhaps significantly, in this Cultural Revolution era photograph, the author sported a prominent pen in his breast pocket, but the required Mao badge is either absent or too small to see.

The exhibition’s first section, “Demystification,” refers, among other things, to the increasingly personal and domestic turn in Chinese art as it has sought to fill the space vacated by political icons now emptied of meaning. Artists included in this first section, are both international stars and artists less well known outside China: Xu Bing, Wenda Gu, Zhang Hongtu, Xing Danwen, Song Dong, Mo Yi, Sui Jianguo, and Yu Fan. The second section, “Ruins,” focuses on a theme that is poignant to most urban citizens in China today. Several of the artists document the wholesale demolition of the sturdy Qing dynasty courtyard houses that have given Beijing’s residential districts their character. This process has been intensely disturbing to anyone who loved the city, and it is not surprising to find it a major focus for the Beijing-raised curator. Artists included in the second part of the exhibition are Cai Jin, Shi Chong, Yuan Dongping, Zhang Huan, Zhan Wang, Rong Rong, and Yin Xiuzhen. The final section of the exhibition, “Transience,” includes a somewhat diverse group of artists who in one way or another explore changes in such things as social relationships, morality, and self-identity by means of an attachment to the sometimes meaningless surface of things. Instability and transience, which are hallmarks of the current era in China, are used by the author to characterize not just the artists in the final section of the exhibition, Zhan Wang, Zhu Fadong, Yu Hong, Zeng Hao, Wang Jin, Liu Zheng, and Qiu Zhijie, but the entire project.

The attractively designed catalogue includes not only reproductions of pieces selected for the exhibition but also color images of many comparative examples cited in the text. In a coda entitled, “A Brief Reflection on the Study of Contemporary Chinese Experimental Art,” Wu Hung concludes his catalogue text with a valuable survey of publications and events, as well as a list of Chinese critics, that is useful background to the study of the development of recent Chinese art. Our students have found “Transience” to be a valuable introduction to contemporary Chinese art, especially that of the 1990s. The book is probably the most thoughtfully and coherently organized overview of the subject published in recent years and will have an important life in scholarship quite separate from the excellent exhibition for which it was conceived.

Julia F. Andrews
Ohio State University, and Kuiyi Shen, Ohio University