In a major exhibition this fall, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum explodes the perception of Chinese contemporary art. We sat down with its three curators to talk about the show’s genesis and how political repression in China after the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and the country’s post-2000 economic boom have affected the artists featured. ALEXANDRA MUNROE: I hate to use the words “inside out,” but we’re trying to really understand the phenomenon of global art through the lens of China in our show “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.” We’re trying to understand some of the fundamental stages in world history over this 20-year period through the lens of China. That is, we’re not looking at China as a subject; we’re looking at China as a barometer of many of the conditions that have come to shape the 21st century. HOU HANRU: Most important to me is the Guggenheim is a global museum. The museum itself has gone through a mutation that reflects the mutation the global art world has gone through, so this show actually reflects the dynamics of the new international, or global, art world. By calling the exhibition “Theater of the World,” we also were able to emphasize the very important complexity of the changing world today; on the stage of this “theater” there represents two mutually related aspects of Chinese contemporary art, one being a significant part of the radical change of contemporary China, and at the same time it is becoming a part of the global art scene. MUNROE: I think a third part of that, Hanru, is how the global scene has been part of what has evolved within China as well. It’s three parts. HOU: Exactly. So after 20 years, it’s this interaction which provides a new possibility to somehow redefine what we call Chinese contemporary art. And these dynamics, this movement from the static definition of the notion to a much more open and ever-changing one was presented by very diverse, sometimes contradictory, sometimes even oppositional positions. This is roughly summarized in a few sections, which we have as different platforms in the exhibition, that touch on the scenes of social change within China, and also the global change between China and the world, the relation between China and the world, and then of course all those questions about economies, urbanization and individual freedom. And at the end of the day, I think one really interesting thing is the philosophical kind of positioning of the ontological definition of being an individual facing the world. This is why we have this work Theater of the World by Huang Yong Ping as the title of the show. … The new world history is being played out through these artists’ individual positions. MUNROE: OK, Phil, why are we doing this show? PHILIP TINARI: As an American who came to this material out of interest and have been kind of living it for about a decade now, I’m very sensitive to the idea that there are a lot of people who would like to understand the art movement in China today, or since the beginning of reform starting in the late ’70s. There have been a number of shows that have sought to present the contemporary art in China as something new, bold and exciting. We were actually able to take a step back to look at it as a historical phenomenon, and I think a piece of that is this very basic idea of offering some kind of overview or structure for people to understand both these transitions in China and evolutions of artistic form and practice. We’re certainly not trying to create a canon; we often refer to this show as a collection of arguments. I think that together these arguments attempt to add a framework. And that hopefully allows people to understand contemporary art and China other than through the prism of a few names that they might hear without any other context. MUNROE: I want to come back to Hanru’s question of this show and the shaping of these ideas as related to the Guggenheim. I think one very important strain in the work we began to select was conceptualism. This work has often been called experimental art for lack of a better description, which is not really a style or movement; it’s just kind of descriptive. And it seemed to me that these artists were directly engaged with what we now call global conceptualism. And that conceptualism— as we were describing it, teasing it out in the work and the juxtaposition of works on the ramp—is deeply ingrained and deeply part of the Guggenheim’s own history. We began as a museum of nonobjective art; we moved and evolved that approach to abstraction, minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptualism. These are our core strengths as a collecting museum and also in our programs. And all of the exhibitions that we have presented in the Asian Art Initiative have been deliberately conceived and imagined to rest within and to ricochet off the exhibition history and our collection and what people have come to expect the Guggenheim to stand for, in a way. This exhibition did not come from any other impetus than intellectual passion, curiosity and the tremendous platform that the Guggenheim has provided the three of us to explore this material. We approached this always not as opposing a canon, but actually a set of propositions. TINARI: Right now we have a situation where China is kind of telling its own story increasingly around the world, and very often that’s the story that the party would like to tell. We thought that this was an approach that allowed us to bring not just our three voices, but those of a whole range of artists, critics, curators and practitioners who have been central to this story as it’s unfolded over these last 35 to 40 years, to the table. MUNROE: The stories that have emerged from the artists and their artistic, historical interpretation convey what defining dates 1989 and 2008 were in their lives. These are artists—whether or not they were in China or they were part of Tiananmen or watching it on the television from New York or Paris—[who] were watching it with some sense of skepticism. I think our show is really proposing these dates as a distinctive period where things were very different before 1989 and they were very different after 2008. Phil, can you describe the beginning—Huang Yong Ping and Theater of the World? TINARI: Well, it’s an octagonal cage that evokes a panopticon and certain forms from the Daoist bestiary. It’s filled with creatures who devour each other, but they also nourish each other. They form an ecosystem—of survival of the fittest—that on the one hand is quite brutal and violent, nasty and brutish, but is also quite organic and natural. I think when Huang Yong Ping created this piece, he was adjusting to this reality of having come from this very self-contained avant-garde inside of China in which he was one of the leading figures, if not the leading figure, to finding his place in the context of a European and later international art scene that was itself starting to open its eyes to the rest of the world. It’s also interesting where this piece has been exhibited. I actually think the last time it was shown was at the institution where I work, the Ullens Center in Beijing. HOU: I would maybe add two things which are really interesting. One is all the Chinese symbolism. From the shape of the table, the cage, which is actually shaped in the form of a turtle shell. That was a tool for practicing fortune-telling in the ancient Chinese tradition. And the second thing is actually all these animals cohabiting and “consuming” each other has a clear reference to a Chinese expression, gu, which is the black-magic queen—the last insect that survived cohabiting and consuming with numerous other insects in a pot after years. This Chinese legacy actually introduced us to a different way to look at the world, in a kind of amoral way. Huang Yong Ping’s work is always looking to these tensions between the marginal edge and the center, both in knowledge and in practice. So I think in that sense this work really represents a nonmainstream worldview, an alternative ontological position. It is provocative and provides a totally new perspective to understand what Chinese contemporary art should be in relation with the necessary process of redefining the notion of the world itself. MUNROE: Well, I think a big theme of this work is also globalization. Made in 1993, it’s four years after Tiananmen, the internet has been invented, there are promises of a borderless world. Mass migration has begun, the Cold War has ended and there is a new ideology that is taking hold, and that’s called neoliberalism. And I think Huang Yong Ping is one of the first artists to look skeptically at this new rampant velocity of wealth creation, of acts of new socioeconomic and geopolitical change that were sweeping across the world in the early ’90s. And it’s different species, it’s nothing singular, it’s nothing pure. The whole idea of any kind of modern linear progression of progress has been exploded. And this visceral, gritty, violent spectacle of how every aspect of living was digested in the early 1990s became a big theme of our show, and many artists, wherever they may be working, are responding to these macro conditions. TINARI: One of those artists was Yu Hong, wasn’t it? MUNROE: Yes. So we have a painting from the Witness to Growth series that Yu Hong has been creating for every year of her life since 1966. We selected the piece from 1992, where she pairs herself clipping her bangs in a dorm room with Huang Yong Ping looking at a massive urban development project in Pudong. So what does this mean? HOU: We all know that politically and economically after 1989, China was losing its direction. … Political changes created a crucial moment where one had to decide if the reform, the modernization, the so-called economic liberalization should continue. The economy suffered, morality was very low, and at this point the country decided to promote economic liberalization again, creating special economic zones, modernizing Shanghai as a new economic laboratory. This contradiction arose at the highest point of the tension. This was the official open process of China, of so-called globalization, integrating the global economy. TINARI: I think there’s just two quick things here. One is this question of how artworks can actually document historical moments. This tour of the south in 1992, to any kind of historian of modern and contemporary China, is almost as important as 1989 as a turning point. This is when the full-throated embrace of capitalism really goes into overdrive. Yu Hong is actually memorializing that through a painting and the pairing of the painting with this news image evoking that specific moment. One of the slogans that came out of that moment was the famous phrase “Time is money, efficiency is life.” And this connects to the next group of artists that we were talking about who were performing these radical interventions on the streets of southern China. And I think one thing that’s interesting about our show is that we’re looking at a realist painting made by someone at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in kind of the same light as these pieces dealing with extreme transformations of urbanization, capitalism and reactions to real conditions on the ground. MUNROE: So you have so many betrayals on a kind of macro level that these artists have lived through, from the Cultural Revolution to the 1979 promise of reform that gets crushed at Tiananmen [and] that is revived with this promise to get rich, which is what Huang Yong Ping commanded to his cadres in the early ’90s. These artists were struggling with a world with so many collapsed ideologies and what is the stake of existence? Where Yu Hong is saying it’s in the trivial events of everyday life. I think with [the artist collective] Big Tail Elephant they’re also trying to find something kind of magical, some kind of bended consciousness, some kind of claim to their autonomy in this mad onrush of construction and urbanization… this development overdrive where the individual is not only sidelined and not only ignored but simply irrelevant to a pace of growth that is bigger than any one person could ever be. And I think many of our artists are struggling to find that distance, and it’s in that space where art is being made. TINARI: I think it’s important for people to understand that China’s a very big place and there are different regional identities and different conditions, and I think this show highlights quite a number of those. HOU: Of course, there are very interesting group dynamics in this place. You have very different individuals, but they also have this very interesting self-consciousness about how to organize… the kind of protocol of democratic relationship. For example, the Big Tail Elephant Group has to have a full group vote on everything to make a decision about their activities. That’s a really interesting idea about social consensus and has actually been adopted by many other artists. There is an interesting kind of civic protocol, a prototype of a small civic society that somehow makes the Cantonese society very different from many others in the region. MUNROE: I think that brings us to the last section in the exhibition, which is called “Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives Circa 2008,” which is taken from Cao Fei’s video called Whose Utopia, but at the Guggenheim we have been inspired by another collective, Xijing Men, and their work called Xijing Olympics. And we have taken this stadium format with bleacher seating and turned the sixth-floor ramp into an amphitheater with different sections presenting the activities of eight of these utopian social activist projects, including Ai Weiwei’s Sichuan Citizens’ Investigation. I think what unites a lot of this work is the kind of utopia/dystopia set of projects, communal projects, these efforts to take art outside the white tube and really penetrate into society to kind of effect real change. The conduit for that is of course the internet, and the internet comes to China and initially is not under the surveillance and control of the government the way it has become today. Our show captures the first blogs and the early days of Twitter and where the early days of websites were really an open and free forum for the exchange of opinions, ideas and anonymity in a communal setting, which was never before really possible. Ai Weiwei had said that the internet has given the people in China the first voice in 5,000 years for free expression. Do you want to respond to some of this, Phil? You were living in China at this time when the internet was kind of evolving. … How were artists responding to this? TINARI: It feels sort of like a recent moment, but it has kind of faded into history as mobile communication has become so omnipresent, but also surveillance and censorship has really figured out how to police these things in real time. In the early 2000s, there was this—in retrospect—this very utopian moment of artists figuring out how to use the internet to organize, to communicate, to exchange. … There was a real balance between the things that were happening online and the things that were happening in real life empowered by that new form of communication. And it was participatory, and in a way it was almost even democratic. And it’s largely over now. It’s almost bittersweet to have to be memorializing so soon after the fact. I think it also speaks to how things have changed since this end point of our show almost 10 years ago. HOU: Maybe I can add one more comment. … It’s contradictory, but this was also the time when artists started surrendering to what was defined as contemporary by the mainstream market and media. I think that’s a very interesting contradiction here. MUNROE: I think as a final comment we could also say that this exhibition needed to be done because the art market had, to a large extent, become the arbitrator of this material and this history, and it’s very interesting how Chinese artists responded to that critically and with skepticism. The best ironic and sarcastic part of the show is responding to this marketization of their own work even before it’s had the normal stages of critical appraisal: local exhibitions, international exhibitions, curatorial arbitration, scholarly writing and then the market. It kind of happened in a very different progression in the case of China. And I think this exhibition is the three of us attempting to catalyze a wider conversation, to kind of reclaim this territory intellectually. To throw up this canon that has been kind of settled by market evaluation alone and bring in another set of criteria. Not to necessarily critique that situation, but to remind ourselves that there are many other criteria and a whole range of art that is ungraspable, that is performative, that is video, that is ephemeral-based, that is language-based, that is dissident, that is messy and gritty and rambunctious and spilling over and could never fit comfortably in anyone’s living room. “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 7. 2018. Two weeks after this interview, animal-rights groups objected to the inclusion of three works featuring animals used symbolically to depict oppression in China, and the Guggenheim Museum pulled Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), Theater of the World (1993) and A Case Study of Transference (1994) from the exhibition. The museum released a statement saying, in part: “Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has decided against showing [these] art works. … Although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe, and the United States, the Guggenheim regrets that explicit and repeated threats of violence have made our decision necessary. As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.” “We’re certainly not trying to create a canon; we often refer to this show as a collection of arguments.” –Philip Tinari
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