Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art
Since the founding of People’s Republic of China, a series of social transformations have rendered traditional design and hand-making skills marginal in contemporary China. Craftsmanship in numeous production, such as textiles, porcelain, wood- and stone- carving, lack the avenues of future inhertitance and transmission; they have been substituted by the cursory processes of batch production for tourists. Now, much of what is described as ‘traditional# is no longer part of an everyday reality, but is instead an item of material culture ranging from discrete displays of museum cases to monumental structures of national and historical significance. Such popular reactions to ‘traditions broadly present the state of anxiety, an anxiety of seeking the cultural root.
To reflect critically upon this anxiety, we started the research project, Every Legend, funded by the Leverhulme Trust with a leading research question: will tradition reinvent the past for the future and translate from China to the world? Assembling twelve articles, this issue looks at the re-invention, re-construction and representation of traditions in contemporary Chinese art. The first article by Pi Li reviews the concept of ‘tradition’ in the Chinese intellectual history of the twentieth century. Ornella De Nigris and Jenifer Chao examine the Chinese Pavilion of the 2017 Venice Biennale, in relation to its cultural and political meanings respectively. In addition to focusing on individual artists such as Ai Weiwei, Liu Jianhua and Qu Leilei, articles included in this issue also examine Chinese female artists’ approaches to traditions as a group, and bring in interdisciplinary perspectives by relating traditions to urban planning and new media art. The two conversations pieces included in the end of this issue provide interpretations of traditions from artists’ perspectives.
For decades studies in Chinese art have resisted gender (xingbie or nannv) as a theoretical framework and method of inquiry. This issue of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art testifies that the field is changing. The articles selected for this issue focus on mainland China with some brief exceptions, and include contributions by young scholars, academics, curators and one artist. The prevailing response from early career scholars in this issue indicates the desire to deepen the understanding of gender and its complexities within a growing field of research. The seven interdisciplinary articles contemplate the multiple meanings of gender and use it as a method of inquiry to interpret and understand the work of Chinese artists male and female, or above binary-distinction, feminist and non-, queer and non-, while including reflections on artistic, curatorial and art historical work.
The first two articles address gender in relation to intimate spaces, such as those of the house/home and family in a call for revaluating the micro versus the macro, and at the same time in rediscover the political and gendered dimension of familiar objects and the ordinary in contemporary artistic practices. While two other authors discuss gender and the complicacies of queerness, female artists are central to Pittword’s and Low’s articles. The last article in this issue is a series of conversations with the London-based Chinese performance artist Whisky Chow whose practice challenges the normative understanding of femininities and masculinities, the assumptions and cultural expectations attached to them and the limitations of their meanings within the binary gender framework. All the contributions converge on avoiding to reduce gender to one single concept, while pointing at the complexity and fluidity of a wide set of notions which intersect it.
The end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution opened an entirely new chapter for modern Chinese history, and indeed, for Chinese art too. In 1993, as a section of the 45th Venice Biennale, Passaggio a Oriente (Passage to the Orient) was one of the first representations of Chinese contemporary art on the global art stage presenting fourteen Chinese artists. Externally, Chinese art started to attract the world’s attention by artists’ frequent participations in those long standing art events in cities like Venice, Kassel, Lyon, Istanbul, Sharjah and Sydney as well as important museum exhibitions and art fairs. Internally, contemporary art exhibition became international from the beginning of this millennium, precisely, marked by the third Shanghai Biennial (2000). The Chinese government’s awareness and anxiety about the internationalisation of cultural and creative industries through urban transformations, the institution of biennials and triennials invented and organised in various cities in China, and the rise of newly founded private art museums and galleries have all played a part in promoting Chinese artists and the development of contemporary art in the international context.
The term ‘Chinese’ in this journal is always cultural and signals a broad sense, to include artists not only from Mainland China, but also Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as those global Chinese diasporas. The editors of this issue would like to invite article submissions from a variety of perspectives to produce a series of case studies of individual artists (or artist groups) and their work as representative examples of development in Chinese contemporary art within the last three decades. These individual case studies can be based on their artistic lives, conceptual strategies, speculative knowledge, political and social engagements, and methodological approaches to art production in response to the globalised art world today. As such, this issue is designed to stimulate original research, critical thinking and new understanding of Chinese contemporary art.
Historically, in China, ‘art outside the art space’ can be understood as both a cultural and a political proposition. From a cultural point of view, the notion of public ‘exhibition’ is entirely Western, whilst in the Chinese tradition of literati art for example, artworks were made, shared, and appreciated within the form of scholarly ‘elegant gathering’ (yaji), which was essentially a kind of private (rather than public) event within secluded (rather than institutional) spaces. From a political perspective, the ‘outside-ness’ immediately relates to the ‘unofficial’ status of contemporary Chinese art from its early development. For example, the first Star Group exhibition in September 1979 – generally acknowledged as the very first show that marked the beginning of contemporary art in China – was staged in a small public park just next to the China National Art Museum, outside the legitimated and official art space. Today, the situation of Chinese art taking place outside the museum and gallery spaces continues, but with a completely different momentum and agenda.
Art has been produced site-specifically for the spaces other than art institutions in China, including those of working venues, shown in a range of alternative spaces beyond galleries or museums, and has ‘happened’ in the public sphere and become political or social ‘events’, or artistic ‘incidents’, as a special form of ‘exhibition’. Creative curatorial and artistic strategies have been developed to respond to the constraints of art institutions, censorships and at the same time, to push the boundaries of art. Focusing on art made, displayed, performed or executed outside the conventional venues of art museums and galleries, this themed double issue not only hopes to offer a unique perspective to understand Chinese art in the contemporary context, but also, more importantly, it aims to critically reflect upon the understandings between art and art exhibition, between artistic productions and audience perceptions, and between art and our daily life.