Art in the Regional Political Context: Exhibition and Criticism

Wang, Nanmin

Quite a few people ask me what my criteria are to curate art exhibitions, as in the past I was an art critic and now I am a curator. In fact, the exhibitions I’ve curated have sent out a certain message to the public, a message that shows I want to reflect on Chinese contemporary art by presenting solo exhibitions by Chinese artists. I have been commenting on artists’ works by introducing my theory of more avant-garde art and presenting it through exhibitions to scholars and institutions for further discussion.

In a time where it is difficult to find a lot of good artists, solo exhibitions offer an opportunity for new arts to be presented as well as a chance to introduce an artist. We should have more and better artists, but because we don’t have powerful art critics and enough local exhibitions, those artists with profound potentials deteriorate and turn into bad artists. Trends in contemporary Chinese art such as ‘Cynical Realism’, ‘Political Pop’ and ‘New Cartoon ’ are all examples of ‘bad art’.

I’ve always insisted that we have to have our own art critics and exhibitions if Chinese contemporary art wants to find an audience at home. We have attached too much value to the response of our Western audience, because anything that attracts attention in the West will also be recognized at home. These forms of contemporary art have thus become very monotone, as could be seen during the Shanghai Contemporary Art Expo in 2007. All the galleries there were exhibiting works of the same artists. However, they are only Chinese symbols, through which we cannot see contemporary China.

When the French ‘New Wave’ art exhibition was on tour in the Shanghai Art Gallery, the curator of the exhibition from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, said it was hard for the audience to understand the works if people had no knowledge about the political context and background. What he said is true: a work is a text whose meaning is formed in certain context. In international art communications, the context of a specific art work becomes an obstacle for understanding it if it is placed in another another culture. The viewer’s knowledge about the context of a certain period and certain region is very important when appreciating an art work. This seems to be even more important when contemporary art abandons the grand narrative and starts to discuss specific social problems in a specific context.

In my theory of Metavant-gard , specific contexts of a problem and its regional politics, and the continuous deconstruction that avant-garde art conducts on art and its critical approach, have all become important preconditions to appreciate art. It is a new methodology to appreciate art; without it we won’t be able to interpret any works with value. We can reply to Westerners with the words of the curator of the Centre Pompidou: if you don’t know our political context, you won’t understand Chinese contemporary art. That is to say, interpreting art in the specific regional political context is a general applicable method which is not only useful in understanding ‘New Wave’ art.

As every country has its specific social problems, the focus of art varies in different countries, which is a result of globalization and the unbalanced development of world politics. Political topics refer to different problems that are formed by the public opinion in specific countries. That is why the discussion of Chinese contemporary art involves its regional politics. This characteristic becomes increasingly important when Chinese contemporary art starts to produce works addressing problems specific to China.

When art was still a philosophy about God, its interpretation was simple. Art themes were limited to classical ones which were easy to understand by various cultures.That form of art didn’t meet obstacles in its interpretation, and when art was not communicated across borders and with an audience consisting of only people from the same culture, there wasn’t any obstacle for local people to understand art. However, since art has become international – through exhibitions- and often interacts with people from other cultures, it now requires its audience to understand the culture in which the art is produced. As it is very hard for Westerners to understand China, they cannot understand Chinese art in a real sense, however, all the interpretations of Chinese contemporary art seem to have been done by Westerners.

One example of such an interpretation is that of ‘Chinese Symbols’, which originates from Western culture’s intervention in Chinese contemporary art. As a lot of critics are not very familiar with China’s specific contexts, the easiest way for Westerners to appreciate Chinese art is to base their criteria on ‘Chinese symbols’. However, this is rather questionable as this viewpoint appears to be analyzing contemporary art in China, but the China they analyze is not the country where intriguing things intermingle or where various problems are appearing.

That is why I claim that art works with ‘Chinese Symbols’ do not belong to the ‘problem of Chinese contexts’. The apparent Chinese symbols are, in fact, somehow peculiarly presented to Westerners, or perhaps, maybe they are even art works produced after Western standards and critera of what Chinese art entails.On the one hand, it is not that easy for Westerners to interpret Chinese art, see the specific problems and understand the social and cultural contexts, but on the other hand, if they can’t understand the context of Chinese problems, they won’t be able to understand real Chinese contemporary art.

When a foreigner tried to talk with me about a report on Cai Guoqiang, I told him that was just an example of Chinese ‘Symbolic art’ which I had criticized before in my articles, and that what I am interested in is the art about Chinese problems in their own context. I also gave him some examples of what I think is real contemporary Chinese art.When showing him Jin Feng’s ‘Qin Hui and His Wife’, I told him that in Shenzhen, prostitutes and their customers were paraded on a truck through the street for public shame. But he interrupted me, puzzled, asking me about the relationship between this event and art. My answer was, ‘How can we interpret art without knowing its background?’ The difference between this foreigner and me lies not only in the way of understanding art, but in the simplified way he interprets Chinese art and in my opposition of such interpretations.

For many Western critics, their readers are also Western people who have very little knowledge about China and readers won’t question the critic’s judgment about Chinese contemporary art. But such critiques aren’t be applicable in China. Many so-called Western sinologists became critics of contemporary Chinese art simply by writing some reports about Chinese art exhibitions. I suggest that the conclusions of these Western sinologists should be examined in China, including those of overseas Chinese sinologists. I sincerely doubt that overseas Chinese sinologists understand neither Western nor Chinese culture. I would prefer to call them ‘China town school sinologists’, researchers, if what they do can be called academic research after all, who study various sub-propositions stemming from ‘New Confucianism’ , ‘Chinese modernity, etc.

This is the problematic topic on which I base my curated exhibitions. I hope to bring Chinese contemporary art and critics back home, to break the monotone in contemporary Chinese art by showing the diversity in Chinese society, and to change art criticism that is there only to please artists.Through these exhibitions I aim to establish an independent, individual interpretation of art. The exhibition ‘Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Chengyao’ held in Zendai MoMA, Shanghai showed a connection between performance art and regional politics. This exhibition, supported by my academic thoughts, indicate that the work of the Zendai MoMA, an art museum which has been devoted to supporting contemporary Chinese art, digs deeper. Art museums with academic principals are supposed to let the curator hold retrospective exhibitions and write reviews for the artists whose works are examples of the curator’s own criticism. Only with such academic institutions which are dedicated to local exhibitions and critiques, can our contemporary art stand its own ground in a dialogue with other cultures, for it is an indigenous art growing from inside the nation with its roots spreading in the soil of its own culture, rather than a Chinese flower stuck in the vase of Western culture.

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