Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Loud, likeable, kitsch and cheeky, but is it real?
Nineteen years ago, as tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, I was driven by despair (for design, not democracy) to ask two of my Chinese students why they were bothering to study architecture since they showed no aptitude and less interest. Straight-faced, they said their parents saw more money in architecture than in dentistry, which had been plan B.
Today’s students are less likely to say it, but it’s more likely to be true. Especially if the vocation at issue is art, not architecture, and the country China, not Australia. Contemporary Chinese art is hotter than hot. Beijing’s state-run Central Academy of Fine Art once housed its 200-odd students in cramped quarters near Tiananmen Square. Now it luxuriates across a glamorous new campus with hip cafes, six colleges (including architecture and urban design) and space for more than 4000 students.
Faculty and alumni, including several of Chinese art’s “superstars”, commonly command six- and seven-figure sums for pictures. Students are head-hunted by dealers who visit the campus waving lucrative contracts.
This extraordinary phenomenon is collectively termed the Chinese avant-garde, and the doco that airs on ABC1 next week is called just that, China’s Avant-Garde: The New Cultural Revolution. Whether it is an apt name is moot. Is an avant-garde even possible at the decadent end of an era? Can a movement so blindingly crowd-pleasing and so explosively successful really be called revolutionary? Wouldn’t Duchamp – speaking of revolutions – turn in his grave?
Probably. Yet people make all sorts of extravagant claims for this work. The British curator, Karen Smith, says it has been “as exciting as Paris in the early 1900s. Out of this incredible period of innovation and inspiration there will be artists who will be remembered as Picasso, Matisse and Braque …”
So, what’s it like, this art? Extremely varied, as you’d expect from 1.3 billion people, much of it certifiably Pop. Loud, likeable, kitsch and irrepressibly cheeky it is often funny and surprisingly warm, especially perhaps when your expectations (OK, prejudices) are shaped largely by Confucian serenity and social-realist pomposity. There’s Mao served on a bed of Coke, with jetfighters and hamburger-touting cupids rising from his head; lurid machine-sewn portraits of the obscenely rich; giant crotchless knickers in pink neon lace. It is also steeped in the self-conscious irony that stamps it, indelibly, postmodern.
Yet its history is surprisingly short. In February 1989 the “85 New Wave” art movement that had flourished during Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door decade culminated in the Beijing National Art Gallery’s official show, China/Avant-garde. Repressed after Tiananmen, the same energies rebubbled as the Political Pop and Cynical Realism of the 1990s, followed by Yansu (or “gaudy art”) in the 2000s. It’s a story that seems to compress the entire century of Euro-American modernism into a couple of decades.
The question is one of authenticity. Can you camp-up an acquired culture and still be convincing? Or is Americana now so global a brand it belongs to anyone who wants it? (Warhol iconised Mao – weighing him as culturally equivalent to the Campbells Soup can – so surely Chinese art may reciprocate?) Or is authenticity just not something to expect, after Warhol? Is that their point, as it was his?
Ray Hughes, whose treks around Chinese art inspired the ABC doco, is astonished by how fast the scene, like the society, is changing. The famous 798 Art Zone in north-east Beijing, for one, where a bohemian arts community colonised a 1950s Eastern bloc, Bauhaus-inspired electronics factory, is now “a Rodeo Drive”, its red-painted Maoist slogans the perfect grunge backdrop for Sony and Cindy Crawford product launches.
Five years ago, recalls Hughes, he bought three Feng Zhengjie supersize portraits, one of Mao in whiteface and lipstick. Customs confiscated them. Hughes “bribed the officials and brought two out in a suitcase”. But now, Feng Zhengjie – born 1968 – is a grandee, a superstar, his paintings adorning 798 and Saatchi alike.
So, authenticity? “The Chinese,” says Hughes, “can imitate anything. They can imitate Sung dynasty bowls and ’70s New York avant-garde with equal precision.” And yet, he says, Chinese art “still feels and looks like a real thing”.
What, though, can that possibly mean in this messed-up multicultural age? For Hughes, it’s about documenting social change. But art is not just real-time history. To touch something real in us it must come from somewhere real, so a Chinese art that pursues reality by eschewing Chineseness becomes extremely difficult to judge, especially when judgment itself is cast as a fascist act.
To the question “is it any good?” then, the only possible response is “time will tell”. If there are Picassos and Matisses among this likeable mob, it seems only the rearview will be bold enough to pick them.