Contemporary Art in China’s New Era
From October 6, 2017 to January 7, 2018, the installation of Huang Yong Ping’s “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was a cage-like structure designed to house live reptiles and insects that would devour each other in the course of the exhibition. “An apt spectacle of globalization’s symbiosis and raw contest”, the art piece is preceded by a small sculptural piece also by Huang, which consisted of pulping two art books in a washing machine for two minutes.
Seeking to “liberate our languages, imaginations, and essentially our lives from the locked hegemonic systems of logic and value”, Huang’s artistic provocation not only forms a response to China’s emergence as a capitalized state in the globalizing economy, but it also aims to “reflect cultural plurality and a country in disarray” from the pivotal moment of 1989. Since then, the Chinese people have been exhorted by the Communist Party to “move on” from the Tiananmen Incident. Chinese artists, who intend to reflect and engage with the rapid transformation of contemporary Chinese society in their works, quieted from including dangerous topics such as the Cultural Revolution and discussions on how to understand Chairman Mao, according to China File.
Yet for Qiu Zhijie, whose works have featured prominently in the Guggenheim show, contemporary Chinese art is the culmination of a process through which the actualization of Chinese modernity is incorporated into the global system.
In an interview with The New York Review, Qiu, now head of the Department of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, pointed out the rapidity with which art was readopted by the government. Specifically, it was lifted out of its illegal status from underground exhibitions after Beijing won the right to host the Olympics in 2001: “[the Chinese government] needs to tell the world that China is open and peaceful, and we needed contemporary art as a business card to show the world how open we were.” In this sense, art no longer remains a self-evident category ready for use in the assertion of cultural identity, but rather serves to display a “cultural confidence” required by Xi of Chinese artists to meet the people’s demands for an “improved spiritual culture” which, according to the directives of the 19th Party Congress, is crucial in reviving the happiness of the Chinese people.
On the contrary, sensitive subjects such as the Cultural Revolution, such as the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, are now allowed in discussions, according to Qiu. Yet the new cultural mission in which Xi’s New Era consisted is carried out freely only to the extent assumed by the “bureaucratism” that has dominated the nation’s political system. For Qing, the bureaucratic requirement which must be met for cultural programs to be installed, and cultural services provided is one that “consumes your time, delays you, with so many of these meetings that [one] loathe[s].”