Don't mention the wall
For her latest book As Seen, an attempt to record some of the notable artworks by mainland artists from 2011, British critic and curator Karen Smith walked through hundreds of exhibitions and saw thousands of pieces - that was her idea of taking a breather.
Deep into writing Bang to Boom, which details the rise of Chinese contemporary art from 1989 to 2002 and follows her 2005 historical compendium Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde in New China, writing As Seen, she says, was a chance for her to take a break 'from the heavy weight of history'.
Released early this month, As Seen is the first of a series that promises to 'provide the public with an annual retrospective of the notable artworks worth remembering'. The 2011 edition focuses on 40 artworks.
Through her selection, a picture begins to emerge of Chinese art right now - and it's doesn't include a lot of painting. Two thirds of the book consists of installation, sculpture and video. 'I think it's partly because nobody is really sure where to go with painting,' Smith says.
'They're also at this point where they're all trying to rebut the commercial tide that is washing over them. But at the same time you can feel that nobody wants to say no to the possibility of commercial, financial success. And if you're a good painter, you usually get the good gallery that goes with that ... It's one of those weird moments where no one wants to step away, but no one really knows how to manage it.'
One result of this has been a rise in the collective. Groups were a huge factor in the mainland's avant-garde scene, and they are reappearing with vigour at the moment. Smith highlights the Shanghai-based MadeIn Company, one of the most influential and trailblazing entities on the mainland right now led by Shanghai's Xu Zhen. There is also the Museum of Unknown whose members include animator and installation artist Qiu Anxiong.
'That's part of the way artists have found it more comfortable - to bury their identity within a group in order to break away from what's happening now with painting,' says Smith, who lived in Beijing for 20 years. 'Whereas they might be a little bit uncomfortable doing it on their own, if they're in a group they can keep their own career going, then they can also do something different and experiment but with other people so they don't feel as vulnerable.'
The author says her selection process is all about the work itself: if a big-name artist didn't push the edge in 2011, he or she wasn't included. One major artist who appears twice is Beijing-based Liu Wei. His project Merely a Mistake, which first appeared at the Shanghai Biennale 2010 and then reappeared in an evolved form in 2011, is staggering, according to Smith. Using found steel and scrap wood, Liu creates colossal sculptural forms that evoke the sacred geometry of cathedrals - a profound take on the mainland's race for urban progress.
There are also many young artists populating the pages. 'We've had a boom in the number of young artists emerging,' Smith says. 'And going back to this idea of taking your resources from a flat screen; today, young Chinese artists have access to far more information than any generation previous, but they get 90 per cent of it through the internet and through social media.'
In the powerful exhibition 'Huge Character' (another collective creation by Shanghai/Hangzhou artists Tang Maohong, Zhang Ding and Sun Xun), six massive Chinese characters were hung on the walls of ShanghART Beijing, asking the simple question: 'Are you ready?'
Smith conveys the power of standing in this room and looking at the monumental words as protests swept their way across the globe in 2011. She reads all the references, the title's play on the ideologically loaded term 'big character', the slogans that appeared for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Despite the impressive works in this collection Smith says 2011 wasn't a particularly strong year in Chinese art. 'The overwhelming impression of art from last year, was of a lot of it being insipid or diluted. I think this is something that's been creeping into the artwork for quite a long time. So much of it just seemed so very similar and so very ineffectual. In that sense, the pieces that are in the book quite easily stood out from above the rest.'
Perhaps the most spectacular work is Zhan Wang's My Personal Universe, which opened at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing in November. For this work that mimmicks the universe's big bang on a massive scale, the sculptor blew up a rock, filmed the process from various angles, then made stainless steel sculptures from the fragments. These were hung in a vast room with projections of the explosion playing in slow motion on the walls, ceiling and floor.
As Smith explains, it's like 'standing in the midst of what can only be described as a man-made meteor shower, which twirled and glittered and danced all around'. It's an image that seems to fit well with the sense of vastness and complexity emitting from this book. While on the topic of big bangs, what does Smith think of suggestions that Chinese contemporary art is moving through a re-adjustment, or 'post-bubble' phase?
'Are we? I don't think we are. The market has been a little bit up and down and to outsiders it might seem like a bit of a bubble. But if you look at the work that's not been selling, it's clear that it probably shouldn't have been at the place it was or the price it was in the beginning.'
She pauses. 'One of the problems with the Chinese art world,' she adds, 'is it's in the process of forming and developing. It's been straight from the studio to the auction house for a while, and the galleries have been trying to work out how that slots in, how these things move forward.'