Ai Weiwei

Chinese artists' New York links go beyond money

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am


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With the Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK) and at least three commercial galleries opening this week, and a new season of auctions starting next week, art may be the hottest currency in town right now.

But a new independent exhibition of four prominent contemporary Chinese artists shows that the value of art goes beyond money; it also depends on history.

Co-organised by Para/Site Art Space and New York-based curator Doryun Chong, Taiping Tianguo, A History of Possible Encounters traces the career of mainland artist-activist Ai Weiwei, performance artists Kwok Mang-ho and Tehching Hsieh and late painter Martin Wong, all of whom in the past lived and worked in New York.

On show at the Sheung Wan venue are paintings, drawings, prints, objects, collages, photos and videos by and about the four artists. The exhibition runs until August 12.

One of the highlights is Ai's photography from his New York years (1981-93), with the recurring theme of protest reflecting the artist's early interest in human rights activism.

New York in the 1980s, says Chong, was an incubation period and a point of departure for Ai. The city was also where these artists searched for their artistic direction and expression.

Theirs is a tale of serendipity. The four artists, coming from different Chinese backgrounds, converged and struggled together in the New York art scene of the 1980s. But they all went on to become successful artists. Ai is now known as a vocal critic of the mainland authorities, especially after he investigated the shoddy construction of school buildings that led to the deaths of thousands of pupils in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Kwok, aka Frog King, is now recognised as mainland China's first performance artist and represented Hong Kong at last year's Venice Biennale. While Taiwanese Hsieh is well-known for his self-punishing performance pieces in the 1970-80s, San Francisco-born Wong is a widely collected painter in the US.

Chong, associate curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), was amazed by these different strands: 'I thought, this is a really fascinating story, of all these well-known figures who once worked in New York at the same time.'

The Korean-born curator felt compelled to bring their stories together, especially because the four Chinese artists and their works had never been discussed together.

'So we're not spinning the same wheel. This is a new story,' said Chong of the group show.

His aim, he says, is to offer an 'alternative lens' on Chinese art, which he says is too often portrayed as one-dimensional. 'Chinese contemporary art shouldn't be just a market phenomenon,' he adds. 'It should be an intellectual discussion. I think that's quite seriously lacking.'

Cosmin Costinas, executive director/curator of Para/Site, said: 'I think [the show] makes a statement of how we can't just take this big development of the art market in Hong Kong and in China without understanding it from a historical perspective.'