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A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am

A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China
by Jorg Huber and Zhao Chuan
HKU Press

Art criticism runs the same risks as a movie version of a novel - it hardly ever lives up to the original.

But in A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China - Critical Voices in Art and Aesthetics, editors Jorg Huber and Zhao Chuan have produced a rare thing: a collection of essays that stands on its own as a work of beauty.

The Hong Kong University Press publication is an antidote to the international hype that has sprung up around contemporary Chinese art and the focus on eye-watering prices paid for the work. The book shifts attention from Western preoccupations about Chinese art to show what's on the mind of the country's critics and artists. It contains translations of more than a dozen essays that are either broader discussions of major themes such as the place of calligraphy in today's society, or first-hand accounts of an artist's work.

Two essays in particular look at the way the West recasts Chinese art in its own image. The first is by Shanghai-born critic, curator and artist Wang Nanming, who dismisses the elegant pyrotechnics of Guggenheim-exhibited Cai Guoqiang as token Chinese art, a work created for Western eyes that doesn't require an understanding of the Chinese context. This tokenism is part of a bigger paradox: Westerners struggle to understand and interpret Chinese art and yet they're the ones exhibiting and looking at the work.

The answer, Wang says, is to bring criticism of Chinese art back to China and examine the work dealing with this country's problems. He cites the moving example of He Chengyao's performance art Paying My Respects to Mama in which she takes off her top and holds up a photograph of her bare-breasted mother. Wang says many critics have mistakenly framed He's work just in terms of body politics - using the body to make a point about a social system. Instead, it's a personal moment of solidarity with the artist's mentally ill mother. He Chengyao was not being daring in taking off her top, she was showing she was not ashamed of her mother, an expression that sprang from a lived experience.

Beijing-based critic Zhu Qi also wonders what to do about the Western box in which contemporary Chinese art finds itself. Zhu says that because of their democratic values Western critics have tended to focus on work that rebels against political totalitarianism, even if the quality of the pieces is not particularly high. He says these movements have never really been accepted in Chinese society because they don't 'reflect the spiritual orientation of a responsible group' that helps China move forward.

The Western box also takes shape in the Western elements that have become an integral part of Chinese art over the past century. As a result, artists have lost the spirit of transcendence that was a hallmark of earlier traditional forms. It would be impossible to excise these Western elements, Zhu says, but the goal for the next decade should be for Chinese artists to find their own ways to express the spiritual reality of China. If only Zhu had gone that one step farther and given a hint of what that indigenous expression might look like.

Overall, the essays are at their best when they explain ideas simply or tell a story; the authors only irritate when they lapse into references to Heidegger or Derrida. And, anyway, who needs deconstructionists when you have Man Molin, whose motto could be 'I phlegm, therefore I am'?

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