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Theatre of the World (1993) by Huang Yongping is the titular exhibit of the Guggenheim show. Photo: Collection of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Guggenheim’s China show offers fresh view of post-1989 landscape

Co-curator says that while the New York museum’s show acknowledges global stars such as Ai Weiwei and Cao Fei, the 75 artists featured highlight the arch innovation of the less collectible avant-garde

The art market likes to create superstars whose works are worth the annual budget of a small nation.

In the absence of mature contemporary art museums in China, the market has an outsized vote on what art matters in a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion.

A major exhibition in New York later this year plans to focus on art that doesn’t necessarily sell very well – the more conceptual kind rather than instantly recognisable works from the schools of cynical realism and pop art, for example. It will show Chinese contemporary art as being edgier than most people give it credit for.

“We focus on people doing really innovative things, works that changed the conversation at the time,”

says Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, who is co-curator with Alexandra Munroe, of the forthcoming exhibition, “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World”, at the Guggenheim in New York.

“I think our section on the 1990s may surprise a lot of people, because the standard narrative is that in 1989, there was the [June 4] crackdown, and then it went quiet, and then we had cynical realism. But in the 1990s there was actually a lot going on, such as works by the Big Tail Elephant group in Guangzhou.”
Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Photo: Thomas Yau
The show, which will feature about 150 works by 75 artists, will not take art market trends as the sole arbiter of what was important in the development of Chinese contemporary art from 1989 to 2008. And that means giving more space to performance art, videos and installations – media that are less market-friendly and which started to thrive as early as the early 1990s, as seen in the 2016 exhibition “That has been and may be again” at Hong Kong’s Para Site gallery.

The name of the Guggenheim show is a nod to a 1993 exhibition, “China’s New Art Post-1989”, that was Hong Kong’s first attempt to survey the work of the country’s avant-garde. That show’s curators,

Johnson Chang Tsong-zung and Li Xianting, drew attention to art made immediately after the moment in 1989 when artistic idealism was crushed along with the young lives in Tiananmen Square. While the show was careful to point out that the June 4 crackdown did not cause a complete rupture in the development of China’s art scene, or kill off romanticism, it helped launch the megastar careers of artists whose works were seen to embody a new cynicism and resignation to the country’s new realities.

A still from the video Rainbow, 1998, by Xu Zhen. Photo: Xu Zhen/courtesy Madeln Company
Numerous exhibitions since have tried to encourage a more nuanced understanding of China’s art scene since 1989 – a year of significance because it saw the first major avant-garde art exhibition in China, in February of that year. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asia Society staged a groundbreaking exhibition, “Inside Out”, in 1999. Then there was the M+ Sigg Collection exhibition in Hong Kong last year and the Guggenheim has had a multi-year partnership with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, to name a few.
A still from Cao Fei’ s video clip RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (AKA Cao Fei), 2007. Photo: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Until now, however, paintings labelled as “political pop” and “cynical realism” still loom large in people’s awareness of the country’s recent art history, partly because of their commercial success in the market.
Tinari, the Guggenheim’s Munroe and consulting curator Hou Hanru, a leading Chinese art critic and historian, have managed to get artists and a long list of international institutions to lend works that they feel can best define the cutting edge conceptualism of the period that is often overlooked. (Hong Kong’s M+ museum is the biggest single lender of works.)

Among the highlights is the titular Theatre of the World (1993) by Huang Yongping, a brutal installation with hundreds of live reptiles and insects devouring each other in the course of the show.

The exhibition takes a more international approach than most surveys of Chinese art, whose main context tends to be China’s domestic transformation – epic, mesmerising and terrifying as it is – even though the country’s artists have not been working in isolation.

“In China, you associate 1989 and 2008 with June 4 and the Beijing Olympics. But we also saw the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Obama and the financial crisis in 2008. Chinese art has to be looked at in the global context with reference to what’s happening elsewhere,” says Tinari.

“We have a section on the transmission of artistic ideas. For example, Ai Weiwei went back to China from the US and by publishing books, introduced China to things that people like Hsieh Teh-ching were doing in New York and helped create Beijing’s East Village art community in the early 1990s. Also, Chinese artists were really aware of the [Young British Artists] movement in the UK.”

Works from the 2000s were even more overtly part of a global dialogue because of the role of the internet and the increase in cross-border collaborations, he says. In particular, Tinari notes the use of digital technology for social criticism and to present utopian ideals, as seen in works by artists such as Cao Fei and Ai Weiwei.

The mere mention of the year 1989 in the exhibition and the links it makes to global activism mean the show is unlikely to tour within mainland China.

It’s a fact that the market played a large role in the development of the art world and I told them they shouldn’t just ignore it
Budi Tek

Tinari says: “We think of it as a show that is not going to China so that we can be more free. We don’t want it to be government-sanctioned, but we don’t want it to be written off as an exhibition prepared by ignorant Westerners either. We gave a full walk-through of the exhibition content to 15 curators in [China] and have taken on their advice.”

Not everyone agrees with the Guggenheim’s approach. Hong Kong-born gallery owner Pearl Lam says the museum, a major force in promoting conceptual, abstract art, is addressing past biases by imposing its own preference for art linked to real-life issues. To her, this “concept-first” approach shows an inherently Western bias.

Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek is also concerned about the show’s intentional downplaying of the blockbuster paintings of the ’90s. “It’s a fact that the market played a large role in the development of the art world and I told them they shouldn’t just ignore it,” he said during a talk at Art Basel Hong Kong.

We’ve picked global conceptualism as the angle. It is not a self-contained history of Chinese art
Alexandra Munroe

Munroe says the Guggenheim is not setting out to present the most complete survey of Chinese contemporary art.

Alexandra Munroe at Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

“We do shows that only the Guggenheim can do, shows that resonate with our collection and our history of focusing on the legacy of abstractions,” she says. “There are many kinds of ways of looking and we’ve picked global conceptualism as the angle. It is not a self-contained history of Chinese art but an exhibition to inspire connections and expand the field beyond a Eurocentric understanding of contemporary art.”

“Art and China After 1989: Theatre of the World” runs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York from October 6 until January 7, 2018

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: outside the square