Avant Garde Art Groups in China, 1979-1989 by Paul Gladston University of Chicago Press 3 stars Jingan Young A little over three decades ago, the global perception was that China's contemporary art scene was virtually non-existent. Its rapid ascension to billion-dollar status in the international marketplace has had an astounding effect on not only the art sold but the art being made. Its canvases are a far cry from China's mass-produced propaganda dazibao (big character posters) under Mao Zedong. But even after his death in 1976, exhibitions featuring avant garde work remained few and far between. A new collection of essays by Paul Gladston, director of the Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, tracks the changing identity of Chinese contemporary art, spotlighting four significant groups: the Stars; the Northern Art Group; the Pond Association; and Xiamen Dada. The book takes the form of transcribed, translated interviews with the artists between 2006 and 2010. Why interviews? Gladston's rationale is that interviews provide the "lived experience of art-making that have the potential [even] to contradict what has been said and written". To Gladston, the artist understands the artist best. This formula works on many levels. The interview with "political pop" artist Wang Guangyi, part of the Northern Art Group that was founded in 1984, provides us with profound insights into the philosophical ideas behind their compositions. In response to a question about Romanticism, Wang declares: "We were anti-Romanticist, as well as anti-formalist. We thought Romanticism and formalism made art into entertainment - that is to say, into a kind of kitsch." This "cultural grafting" transformed their works into that of quasi-Popism, a by-product of both the re-exploration of the traditional and of the influence of a growing Westernisation (albeit in translation). Gladston should be commended for recording their positive influence on the identity of modern Chinese art today. However, he attempts to condense the already dense nature of these pre-recorded interviews by using Derrida's notions of deconstructivism to "divide and question" the authority of these artists' works. But this in no way offers us any new understanding as to how and why this fascinating group of individuals desired to deviate from society's restrictive norms. Another problem here lies in the absence of any actual imagery, for what is art without art?