The Chinese contemporary art scene

Contemporary China is undergoing a maelstrom of changes in all fields of life and the intensity of those changes is difficult to grasp if you don't live daily amidst the Chinese. I mean not bathing in the privileges offered in the Western ghetto in exchange for New York like rents but among the Chinese where they live. I have been living in Beijing from 1986 till 2002 on a permanent base and at least half of my time from 2002 till today.

First observation: 
The contemporary art scene is a mix of the traditional and the Western contemporary. That means that the majority of artists are still working with ink on paper in the traditional style. After 1949 a first wave of Western influences were introduced by the USSR with whom China had sister relations under communist paternity. This is when oil painting reached the art schools. The next wave corresponds to the opening up of the country in the beginning of the eighties. Some artists emigrated to Europe or the US and with China's growing economic fortunes started to take the road back home. The West had not much to offer them in terms of technical mastery. Their own country had indeed made technique the cornerstone of its art education system. So the influences of the West on those artists are primarily related to what can gain them big bucks. One has to recognise the Chinese extraordinary ability to make riches out of whatever generates money. So they quickly learned what could be generating mass media noise, good marketing, and sales; Ai Weiwei anyone?
Back home in China, as a rule of thumb, traditional Chinese art sells to Chinese collectors while Western contemporary sells to Foreign collectors and to some rare Chinese mavericks. Seen the late shift to Beijing of the centre of gravity of the global art market we start to see a shift back to the traditional approach albeit with incorporation of Western influences. My take is that time passing Western influences will be dwindling away and Chinese artistic productions will carry the content of their traditional system of values for the whole world to see.
The world's leader in art market info wrote the following in Art Market Trends 2010: "An electroshock in the history of the global art market! China is now the world leader in Fine Art auction sales and four Chinese artists are among the most sought-after artists in the world at the very top of the artists' ranking by annual auction revenue for Fine Art". Preliminary figures suggested China accounted for 39% of the global art market during 2011, that would imply an increase of 6 percentage points versus 2010, and a 32% rise in art auction revenue in just one year! See also The China Factor 

2nd observation:
Chinese artists like to assemble in communities far from the control of the authorities and Beijing is the obliged destination for all (a little bit as Paris was in the days of the avant-garde).
  • first came the "798" art community that started to assemble by end of the nineties in an abandoned military factory located between the airport and downtown. Vying to control those long haired hordes the authorities first acquiesced to their squat and then supported the movement by investing in the renovation of the factory buildings and their transformation into studios and galleries. That's when the merchants started to rent... and the artists started to flee to freer horizons.
  • artists went renting buildings from farmers in the Western rural area of Beijing, in Songzhuang (Tongzhou) and seen the huge demand farmers soon started to erect new structures. The whole thing was by-passing the law but money was a sufficient incentive for the farmers and cheap rents were the incentive for the artists. Sniffing a source of income the village authorities grabbed the control of the movement by laying out grandiose plans to establish a huge art district. The whole thing was and is still illegal for the good reason that Beijing's Housing bureau has to approve all and any new construction project within the boundaries of the city's territory (half the size of Belgium). But the temptation of a substantial income is an incentive big enough for the village authorities to ignore their superior authorities. Today the village boosts of having regrouped some 6000 artists coming from all corners of the country but the authorities in Beijing are becoming restless... They decided recently to establish a new satellite city, bordering the illegal artist district, that would regroup all the city's bureaucracies thus freeing downtown to more open spaces and to the national bureaucracy. Voices started also to express concern at the illegal status of the art district. That's when the village authorities and the newcomers enrolled a group of established artists to locate their studios in Songzhuang "in solidarity with the masses" (Ai WeiWei, Liu Sola and others). My take is that the different levels of the political hierarchy will soon find a "win-win" agreement and the art district of Songzhuang will be recognised as the world's biggest artist community.

I firmly believe that Chinese traditional visual art is destined to establish itself as the future wave of meaning for at least 25% of the world population (compare that to the West with less than 10% of the world population and an art scene bathing in a deep malaise). But fact is the traditional Chinese approach to visual art (painting) is very badly known in the West (very few good books available). To help you navigate its waters I'll try now to sketch what it is all about.

Initially I had difficulties with the three branches of traditional Chinese painting: Gongbi, Xieji and calligraphy. You need first to have been exposed to Chinese traditional philosophy to grasp what is going on in those paintings.

Exemple of Xieyi painting: ZHANG DAQIAN (1899-1983). Spring Landscape after Rain.
Xieyi from "xie" to write and "yi" the meaning, also called freehand, is a painting dedicated to the Tao that impregnates absolutely everything.

Exemple of Gongbi painting: Zhu Wei (1966- ). Utopia.
Gonbi, derived from the Chinese "gong chin" meaning ‘tidy’ (meticulous brush craftsmanship), is a realist 1st degree image more akin to illustration.

Exemple of calligraphy painting: Zhang Ruitu, Sutra in Cursive Script Calligraphy. Dated 1622.
Calligraphy literally means "the way/method/law of writing".

Xieji has always been considered the most esteemed and praised visual art form. In this approach the artist is a thinker, a literati, a man of knowledge, who is up to date about Chinese philosophy. Understanding that reality is a process of change which is at work around all our universe the artist makes the Tao or the way of the universe or the spirit of all things and living beings his subject. His acceptance of how the process of change affects all things and beings let's him ultimately discover the Tao of the object of his painting. Don't panic if this seems Chinese to you. The meaning of what I'm speaking about is soon going to make more sense to you.

Xieyi painting aims to capture the Xi or energetic body underlying the Tao of the represented object. Gu Kaizhi an artist of the Jin Dynasty (c. 345-406) wrote that Xieji is "making the form show the spirit". It is often presented as the aphorism "painting in poetry and poetry in painting". Zhang Daqian said that Xieyi is like drawing the spirit of the beings. Xieji is also often translated as "writing one's soul" but my preferred translation is "writing the meaning down". “Writing the meaning down” reflects indeed perfectly the idea of capturing the energetic body of the Tao of the represented object which, in essence, is the Chinese traditional vision of reality. Think about a mountain, the meaning of the mountain is to be found in the energetic body of its own Tao or spirit. What does that mean? Well it means that the artist has to get a feel, through the first degree image of the mountain as it appears on his retina, of the way the mountain was formed, how the energy of Gaia moulded its shape and being and where this movement is ultimately leading the shape of the mountain. In other words the painter, observing as a philosopher, tries to capture the past changes that shaped his subject in its present form and the present and future changes that are already affecting the present form of his subject. What is of interest in the Chinese vision of reality is that it is a process of change and in consequence its men of knowledge and its artists are not at all interested in the reification of this process in an instant called present. They think the present is gone before you can focus your attention on it therefore better to focus on its moving changing nature.

A Xieyi painting is finished in one setting capturing the spirit or the essence of the subject with masterful brush strokes and a good sense of balance in the composition. One can thus understand that a Xieji painting does not start with the act of painting, it starts with observation and painting can only start when the artist has internalised the spirit of his subject. In the past some painters could observe a mountain for years before starting to paint. Wow so much for financialization! In Xieji painting: The artist first observes his subject until he captures the essence of its being, its spirit, in other words its Tao. Then the artist produces trial after trial of very fast representations of the spirit of his subject and he will stop painting after the trial that satisfies the exact representation of his vision. Each trial is made of simple and bold strokes and terminated within a few minutes. Only the last trial is kept. It is the work of art. All other trials are no more than exercises and are destroyed.

This presentation shows that Chinese art had the same societal functionality or purpose, all along its history, as anywhere else at any given time in history that means giving visual signs, of the meaning of reality arrived at by its men of knowledge, for all to share. What is striking is that the mandarins or the Chinese men of knowledge were the ones who painted, composed, played music and wrote poetry. In China, the artists were the men of knowledge or vice versa the men of knowledge were the artists while in the West men of knowledge and artists are different people. Another striking characteristic is that, before modernity intruded in China, art (calligraphy, Xieyi painting, poetry and music) with philosophy have always constituted the core of its education system.

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