How Contemporary Is Contemporary China? Is There a Link to Art—or Not?
Li Zhenhua

Before I write this article, I would like to note that I am lacking a few statistics that I was going to use to support my opinion. But since time was short, I was not able to dedicate myself to this research as I might have liked. It is thus not easy for me to now present my thoughts in writing—things I have always wanted to speak about. The task was truly to collect data and compare. What I'd like to show is my perspective, based on the data that I was able to collect beforehand. Of course, many of my ideas are based on suppositions. If this article can help to clarify some of the links between economics, culture, and geography in China, then it has served its purpose. While writing, I noticed that I am not able to express my thoughts as clearly as I might have liked. Under these disadvantageous conditions, I will now bring a few spontaneous thoughts to paper.

The Emergence of the Metropolises

Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou: which city is the most important? Beijing, in which the 2008 the Olympic Games will take place; Guangzhou, the location of the trade fair; or Shanghai, where the World Expo will be held in 2010? The emergence of such metropolises is truly very exciting for us, but also gives me cause for worry. I am concerned that the "symbol of China" is now just a game between the large cities or stands for the political and economic isolation of other geographic areas.

With the start of the reforms and China's period of liberalisation (the founding of the trade fair in Guangzhou), free market economics had already taken hold. Businessmen and entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan opened up the cities along the coast, thus becoming the pioneers of the new economy. After the cultural outbreak of the events of 1989, the free artists community Yuanmingyuan emerged in Beijing, and was later dissolved.

Today, similar free cultural zones are emerging such as 798 Dashanzi, Caochangdi, and Songzhuang. These developments point to the key function of a metropolis. The return of artists who had been living abroad since the 1980s also stimulated the function of the metropolis. Later, this centralistic aspect declined in importance, as cultural districts began to emerge in several other large cities like Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen, which since then have been striving toward establishing a regional cultural structure and aesthetics and successfully sending artists to the metropolises.  

Shanghai developed a structure of its own, independent of Beijing. Someone once commented that Shanghai's cultural success comes from the era of Jiang Zemin, while the success of Beijing can be attributed to the era of Deng Xiao Ping. Of course, this explanation is not truly accurate. But the cultural rise of Shanghai was certainly accompanied by economic development. What cannot be overlooked is the opening of Pudong and the restoration of the temple in Pusi, when Rockefeller Group planned to purchase the booming squares of old Shanghai, Weitan 3/18 (known in the West as The Bund, the colonial-era main street of Shanghai, and the most important site of foreign capital in the city), and other places in Shanghai, as the city again began to take on the colour of Western imperialism that had prevailed before 1949. In connection with cultural and economic collective phenomena, Shanghai found itself increasingly in the focus of public attention and became the most talked about city in the world in the year 2000.

Due to its unique political status, Beijing will host the Olympic Games. At the same time, both Beijing and Shanghai present realistic concepts for the development of the creative industries, accompanied by enormous political planning from a cultural-economic viewpoint. A government functionary once said, "Creative industry means freely inventing things from nothing." Perhaps this is also a reason why the economies of the metropolises are continuing to grow. Because of the orientation of such large projects, metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai again come to the world's attention, as if the world with regard to China is only interested in these two cities—the two centers, full of life and possibility, pearls of the East, saturated with limitless fantasy.

Of course, under the aspects of globalization and joining the WTO the world expects of China answers to the environmental question as well as to questions of democracy and human rights—and China certainly has received criticism in these areas. Nonetheless, today's China has quite clearly distanced itself from the original political system: the state is approaching the rule of law as a social reality. The expansion of the economy makes China appear overwhelming. When it comes to political relations with the United States, cooperation is essential. The holistic Chinese model is also usually influenced by the US. It is not difficult to see that the build up of Beijing and Shanghai follows head to head with New York. It is also quite clear that our bank and insurance systems as well as our medical system increasingly identify with the systems in the US, and not those in Europe.

Craftsmanship in Provincial Cities

Contemporary art in China, which had once been influenced by the art of the Soviet Union, was faced with an important challenge in 1985. Artwork became perceived as independent and self-accentuated. Access to art of the Renaissance or impressionism became a precondition for independent expression. Art exhibitions that travelled throughout the country demonstrated the open attitude of the government to art, but also brought about a selection process. The 1985 New Trend was a spontaneous move initiated against some problems within this system.
If we consider the independent spirit of art, then the 1985 New Trend first freed itself from society, allowing for a more open artistic appearance. The best example of this was several prominent art actions during the large exhibition in 1989. After 1996, Chinese contemporary art began to appear on the Western art market in a pluralistic fashion. But the fundamental spirit was still one of having to conform to the art of the West. The malaise that resulted from this after the era of "the 1980s and afterward," emphasized the unquestioned embracing of Western civilization, because at the time the West symbolized freedom and autonomy.

The market truly emerged after 2000. This did not result from the fact that the West made purchases, but that a market had developed on its own. The contemporary market is not a coincidence. The auction market, where masses of reproductions and forgeries surfaced, led to this phenomenon. The constantly growing competition among art collectors presented an irresistible chance for contemporary art. A further chance emerged with the large museum exhibitions on Western modern art—like the large-scale invasions of Picasso, Van Gogh, and others. Even the large exhibition on contemporary Russian art in 2006 at the Chinese Art Museum showed that the current situation is still even riper: the curiosity of the market was basically satisfied.
Still greater ambitions in terms of the art market emerged as economic and foreign policy developments stabilized. Contemporary art had just become marketable, and young artists from Sichuan and Yunnan were given contracts while they were still studying. Their works, which in stylistic terms relied heavily on the work of Zhang Xiao Gang, Fang Li Jun, and other artists who were considered the "weather vanes" of the market, were sold for around 20 percent less than the works of the star artists, as ersatz products to meet the great needs of the market. The market developed in this way—along with a new generation of craftsmen. A political stance seemed no longer very important to these artists; sales were of the essence. The questions discussed among artists no longer had to do with Western art or the significance of an exhibition, but the kind of car or house they wanted to buy—as if artistic questions could simply be solved in that fashion—as if the question of modernity, democracy, and freedom had gone up in smoke, following the motto: we've already expressed the best in this best of all ages.

At the Guangzhou Art Fair in 2005, Liu Ding presented in his art work Prepared Object of Temporal Transformation the workshops of the craftsmen-painters from the village Da Fen near Guangzhou. Here, it became clear that the imitation of Chinese star artists no longer achieved the desired effect, for this kind of art remained limited to a small circle. But in Da Fen, artworks by Monet, Van Gogh, and other "classics" are still copied: this is the "mainstream" of the market demand. This also explains why the artists whom consider as the star artists are not yet in the broad public eye.

In this process of reproduction, Chinese artists and international related professionals experience the success of contemporary Chinese art and our success as individuals. The whole world is now looking for Chinese contemporary art. All large art collections and exhibitions are doing their best to insure the presence of Chinese artists. This raises the question of the extent to which Chinese artists are able to divorce themselves from their Chinese background, in so doing achieving a special importance and making a truly important contribution to the spirit of the age.

The art market in Beijing, Shanghai, and all the other Chinese metropolises— which is growing and sucks in everything like a black hole—has forced us to greater vigilance: where are all these artworks coming from? How could so many artworks be made by just one artist? In China, the age of the production and imitation of artworks began with Andy Warhol. Now the market is open for sellers. The works of the star artists are just waiting to be taken, don't worry about selling them. There is a link between the emergence of craftsmanship, reproductions, and production. But is there also a link between work-creation and the original purpose of artistic purity? This question only became relevant over the last ten to fifteen years. Of course, during the development of art forms and the art market there are and were many educated and excellent artists that have had an intuitive awareness to maintain a distance from the market and remain vigilant.

"Cosplay" (Mimicking) of the New Generation

What are new arts and new artists, what are the new art forms; what are old arts and artists, what are old art forms? There has been no real breakthrough as far as the object of painting is concerned. In the 1990s, there was a great similarity to French Nouveau Realisme, but in terms of time we know that there is a span of thirty years between the French and Chinese "new realisms". The same is true for the Chinese "Xiamen Dada" in relation to the Dadaism of the West. But what is now "new" for the market? From video art, that emerged in China for the first time in 1989, to today's media art, "new" has already become an optimistic life philosophy. We are constantly stimulated "anew."

Whoever is lucky enough to have recently visited the art district 798 Dashanzi surely found portraits of Mao Zedong everywhere. Did we see something false here, did we walk through the wrong door and found ourselves in the wrong age? All more recent moves have suddenly all but disappeared. [since 80s Mao’s portrait being a political sample as art sample in Chinese arts, then now Mao’s portrait become a commercial sample of reproduction in Chinse arts ]

We live today in a market age. The stagnation in art's development is increasingly becoming a constantly confirmed reality at various and sundry biennials, as if we were really living in a terrible age, is it not? The revolutionary knowledge of a revolutionary should be held high at all times. It should not be turned on its head due to a change of one's own position. Individual vigilance should always prevail. The artists with new ideas should be seen from this perspective, in contrast to those who are young and don't come from the so-called new art scene. What leads these young people to plagiarize and copy? And what is done by those who maintain their vigilance and preserve the original purpose of art and its autonomy? At issue here are also the overlapping identities of intellectual artists, business artists, intellectuals, academics, and scholars.

It is said that in comparison to the artists of the 1980s, contemporary artists lack a feeling of social responsibility. But why make this comparison? In particular, we should examine how we discuss the diversity of society and how we simplify its variety and complexity. To simplify does not mean to banalise: increasing numbers of artistic styles are constantly emerging, as there are constantly increasing numbers of artists and artist communities. But perhaps we should ask: is more art needed? Or are there more people who want to become artists? Or has the population increased, and this is a global phenomenon? Or has art become a stupid thing without any new ideas? If we seek the question within art but cannot solve it there, we should examine the matter outside the realm of art.

New art and new artists are attempting at the moment to create new social formations, are they not? Although this attempt results from imitating the US, Europe, and Japan, this indicates where our study should begin. Especially in a period in which the influence of the Western contemporary art model has a continued significance, the time has now come to think about our own art.

The Growth of the Economy and Growth in Art  

Has economic growth driven up art prices? Of course, but there are clear distinctions: at issue is not the awakening of an art market; the need for art does not emerge like the development and perfection of the stock market, the real estate market, and other sales markets—after you already have money, a car, a house, and an affair. Does the growing art market anticipate the end of economic market development? Or is this growth positive? Is the only reason for the hype in the art scene employment policy and the rapid development of the Chinese economy, or are there other aspects? In 2006, the entire auction value of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby's was 10 million USD. Of this, Zhang Xiao Gang made up 10 percent of the total sales. Who were the buyers? Were they from China, Asia, Europe, or the US? Some analysts claim the copies of well-known "brands" can attain a great deal more value than the drug or weapons industries. Will art again become an important economic factor? Art possesses certain forms, similar to light craftsmanship and small industry, in maintaining the production of a small studio workshop. But the profits here are one hundred times the profits made in a similar textile industry. Here, I have further questions: does the growth in the art market stand in a relation to the exchange rates, the political situation in America and China, the art itself, the uniqueness of China, the qualities of an artist, or to the characteristics of an artist? To what extent can economic growth be attributable to art and does its own economic growth solely depend on whether this growth can satisfy the interest of a small part of the population, or if an improvement in the quality of the lives of all can be achieved in this way?

Contemporary China is Being Watched by the World  

What is the "modern" character of art in China? In 2000, Yan Lei sent as an art action pseudo-invitations to Art Basel to expose a psychological complex among Chinese artists. In the meantime, many artists from China are already regulars at international biennials. International observation comes from various places. The change in the political situation between the Korean War (1950–53) and the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 effected a change in the Chinese Communist camp. This led to a challenge of the former mode of Chinese thinking, which constantly swings back and forth between socialism and capitalism. The appearance of Deng Xiao Peng on the title page of Time magazine indicated the birth of a new great Chinese line. What has been observed in China since the 1980s? As the model of a superpower, the existence of China is more than just a footnote: it is not without reason has Japan developed its theory of threat by superpowers in relation to China.

Of course, relations between China and Japan are extremely touchy due to historical circumstances. And the US as a superpower has only 300 million residents. It is only a matter of time before China with its potential and its economic growth achieves the status of a powerful and vital superpower. But as time passes, questions about borders and nationality will need to be addressed anew. This also touches on the question of creativity and new ideas—where we still possess a great many barriers in our thinking—and the discrepancy between the views developed by Western consciousness and those that China developed itself in its own Chinese variant. To understand China and its worldview—as we will try to explain in the ensuing discussion—we need to refresh our basic knowledge about Western ideologies and perspectives, Eastern ideologies and perspectives, the cultural conflicts between the West and the East, colonialism and neocolonialism, as well as globalization. China is becoming the world's production site, and this entails a number of problems that cannot be avoided if we speak about China under the aspect of international relations. Examples are the population problem, environmental destruction, and problems with the energy supply that in my opinion are related to the problematics of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Today, the government is promoting creative undertakings and new technologies. Since cultural perspectives are lacking, and since in many areas China is far behind the rest of the world, contemporary China is far from being a high-power, high-tech society. But it is clear to see how China by way of its own renewal is preparing and emphasizing its own future course of development. We see ourselves confronted with negative influences of human resources that caused difficulties in the West during the 1970s and 1980s. We also clearly see that our achievements are just behind the West in areas like manned space travel, nanotechnology, robotics, and other areas. For China, this means a complex and confusing role in the world as production base entailing the coexistence of development and destruction. International society is paying special attention to China. Its interest is especially focused on the value of China's existence in international society, and the West looks to the results of Chinese experiments to predict its own future.

High-Tech and Contemporary Art

Advanced technology as a modern term was introduced for the first time by Premier Zhou En Lai in China in his speech on the "Four Modernizations." The function of modern science and technology during a process of modernisation is the transformation of natural science into a driving social force. It is also supposed to confirm the basic value of the natural sciences that can improve a society, as well as the influence of contemporary art on our aesthetic perspective and worldview.

Since then, the sciences have significantly corrected various notions and worldviews. From chaos theory of the 1980s to the current science of the origin of the universe, our knowledge of the world has developed upwards in a spiral marked by standardisations. What can science and art do for us today? The emergence of the new media art is not the sole matter for artists but instead a side product of scientific research. A chance that science not only encountered in social practice can lead to a new invention, such as Gameboy.

New media art surfaces as an understanding of the artist about society, and emphasises the impact of the media for thinking about the media. This type of art is also in line with many future ideological trends. As a whole, the ideological origins of new media art do not come from the logic of the sciences. Instead, sensory factors inspire artists to interpret and apply the new technology poetically. At the same time, the border between technology and science is blurred. Here, technology has found more applications in society. MIT in the US or ZKM in Germany; whoever it might be, they all share the exchange between various academic, artistic, and social communities, but art's inspiration by science is also questioned. The identity of the artist became the heart of the problem. Can one at all as an artist confront certain taboos of society, and challenge diverse scientific or academic systems? If science is interpreted and presented by artists as a visual work, are the sciences also open to the public?

Border-Transgressing Experiments

We have spoken above about the possibilities of mutual, indirect relations, but what kind of experiment do we need if we want to answer the questions addressed above?

First we must compare findings. By comparing scientific research and visual information, we can easily judge the necessity of an experiment. Transgressing borders is something that is not limited to art and science. One must penetrate deep into a discipline and achieve the most precise information by way of comparison: this is how to arrive at a border-transgressing experiment. The concept "laboratory" is at the moment quite popular. It is tenable as a term, but what is its practical appearance? These are the problems that we have spoken about. But what are the problems that we want to solve? What I mean here is: what is the goal of our experiments? Can we here expect any kind of real success? Sometimes experiments need time; they sometimes stretch across two generations of scientists. The spirit and the result of the experiments themselves are models for our art producers. Should we continue to experiment, evading trade and distancing ourselves from it?

A Word of Conclusion

Most of these formulations are just a few words or sentences. As I see it, a serious explanation of something is still missing, if we just want to express it in words. Many questions extend across various scientific areas I could not even completely discuss. For this, I would like to apologize to my readers.

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