“I believe that painting ultimately still rests on a linguistic level, which enables us to make proper judgments regarding the proficiency and profundity of expression. In other words, what matters to artists is what kind of language they authentically have a feeling for and whether they have entered a desirable linguistic state….Sometimes the feeling for a certain language even triggers the recognition and determination of an idea.”
The first time I learned of René Magritte was a little after I started painting. My mentor had lent me a copy of The History of Modern Western Art, hoping that I would “sharpen my artistic perception.” It was one of those archaic books printed before Liberation with Traditional Chinese characters, vertical typesetting, and black-and-white illustrations, on old yellowed pages that were flipped from right to left. I seem to recall that it started out by introducing French Realists like Gustave Courbet and François Millet, and ended abruptly with the Surrealists and Dadaists on the last few pages. To a seventeen-year-old youngster first entering the world of painting, they [the works of the Surrealists and Dadaists] were certainly puzzling and not easy to appreciate—and much less enticing than the work of Peredvizhniki [Russian Realist painters] like Ilya Repin and Vasily Surikov. I asked my teacher, “Why do modernists portray people in such an ugly way?” The teacher said, “Forget about them; they are simply a bunch of idle people. Now go and work on your still-life paintings!” Nonetheless, a few big names stuck in my head, and one of them was this “humorous” Magritte—perhaps because he drew a pipe and wrote on it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. What does that even mean? This question bothered me for more than a decade.
As I graduated from college and continued sharpening “my artistic perception,” I found myself growing fonder and fonder of Surrealism, and even mimicking Surrealist artworks and thriving on it during the ’85 New Wave. Magritte has since become one of the greatest masters I admire to this day.
Like many of my fellow artists, I started studying art through printed works. This means that when you come across a masterpiece that is poorly printed, not only must you rely on reading and studying related information to understand the background from which the artwork emerged, but also you must develop a good sense of imagination in order to picture the original piece of art. For instance, when I read Van Gogh’s biography back then, I completely believed that this Dutch painter, who spontaneously started a painting career, was an amateur who basically just randomly stirred the yellow paint with the blue and threw it onto the canvas, and then left and walked to a cheap bar where he would have melodramatic affairs with prostitutes—and this is, indeed, the story of a “genius’s tragedy” that has stirred the lives of so many young Chinese artists stepping into art. It wasn’t until one day, when Armand Hammer, who was in the oil business, brought his art collection to China for a museum exhibition, and I saw paintings that Van Gogh had done during his time in a mental hospital, that I realized the story that I had believed in was completely fallacious. Van Gogh certainly mastered the layering of colors, creating melodious lines on canvas, and so much more. What words can do to art when it comes to distortion and exaggeration can sometimes be truly cruel. To prove the existence of that fine line between genius and insanity, I later paid a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands. When I came out and sat on the stone steps in front of the museum, I was overwhelmed by great awe and gratification. I need not elaborate on the awe, but the gratification was mixed with a sense of relief: I finally saw that I need not belong with those artists who paint on the edge of borders—this approach to art led many Chinese artists to possess a seemingly rich background knowledge of the literature of art, but at the same time to misread or misinterpret it and, interestingly, to form thoughts or appreciations of their own. This is why some say today that the reason why Chinese contemporary art is drawing international attention is because it is relatively closed and self-contained. And yet, while all this apparent energy that comes from being closed might shine now, how long can it last? It’s truly doubtful that it will.
Invited by China in the early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, to shoot a documentary sympathetic to the People’s Republic of China, leftist Italian director of Blow-Up (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970), Michelangelo Antonio, gifted a New China with Zhongguo. Footage represents two months worth of travels through Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Henan province - the only regions Mao’s administration permitted Antonioni to visit. Initially misunderstood by Cultural Revolutionaries for being counterrevolutionary, this film was at last shown to a Chinese audience at Beijing’s Cinema Institute in 2004.
Born in China, and United Kingdom residents since the 1980s, Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi are performance artists whose manifold activities “include pissing, fighting, swimming, crawling and running”. Works gain resonance from their institutional settings, this being one of their most notorious, which transpired at the Tate Modern. On a similar vein, the pairing, under the pseudonym Mad For Real, addressed Tracey Emin’s Bed.
"This intervention took place on Duchamp’s iconic work Fountain in Tate Modern, the urinal which revolutionized the concept of modern art in the twentieth century. The artists employed the concept of Qigong, channeling the internal energy after storing it for a few hours before releasing their qi (spirit). They intended to broaden the context of the urinal, with the suggestive act of pissing on it to celebrate the spirit of contemporary art.”
What gets removed from China’s social networks shows how censorship strategies are advancing, and can even hint at the government’s plans.
BY TOM SIMONITE
In February last year, political scandal rocked China when the fast-rising politician Bo Xilai suddenly demoted his top lieutenant, who then accused his boss of murder, triggering Bo’s political downfall.
Gary King, a researcher at Harvard University, believes software he developed to monitor government censorship on multiple Chinese social media sites picked up hints days earlier that a major political event was about to occur.
Five days before Bo demoted his advisor, the Harvard software registered the start of a steady climb in the proportion of posts blocked by censors, a trend that lasted for several days. King says he has noticed similar patterns several times in advance of major political news events in the country. “We have examples where it’s perfectly clear what the Chinese government is about to do,” he says. “It conveys way more about the Chinese government’s intents and actions than anything before.”
King has seen dissidents’ names suddenly begin to be censored, days before they are arrested. A jump in the overall censorship rate, like the one that foreshadowed Bo’s fall, also presaged the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei in 2011. The rate declined in the days before the Chinese government announced a surprise peace agreement with Vietnam in June 2011, defusing a dispute over oil rights in the South China Sea. King suspects those patterns show that censors are being used as a tool to dampen and shape the public response to forthcoming news. That tallies with his other findings that censors focus on messages encouraging collective action rather than just blocking all negative comments.
China’s social media censorship is less well known, and less understood, than the system known as the Great Firewall, which blocks access to foreign sites, including Facebook and Wikipedia, from inside the country. But social media censoring is arguably as important to the country’s efforts to control online speech. Social media is attractive in a country where conventional media is tightly controlled, and the Great Firewall directs that interest toward sites under government direction.
Studies like King’s tracking which posts disappear from social media services in China have now begun to reveal how the country’s censorship works. They paint a picture of a sophisticated, efficient operation that can be carefully deployed to steer the nation’s online conversation.
The most popular social media services in China are microblog networks, or “weibos,” roughly equivalent to Twitter and used by an estimated 270 million people, according to government figures. In China, all microblog service providers must establish an internal censorship team, which takes directions from the government on filtering sensitive posts. Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo between them claim the majority of active users, and are said to have censorship teams as large as 1,000 people.
Visually as sundry as a box of Valentine’s chocolates, Hang Ren’s photography roves from the carnal to fantastical germane to China’s twenty-something aged generation. At first glance, Ren’s nude subjects take the viewer to a mindset of tame, sexual desires quite separate from the erotic. A more attentive eye, aware of some focal points along the line of Chinese history, will discern the reference to the degradation of subjects, prevalent in Chinese society. Cheapened by way of their labour value within their country’s borders and stigmatized by the Yellow Peril outside, middle-class labourers endured the toils of employment in a dehumanized condition. By choosing the medium of digital photography, a low-cost, plebeian cousin to motion picture film, Ren directly comments on how Chinese authority and society debase its subjects - how it pares down not just their distinctive personal validity, but more paramount to a society that credits worth to economic substance, the market value of each individual. This open abasing of each subjects societal advantage, heeds the loss of sexuality across a former culture, and how in more recent times it has been re-found.
Losing the power of their sexuality and unavoidably their individuality, too, Ren represents a chimera where men are in a position to self-pleasure themselves by sucking their own dicks and a still-more fantastical pictorial trope of a young man with a condom full of strawberries, again, sucking his own dick. These recurrent references to self-masturbation and stimulation of one’s own sexuality politicize these twenty-first century digital subjects, as corroboration of this generation’s parting of ways from those after the 1966-1976 cultural revolution. This untitled print concedes, on behalf of its contemporary society, the implications of a post-Tiananmen China, thronging with a generation sociologically wrought by personal discredits to their merit by despotic rule.
Exploring social and cultural themes in Sri Lanka twenty-five+ years after a grisly civil war, Pala Pothupitiye, armed with a ballpoint pen, modified this map of Jaffna, the capital city of the North, to symbolize the nature of survival for a society in bereavement. Teeth and claws illustrate the feeding of lions and tigers, two animals with unparalleled importance to Sri Lankan culture. The sinking of its teeth into the piece captures a sort of biting-out, removal of someplace or some greater issue.
During the war years, due to LTTE (the separatist Tamil group) occupation, government prohibited entry to the city; as the civil war came to an end in 2009, another complete year had to pass before public access to Jaffna was permitted. I had the chance to look around in August of 2010.
This work is not a reflection of the artist’s aggressive judgements, but rather evidence of his coming to terms with the changes in his country and the unearthing of a hidden land and culture. Pothupitiye’s works represent a trend in the works of contemporary Sri Lankan artists to exhibit their search for their identity in a new socio-political atmosphere, but where expression remains censored by its culture’s decorative nature.
A tank made out of fashionable tan leather sits crumpled on the floor, impotent but charged with meaning. A man furiously pedals a bicycle-powered fan, competing with an industrial blower to turn the pinwheels scattered between them. Bubbles blown into a high-voltage fence crackle and pop blue. An imaginary manga film trailer for “UterusMan” is filled with pop-cultural (and fetal) references.
Read what you will into these art works, but leave any old frames of reference behind. All of the artists are in their 20s and 30s, born after the death of Mao, natives of an ever more global and urban China. Fifty of them contributed to the exhibit "ON / OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice"—named after the interface of the kind of VPN software that is used to scale the Great Firewall—which opened this week at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
Where the old guard of Chinese contemporary art lived through the Cultural Revolution, the experiences of this new generation are more rooted in the everyday competition of urban life, and the rapid changes that China has gone through as they grew up. For one installation, the 30-year-old artist Li Liao laboured at a Foxconn factory for 45 days. With his wages he bought the very iPad Mini model he had been assembling. He displays it—alongside his work overalls, identity badges and contract—as “Consumption”. (The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has posted an interview with Mr. Li.)
But they are not entirely divorced from the past. In another work, Zhao Zhao, a 30-year-old former assistant of Ai Weiwei, cut cubes out of stone Buddha statues that had been destroyed by Red Guards, “to return them to their original state…in a repetition of history”. And that tank fashioned from leather cannot help but hold a particular charge in a post-1989 Chinese setting, even if the artist who conceived it, He Xiangyu, was only three years old when those tanks rolled into central Beijing.
Bao Dong, himself 33 and one of the exhibit’s two curators, said that “since 2000…China’s artists no longer only face an autocratic system but one of soft power. The market and capitalism [is] a soft, invisible cage.” It takes just as much courage to be original and daring in these conditions, he thinks, and such is the challenge for young artists who have “grown up in a society and culture beset by binaries, constantly toggling between extremes”.
Theirs is a global generation, and one more tapped into the international art scene than were their predecessors, including Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun, who helped forge a new mode of Chinese contemporary art soon after it first become possible, around 1979. After a decade of underground art growing its roots during the 1990s, the Chinese art market burst into full flower in the early 2000s.
Members of this younger generation will inevitably come to be defined more by their differences than their commonalities, and are newly confident to make art that ostensibly has nothing to do with China. Philip Tinari, the Ullens Centre’s director, described them as a “schizophrenic” generation. If there is a multiplicity of concerns and resonances in their art, this is perhaps a direct reflection of how the country in which they have come of age is changing from day to day.
Preliminary to President Obama’s second inauguration, Newseum, in conjunction with the Hirshhorn’s current exhibition 'According to What', projects Weiwei-isms onto the monumental first amendment tablet to prompt dialogue on topics pertinent to freedom.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.