From Beijing: Beijing Voice and Zhang Xiaotao at Pékin Fine Arts

There has been noise of late about the supposedly derivative nature of contemporary art, about questionable curatorial practices, and about the piratical behavior of the art market. “Zombie Formalism” and “Crapstraction” are glib, voguish—although, it must be said, amusing—terms that have been thrown around. Whatever you may think about this critique of current tendencies in abstract painting, it seems that all is not well in the world of contemporary practice. There is a growing sense that contemporary art has entered a swirling vortex of derivative quotations from the past—a Mannerist phase, perhaps. But is any of this relevant to contemporary art practices in China? After a disappointing exhibition across three major Beijing galleries, Zhang Xiaotao’s solo show at Pékin Fine Arts makes me believe that art still matters.

Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya, Still Image, 80 x 144 cm, 2010 - 2011, image courtesy Pekin Fine Arts

Zhang Xiaotao. Sakya, 2010-2011; still image; 80 x 144 cm. Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing.

For the last few years, in regular visits to Beijing, I have been delighted to encounter work that seems to have escaped the dead hand of suffocating theory. Certainly Beijing has seen its share of the “art as spectacle” phenomenon, with artists tempted by the accessibility of large spaces, cheap labor, and cheaper fabrication costs to make works that are bigger and shinier than they need to be. But that’s the world we are living in now—a world of giant rubber ducks everywhere and butt-plug sculptures in the center of Paris. Art as entertainment. An evaluation of 2014 exhibitions in a Sydney newspaper pointed out that these days “you can’t just put stuff on the wall and expect that lots of people will come see.”[1] People expect something momentous, something extraordinary; they want their perceptions altered. In short, they want art to be magic.

And, sometimes, just sometimes, it is. My most enduring memories of the all-too-rare transcendent art experience include Cai Guo-Qiang in Brisbane, Xu Bing’s magnificent Phoenix in New York, and Huang Yong Ping at Beijing’s Red Brick Art Museum. Which is not to say that I haven’t also seen some wonderful painting, most particularly in Beijing and Shanghai. No “Zombie Formalism” there. To my list of the extraordinary I can now add Zhang Xiaotao’s digital 3D animations at Pékin Fine Arts, in his solo exhibition In the Realm of Microcosmic. Two works, Sakya (2010–2011) and The Adventures of Liang Liang (2012–2013), were exhibited in the 55th Venice Biennale, in the China National Pavilion’s Transfiguration curated by Wang Chunchen.

Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya No. 4, Still Image, 80 x 144 cm, 2010 - 2011, image courtesy Peking Fine Arts Beijing

Zhang Xiaotao. Sakya No. 4, 2010-2011; still image; 80 x 144 cm. Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing.

With references ranging from video-gaming software and science fiction to Tibetan thangka painting, sutras, and mandalas, Sakya reveals the struggle to retain spirituality in today’s modernizing, materialist China. It centers upon a significant Buddhist temple in Tibet partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Past and present overlap and the experience is hypnotizing, immersive, and very beautiful. Zhang Xiaotao says his utopia would be a “Buddhist Renaissance” in China, believing that people have lost their way in the chaos of urbanization and the frantic acquisition of material possessions. He incorporates a deep sense of history and reverence for tradition with a dizzying technical accomplishment using innovative approaches to technology.

In The Adventures of Liang Liang (2013), the artist animates his little son’s precociously wonderful and eccentric drawings, creating an engaging allegorical adventure in which cartoon characters, superheroes, deities, and traditional Chinese stories such as Journey to the West merge and overlap. His most recent work, Three Thousand Worlds (2014), creates an ambitious multilevel, multi-spatial representation of the Buddhist notion of the oneness of all things, the Three Realms, the intricate reciprocal relationship between the macrocosmic and microcosmic view of the universe. He is influenced by new theories in quantum physics and the way they challenge accepted notions of time and space as much as by the philosophies of his mentor, Xu Bing. Joseph Beuys’ philosophy of “social sculpture,” in which the artist breaks down barriers between artwork, artist, and audiences, is a significant influence. Zhang Xiaotao believes the artist should be “like an alchemist.” On the evidence of this show, Zhang is a magician.

Zhang Xiaotao, The Adventures of Liang Liang, video, duration 11'49, image courtesy Pekin Fine Arts Beijing

Zhang Xiaotao. The Adventures of Liang Liang, 2013; video; 11:49. Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing.

A major event on the Beijing calendar each year at Pace Beijing has been Beijing Voice, which showcases current discourses and directions in contemporary Chinese art. This iteration, the fifth, was curated by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu with independent curator Cui Cancan. For their project Unlived By What Is Seen, they had 2,000 square meters of exhibition space to play with in Pace Beijing alone, as well as two other major Beijing galleries—Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art. The curators selected twenty-eight artists and three artist collectives to participate in an exhibition intended to interrogate relationships between the artist, the art object, and the audience.

Beijing Voice 'Unlived by What is Seen' Installation View image courtesy Pace Beijing

Beijing Voice: Unlived By What Is Seen; installation view. Courtesy of Pace Beijing.

They present works in support of a theoretical position: that there is a shift in focus from making art to taking action; a move away from the production of images and objects. Instead, the artists are “developing modes of existence that interrogate life itself,” according to the somewhat opaque publicity material. In many instances the result of this is an artist-as-talking-head narrating personal stories or aspects of daily life to a video camera. Unsurprisingly, some of these are much more interesting than others. The documentation of performance works offered little that seems new. Sun Yuan volunteered to allow the artist Zhao Zhao to stab him once in the back with a knife. I think we may have seen this once or twice before.

Performance art is undeniably significant in the development of contemporary art in China, and is well documented. A consistent thread within this history focuses on a punishing, ritualized inscription of suffering upon the body. He Yunchang famously had his own rib surgically removed and made into a piece of jewelry with the addition of 400 grams of gold. Art historian Gao Minglu suggests that the overt violence that characterized performance art in the 1980s revealed, intentionally or not, the “sorrows and disturbances hidden in the artists’ souls as they found themselves straddling cultural epochs and influences while trying to forge a new way.”[2]  In the Bohemian East Village artists’ community outside Beijing, artists such as Zhang, He Yunchang, and Ma Liuming were responding to a society increasingly focused on private wealth and ownership of commodities. They felt they could “own” nothing but their own bodies. Performative practices thus focused on the idea that the artist’s own body was his or her primary material. Existential, ritualized, their work explored ideas about shamanism, martyrdom, political violence, and highly contested notions (in a collectivist society) of the individual.

Rather than establishing something radically new, Unlived By What Is Seen appears to look back with a degree of nostalgia to this era before Chinese artists were subjected to the hype and hustle of the art market. The artists and their works are all but invisible behind a wall of theory. Unfortunately, this makes the works—or, rather, the traces left behind following the actions of the artists—seem like historical artifacts. Huang Yan’s My Life recorded everything in his daily life for more than two years, and the exact time at which they occurred. More than a hundred thousand events have been recorded so far. More interesting was the documentation of Homeshop, a defunct artist initiative located in an old Hutong neighborhood in the city center that operated as a locus for the exchange of ideas between artists, designers, and thinkers—relays between the public and the private. But even here, the museological display of objects, documents, and photographs conveys little of what I am sure was genuinely exciting for the participants.

Beijing Voice 'Unlived By What is Seen' installation view courtesy Pace Beijing

Beijing Voice: Unlived By What Is Seen; installation view. Courtesy of Pace Beijing.

Some works reveal an engaging Dadaist absurdity. Walk the Art Arena – No Survivors uses the local comedy genre of “Crosstalk” to cover thirty years of anecdotes about Chinese contemporary art, artists, exhibitions, business dealings, and events. Kang Jin’s Faster is subtitled I try to run in the flow of traffic on the highway—which, given Chinese highway traffic conditions, must surely come under the heading of self-sacrifice in the name of art. Wei Bingqiang collected hundreds of stones in a fruitless endeavor, asking the question, “Is it possible to find an entirely circular stone in the world?”

Young artists have always questioned the nature and purpose of art—where would the 20th century avant-garde have been without that? While there is no doubting the sincerity of the curators, or the artists, in their belief that they are challenging the hegemony of the art market and what they deem “ossified modes of making art,” by the time I left the last of the three galleries I was beginning to feel that Joseph Beuys has a lot to answer for. For me, at least, the base metals had not turned into gold.

[1] Robert Nelson, “Visual Arts Year in Review,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 31, 2014

[2] Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-garde in Twentieth Century Chinese Art (Cambridge MIT Press, 2011), 216–217.