By Shuhan Liang
Translated by Rebecca Catching
近几年来，当代艺术领域出现了大小不一的数次回顾前卫艺术性质的文献展览。与其说这些展览是某位艺术家或流派的常规性回顾展，毋宁说是对70年代末至90年代初这一特定历史时段的”前卫艺术”进行的整体性怀旧。几次较有代表性的此类展览包括：西安美术馆举办的《”皮相之下” 中国当代艺术再启蒙系列展：从1979到1984》（2015年8月8日至2015年9月6日）、中间美术馆（北京）举办的《失调的和谐：二十世纪八、九十年代之交东亚艺术观察》（2017年11月04日-2018年02月04日），以及该馆此前的《沙龙沙龙：1972－1982年以北京为视角的现代美术实践侧影》（2017年01月07日 – 2017年05月07日）；红砖美术馆（北京）的《温普林中国前卫艺术档案之八〇九〇年代》（2016年11月05日-2017年03月05日）；OCAT（北京空间）举办的《关于展览的展览：90年代的当代艺术展示》（2016年6月26日-10月30日）、龙美术馆的《十年(1979—1989)龙美术馆藏中国当代艺术展》（:2016年12月29日—2017年9月5日）等。
These past few years within the realm of contemporary art we have seen quite a few large-scale retrospective exhibitions focusing on documentation and archival materials from the period known as the “Chinese Avant-Garde.” These exhibitions, however, are not merely the routine retrospectives of an artist or a particular movement, rather they view this particular historical period—from the 70s to the 90s—through the rosy “red” lens of nostalgia. Several representative exhibitions of this genre include: “Re-enlightenment: Chinese Contemporary Art from 1979-1984” at the Xi’an Art Museum (August 8, 2015-September 9, 2015), “Discordant Harmony: Observations of Artistic Practices in East Asia at the Transition between the 1980s and the 1990s,” (November 4, 2017-February 4, 2018) and “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972-1982, in Profile, a Beijing Perspective,” (January 7, 2017-May 7, 2017), both at Inside-Out Museum (Beijing), “WEN PULIN ARCHIVE OF CHINESE AVANT-GARDE ART OF THE 80s AND 90s,”(November 05, 2016-March 5, 2017) at the Red Brick Art Museum (Beijing), “An Exhibition about Exhibitions: Displaying Contemporary Art in the 1990s,” (June 26, 2016-October 30), OCAT Institute, (Beijing), and “Ten Years (1979-1989): the Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition from the Long Museum Collection” (December 29, 2016-September 5, 2017) Long Museum Shanghai (West Bund).
此类展览有两个最为明显的特征。首先无不带有一种浓烈的怀旧情绪，让观者沉浸在混合着大量想象的往昔；其二，此类展览试图用各种形式的文献构筑出前卫艺术在中国发展的完整叙述。当然，这种怀”前卫”之旧的展览也并非新近出现，也并不局限于中国大陆地区。1993年，由张颂仁和栗宪庭联合策划的《后89中国新艺术展》可谓滥觞。虽然该展推出的主要是当时刚刚在大陆兴起的波普艺术，但其价值起点无疑来自于”前卫”。二十年后，美国汉学家安雅兰、沈揆一夫妇在香港亚洲协会策划的《黎明曙光:1974至1985年中国的前卫艺术》通过呈现”星星”“草草”和”无名”三个地下艺术社团当年的创作情况，试图将前卫艺术描绘成一个决定历史走向的瞬间，再将这次展览打造成对这个瞬间序幕的忠实记录。时至今日，怀中国前卫艺术之旧已然成了”当代艺术”验明正身的虎符，特别是在西方国家的支持下，意识形态色彩变得更加浓重（甚至已经远远超出了艺术家们当年的预期）。2017年，美国古根海姆博物馆上演的《1989后的艺术与中国：世界剧场》更是直截了当地把中国艺术登上世界舞台和那个西方世界津津乐道的年份联系在了一起。当然，也有一些展览采用了间接的方式，遥指八、九十年代的中国前卫文化，例如泰康空间的《沈阳地下音乐1995－2002》（2016年3月17日-2016年5月14日）、今日美术馆（北京）的《”中国当代艺术最早见证——科恩夫人档案”文献展》（2017年4月29日- 2017年5月14日）、尤伦斯当代艺术中心举办的《戴汉志：5000个名字》（2014年5月24日 – 2014年8月10日）和《劳森伯格在中国、生存痕迹》（2016年1月24日 – 2016年3月13日）等。
This kind of exhibition exhibits two distinct features. The first is that these exhibitions invariably possess a strong nostalgic tendency, attempting to immerse the viewer in the past by evoking their sense of imagination. Secondly, this kind of exhibition seeks to construct a complete narrative of the development of the Chinese Avant-garde through different kinds of archival materials. Of course, this notion of “old” found within these nostalgic “avant-garde” exhibitions is nothing new, and they are not limited to Mainland China. The trend originated in 1993 when Johnson Chang and Li Xianting jointly curated “China’s New Art, Post 1989.” Although the exhibition presented mostly pop art, which was an emerging trend in the Mainland at the time, the starting point is undoubtedly the Avant-Garde. Twenty years later, the American Art Historians Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, (a husband and wife team) co-curated “Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art from 1974-1985,” at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, which explored the conditions of art production in China at that time, through the Stars Group, the Grass Society and the No Name Collective (a.k.a Wuming Collective). The exhibition tried to portray the “Avant-Garde” as a decisive moment, or historical juncture, and the exhibition presented itself as a faithful record of this juncture. Even to this day, the “nostalgizing” of the Chinese Avant-Garde has already, has been inscribed into history. These exhibitions acted as evidence and became like a signal from the emperor, that the troops of art history should move forward carrying the banner of this nostalgic narrative. Under the auspices of Western academics and curators, this “history” took on an obvious ideological flavor, (a flavor which was even more pronounced than the ideological leanings of the artists themselves.) In 2017, the Guggenheim’s “Art in China After 1989: Theater of the World,” using a characteristically Western perspective, seemed to almost gleefully connect China’s appearance on the global art stage with the events of 1989. Of course, there were also exhibitions which also used more indirect methods, pointing towards the avant-garde culture of the 80s and 90s, for instance, “Bio-archiving: Underground Music in Shenyang 1995-2002,” at Taikang Space, (March 17, 2016-May 14, 2016), “Joan Lebold Cohen’s Moment’s in China,” (April 29, 2017-May 14, 2017), the archival exhibition at the Today Art Museum (Beijing), “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names,” (May 24, 2014-August 10, 2014) and “Rauschenberg in China” (January 24, 2016-March 13, 2016) both at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.
除了在美术馆等非盈利机构此起彼伏之外，热衷于怀念这段历史的画廊也不在少数，例如博而励画廊即从2012年开始按照年代的顺序从1970年代末北京的无名画会开始梳理当代艺术的发展脉络，所举办的此类展览包括《张伟 – 1979 – 2012年的抽象画》《康万华﹣监狱制造：绘画1976-1978》《荒原系列2011-2013》（”星星画会”发起人之一黄鋭个展），在此不一一列举。
In addition to the art galleries and non-profit art centers, there are also a number of galleries who are keen on cherishing the memory of this historical period. For instance, Boers Li began in 2012, to roll out a number of solo shows from the No Name Group, all labeled according to the years in which the paintings were made as a means of understanding the trajectory of Chinese Contemporary Art—shows such as “Zhang Wei—The Abstract Paintings 1979-2012,” “Kang Wanhua—Made in Prison: drawings from 1976-1978,” and “The Waste Land Series 2011-2013” (a solo show of one of the founders of the Stars Movement, Huang Rui). I will not list all of them here.
The impetus driving these kinds of nostalgic exhibitions over the past few years, was a kind of anxiety about identity which was a result of the bewildering times which accompanied the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The financial crisis re-invented an important consumer demographic within the art market, in fact, their appearance can be seen as strong evidence of the market’s deep survival instinct. There were two attempts to rescue the market within the territory of contemporary art; the first was the “New Ink” craze (2010-2013), and the “Abstract Painting” trend which continues today. However by the 90s, “New Literati Painting,” and “New Ink Painting”—this general revamping of the genre of ink painting had already become an orthodox practice. But because the ink painting tradition has such deep roots, it would seem far-fetched to think that it was in a position to eclipse or replace contemporary art. Therefore though ink could provide a temporary solution; in the end, it couldn’t provide an escape from this predicament. In terms of the value which is attached to ink art and the additional value which is created through its sale and exchange, we can say that it has encroached upon the territory of contemporary art, which has begun to feel the squeeze of its presence. It seemed for a while, that the interest in abstract art might provide enough buoyancy to keep the flailing market afloat, but the abstract market is actually built on weak foundations. When we look at the roots of abstract art—be it the traditions of Japanese “Ukiyo-e,” or the misappropriation of symbols of other non-Western civilizations, or borrowing forms based on the fresh visual experiences brought on by Modernism (skyscrapers, gears, assembly lines or scientific imagery associated with the industrial culture)—after we’ve become immune to the freshness of these forms they become calcified into classical symbols. (For instance, they became the signature motifs of the paintings of Picasso, Mondrian, Man Ray, and Rothko). The meaning of these symbols, these works, is not unlike an insect trapped in a piece of amber, inherently linked to a distinct temporal moment. In this light, the abstraction, which we saw enveloping the Chinese art world at that time, was just a kind of fluke—a speculative behavior driven by the psychology of the collectors. But this game would not last long, and there is no need to rigidly ascribe some kind of mysterious meaning to these abstract paintings, as the ravenous consumption of these works was driven by speculative self-interest—an “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario where both collectors and dealers studiously avoided the topic of history. There is little we can say that might be in the least bit convincing, and, in fact, we mustn’t bother as contemporary art is urgently in need of some kind of real meaning to cling on to, to call its own. This meaning should be vested in its own internal system, and can’t be seen as a kind of compromise (after all the refusal to compromise is one of the core values of contemporary art.)
In short, after having experienced this era of confusion, contemporary art now needed a “shenfen zheng” or Chinese ID card, in order for it to meet the requirements of the market for differentiation. But in order to obtain an ID card it was necessary to first resolve the problem of the birth certificate. This proved to be somewhat difficult as the history of contemporary art is relatively short in comparison to other art forms; it is a category which was sort of grafted into art history, lacking its own standards or qualifications and its own historical trajectory. In addition, the unbridled emphasis on diversification—which is an inherent part of contemporary art—only served to increase the difficulty of creating a coherent definition. To use historical proof in order to justify the inherent value of Contemporary Art goes against the logic of contemporary art. This conflict is put in stark relief with the introduction of the market, which requires certain benchmarks and standards in order to function—benchmarks and standards which fly in the face of the cultural logic and ideology of the Contemporary art itself. As a result, many of the actors within the contemporary art ecosystem have chosen to create their own value, affixing themselves onto the mantle of contemporary art and the inklings of its origins, furthermore, the loss of this original source, has become an object of perpetual mourning.
Putting aside the awkward question of personal interest, in terms of principle alone there are two apparent rationales: the first is that in order for contemporary art to identify its roots and return to its native home, it needs a readymade “jiapu” (family tree) or “genealogy.” This would go some ways to answering the question of “Where did contemporary art come from?” and would perhaps allow it to gradually shake off its identity-based anxiety issues. Secondly, from this foundation, we can with some assurance, delimit the boundaries of the scope of Contemporary Art, to silence the question of “What is it?” and relieve ourselves of these anxieties in regards to its value. (Note: in 1994, critic, Yi Ying published the article “The Significance to Strive to Make It Clear,” in which he expressed his anxiousness over the fact that the escape from meaning had led to a divergence of art and society, Jiangsu Pictorial, vol.12, 1994.) As a result, art followed a pattern of differentiation based on how works were appraised by the market, while simultaneously occupying the high ground of the academic circle, with many apologists proselytizing for the “value” of Avant-Garde. However the bulk of the “historical” materials or retrospectives from the 80s and 90s, are characterized by this sentimental, literary nostalgia, aren’t they? These exhibitions staked their names on an analysis of history, but in fact, they simply outline a linear trajectory of contemporary art: stating that Chinese contemporary art was initiated in the 70s and 80s, with the Avant-Garde movement in the 80s, and the “contemporary art” which we speak of in the art world and academic circles is merely a continuation of this. This conclusion appears on the surface to seem more or less correct, but in actuality, it succeeds in burying a fairly central question, “What does Contemporary Art mean in China?”
从词源来看，”当代艺术”也许颇为出人意料。据2001至2003年的两次针对”当代艺术”名称使用频率的数据分析显示（数据采集自主要欧洲语言撰写的画册、图书、画廊印刷品、博物馆馆刊、拍卖行图录等于艺术相关文献），”当代艺术”这个名词被约定俗成地当做一个艺术类型来形容当前的、新潮的各种艺术形态是在1990年代（见，Terry Smith, The State of Art History: Contemporary Art, The Art Bulletin, Vol.92, No.4(December 2010), p.370）。而90年代初也正好是中国前卫艺术开始走出国门，登上世界艺术舞台的时期，因此必然是那些中国前卫艺术家们在半路上遇到了”当代艺术”，从此一拍即合，带着具有后殖民色彩的政治土特产——叛逆——改换门庭，当上了中国当代艺术的”开山鼻祖”。
From the standpoint of etymology, the term “Contemporary Art” seemed to appear quite suddenly on the scene. From 2001-2003, a data analysis of the frequency of the use of the word “contemporary art” (relying on data collected from catalogues, books, printed materials from galleries, museum publications, auction house catalogs, and other kind of archival materials written in European languages), the meaning of the word “contemporary art” was established to describe a type of art that was made at that time and applied to various fashionable art forms in the 1990s (see Terry Smith, The State of Art History: Contemporary Art, The Art Bulletin, Vol.92, No.4 (December 2010), p.370). The 90s is also the same decade that Chinese Contemporary Art began to emerge on the world stage. At the time of stepping out onto the stage, it was inevitable, that halfway down the road these “contemporary artists would encounter “contemporary art.” From this moment everything clicked into place for the Chinese Avant-Garde. The movement took on its own unique hue due to local, political, and post-colonial specificities, and a adopted a general sense of rebellion—which entailed switching allegiances in order to advance its standing in the world. It then became the progenitor of Chinese Contemporary Art.
It’s undeniable, yet sometimes treated as a somewhat superfluous detail that the overlap between “Chinese Contemporary Art” and “Contemporary Art” in the Western sense, was determined by China’s specific historical context. Therefore unlike the Western context, the relationship between modernism and postmodernism were quite different. The Chinese Avant-Garde and the Post-modern aesthetic specificities have been compressed into one. However, if we trace the origins of these ideas, the “Avant-Garde” and “Contemporaneity,” do not necessarily abide by similar values.
This is a historical fact. If we use the development of the latter to corroborate the value of the former, we need to return to the origins of the term “Avant-Garde.” As presented by Linda Nochlin in her incisive analysis, the basic difference between Courbet and the late 19th-Century academic salon artists who were the representatives of Modernism is that they chose to depict subjects which were visible to the eye, not mythological or biblical subject matter. (See Nochlin Realism, [xiandai shenghuo de yingxiong: lun xianshizhuyi], Guangxi Normal University Press, 2005. Therefore, no matter how the Avant-Garde was apotheosized after the fact, what it expressed at that time was first an undertone of pure rebelliousness. By contrast, there are two key differences between these exhibitions which conduct an analysis of history using the lens of the “old” born of a nostalgia for the Avant-Garde.
First, these kinds of exhibitions perform a kind of a “specimenzation” of the “Avant-Garde,” which view it as a single object to be studied and placed under glass. But keep in mind that this reconstruction is enacted through a distinctly-political framework. The exhibition concept is constrained by this simple mode of binary opposition. Or perhaps more precisely, the “Chinese Avant-Garde,” throughout the constant process interpretation, publicity, and retrospectives, has gradually become politicized. Beyond the Cold War mentalities, this politicization was also related to the shared ideological currents in the greater Western cultural sphere in the 1980s and 90s. For instance, there was the rise of Post-Colonialism, multiculturalism and political correctness. Today, what is constructed through the continued reflection upon the past, using old photographs, archives, and historical materials, is an exotic landscape hand-tinted with Post-colonial colors. This principle is the same as the exotic landscape of a consumer society, where we are faced with the unavoidable reality of being replaced by symbols. The result is that “Contemporary Art” merely maintains its ideological tone, and becomes more and more of an incestuous clique. Its forms become more and more calcified, and it is this calcification which obstructs its richness, its polysemic nature, creativity, and inclusivity—concepts which are at the core of its original intentions. This calcification ignores the fact that the final purpose of Contemporary Art, is not only to transmit political information, or broadcast certain values; this cannot be the sole pursuit of art.
不过，与这种怀旧气息相对的是创新。也是在过去的一年，当代艺术似乎变得周全了许多，很多美术馆、画廊、策展人、艺术家们也开始将自己的实践更加牢固地挂靠”创新”概念（例如上海当代艺术博物馆举办的”身体•媒体II”；尤伦斯当代艺术中心举办的”例外状态：中国境况与艺术考察 2017”；今日美术馆举办的”.zip未来的狂想 | 小米∙今日未来馆”等），使用大量新媒体、装置、互联网、移动客户端、虚拟现实等科技元素，一洗”中国前卫”的政治旧尘，跳出带有政治色彩的二元对立的固化思维，更重要的是也能与当前鼓励创新创意的大政方针保持一致了，然而，这是否预示着当代艺术找到了价值归宿，还需假以时日的观察。
What is ironic about this situation is that the rejection of classical art, is one of the central tenets of the Avant-Garde, but these exhibitions use classical approaches in presenting the “Avant-Garde” to the viewer. This reverence for the classical model of exhibition making is really a deviation, or erosion of the values of the Avant-Garde rather than an affirmation. However, the opposite of this nostalgic aura which permeates these exhibitions, is innovation and in the past year, we have seen many art museums, galleries, curators and artists focus their practice on creativity and innovation (for instance the exhibition “Body•Media II”) at the Shanghai Power Station of Art, “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017” at UCCA and “.zip FUTURE RHAPSODY XIAOMI · FUTURE of TODAY” at the Today Art Museum—all of these exhibitions using a lot of new media, installation, the internet, mobile clients, VR and other technological elements. Once we wipe the layer of political dust off of the China Avant-Garde, we can escape this calcified thinking—characterized by binary opposition with political undertones. At the same time, this “creativity” seen within the art world is in tune with the “creativity and innovation” rhetoric which has become a new pillar of state policy, (fearing a looming unemployment crisis, the government has been conveniently pushing freelancing and the creative industries—hoping that the creatives, who were previously viewed as ne’er-do-wells, will employ themselves and create new jobs for others.) In any case, rhetoric aside, the real creativity we are seeing within the Chinese art world today foreshadows the return of contemporary art to its original value system, where it can be gradually observed and studied over the course of time, and not locked in a prison of nostalgia.