Few nations like China have changed so much so fast in the past few decades. The title of White Rabbit’s exhibition, Reformation, conjures up 1970s era of reforms, which brought China into the global marketplace. ‘Reformation’ in the post-Mao period is a broad topic in contemporary Chinese society, incorporating a complex historical, political and cultural anxiety.
The question is what is the connection between ‘reformation’ and contemporary Chinese art? The answer lies in the sheer diversity of works, rather than an overriding political concern. Chinese contemporary art can be analyzed into two parts: Chinese and contemporary. First, assimilation is not a new phenomenon in today’s Chinese society, indeed art and popular culture is under the influence of globalization. Due to this reason, a large section of non-Chinese art lovers have still looked at Chinese contemporary art through tinted glasses, unable to separate curiosity about the public and political sentiments about China from the value of artwork itself.
I’m not a fan of guided exhibition tours, however when I was visited the White Rabbit, my curiosity about how Western people interpret these artworks compelled me to join a tour. What I foresaw happened: the tour guide explained almost every artwork in terms of political ideology. That is, China remains a red state were everything can be traced back to the Cultural Revolution and an idyllic western conceptualization of power.
It could be argued that all art objects concern themselves explicitly or implicitly with identity, whether geographical, ethnical, class, generational, political, or personal. The production and presentation of art and the surrounding discourses plays an important role in the shaping of identity. On the first floor a number of works criticize China’s politics. Zhou Zixi’s Dawn-Light Fog for example, is a painting about the 4th June, 1989, student protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square. The artist uses light tawny color with blurring stroke to depict the tank and panic-stricken people in Tiananmen Square. The caption describes this artwork as a metaphor of how much time and censorship the government erased with this historical incident. However, for me, part of a new generation in China born in 1991 and has no experience of the revolutions, I will not forget any of the painful and censored history of China.
Art can sometimes be a battle field instead of a utopian dream. There are many ways in which exhibitions function as a narrative ‘written’ by curatorial choices. How much ‘fact’ and how much ‘fiction’ go into such representations of identity or a country’s ‘reformations’? How much can we rely on art to tell us the ‘truth’? As Adorno argues in the Aesthetic Theory, there are twofold essences in the productive process of art, that is, a dialectical unity of autonomous entity where artists independently determine the directions of art, and social fact, where societal forces perform this function.
For some of the artworks, the interpretation can be entirely different depending on whether one has an objective view or a subjective view. Wang Zhiyuan’s installation work Close to the Warm consists of thousands of Chinese characters on tiny strips of paper attached to the wall, crawling like insects around a light bulb that occupies the entire right-hand wall and spreads to the ceiling of the gallery. When I walked close to these ‘insects’, these little paper scrip appeared in its own name: “Search, idle away, stroke, frozen, anger, day and night, tall, hazy, miss, cloud…” There are thousands and thousands of words with no logical connection around me, yet it feels like as through they are all connected in a metaphysical way. The adjacent work is He Yunchang’s One Meter of Democracy. This is the most radical and nerve-cracking work of the exhibition. The artwork is a documentation of a performance. The artist asked 25 people to vote on whether he should get a surgeon to make a meter-long incision down his side without anesthetic. He kept asking until the vote was positive, then records the operation. People have to keep voting until all the answers were yes, showing a true reflection of China’s political environment. However, the artist didn’t write any manifesto or petition based on his work, therefore it is unfair for the artist to mislead his work in such a narrow way. Doesn’t the work force the viewer to question how much an artist can suffer to create an artwork?
Why do the Western critics like to interpret Chinese artwork through politics? First, this habit traces back to the Cold War, but it has been extended to the era of globalization. The human rights issue has often been a sticking point between China and Western society. Western criticism of China’s human rights violations dovetails with its utopian belief in the radical artist whose words can change his or her society. Ai Weiwei’s actions fit into this scenario perfectly. He is out of no question the most famous Chinese artist in the global art market. Secondly, Western artists are often labeled as liberators or edgy rebels since the Modernism movement. The artist in China criticizes the unjust political environment through his or her artwork is congruent with this idea. Thirdly, it could be a commercial marketing strategy or curatorial strategy for a gallery to emphasize the political ideology. The horror scenes in China’s political environment help us understand what it is that terrifies us and how much freedom means to us in the world we live in.
In general, Reformation presents the chaotic development of China in the past decades, and introduces the new stage of contemporary art that China has entered. The dilemma for every non-western artist is: how to be recognized in his or her own terms as an individual instead of a political protestor or a culture postcard? However, I believe it is not and never will be the job of an artist to change other country’s stereotypes. It is required of us to interpret the artworks in an impartial and deliberate way.