In 1997, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei published a photograph showing Tiananmen Square blocked out by his middle finger. He titled his image Study in Perspective, in a phrase making a provocative statement out of an obscene gesture. Formulating his contempt for power in a manner akin to a classical painter extending a digit to reckon proportions, Ai suggested that the individual artist might eclipse even the most oppressive government.
A mere eight years had passed since the notorious Tiananmen Square massacre. In that period, contemporary art emerged as one of China’s most open forms of personal expression and most conspicuous economic exports, developments that have since precipitously accelerated. At least within the contemporary art world, China today boasts most-favored-nation status. Yet while this has brought deserved attention to important artists such as Ai, Xu Bing and Jian Wang, the hyperbole and hullabaloo also threaten to trivialize their achievements, particularly in the West, by associating them with the superficiality and opportunism favored by too many of their countrymen.
Most contemporary Chinese art would scarcely attract notice were it made anywhere else. The field’s foremost collector, Swiss industrialist Uli Sigg, essentially admitted as much in an interview several years ago, when he said that he wasn’t necessarily interested in great art. “My ultimate object of study is China,” he told curator Matthias Frehner when his collection was exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Bern. And in those terms, he and collectors such as Kent and Vicki Logan of Vail, Colo., succeed perhaps too well, for many of their acquisitions simply reflect the machinations of Chinese capitalism. To look at a painting by Wang Guangyi, for instance, is to witness Chinese expertise at designing products for Western consumption.
Wang is the most prominent painter of so-called Political Pop. By the late ’90s, his paintings juxtaposing socialist realism with capitalist branding had become visual shorthand for the Chinese avant-garde, illustrating nine out of 10 foreign articles on the subject, as once calculated by the curator Karen Smith. Wang’s formula is as neat as the propaganda art he mimics: In the graphic style of a poster promoting the Cultural Revolution, cheerful workers stand beside the logo for Coca-Cola or Chanel or Planter’s Peanuts. Chairman Mao has been supplanted by consumer goods, which are as mindlessly pursued as the Great Leap Forward. As a one-time political cartoon, it’s a clever conceit, but the only way these paintings add up to more than that is in terms of Wang’s annual income.
The American and European popularity of these paintings—or works such as the Luo Brothers’ kitschier Welcome to the World’s Famous Brands series—is really a by-product of Western anxiety about China and the intense desire to understand the motivations of a people perceived by Westerners as once furtive and formidable. These paintings appear to provide answers, but what seems to be a window is actually a mirror: Wang’s paintings resonate for Western audiences because he has astutely perceived what we want to see and produced it in boldly fashionable colors on great swaths of canvas. Political Pop is ultimately a sort of postmodern Orientalism, postmodern above all because the “Orientals” are the ones producing it. What we see of China is China’s perceptiveness about the West.
Of course, other painters, as well as photographers and new-media artists, are more straightforward. The skillfully figurative canvases of Liu Xiaodong, for example, give painterly attention to mundane situations composed like snapshots. Men gather crabs on a beach. A fat boy leans against his grandparents’ Mercedes. There’s information to be gleaned from these pictures, as well as some aesthetic pleasure, as is the case with Weng Fen’s technically accomplished photographs of schoolgirls posed in front of developing cities, always facing away from the camera as if surveying their high-rise future. The question is whether this is worthy of sustained attention. Were the same work to show a more familiar situation, would we not dismiss it as cliché?
Eye-catching exoticism isn’t enough, nor is the grittier photojournalism of Xiong Wenyun, celebrated for documenting endangered villages on the logging roads that run from China to Tibet. To look at Chinese art merely as a means of decoding China is demeaning, as is the oft-stated excuse of Western commentators that the Chinese have had only a couple of decades to discover modernism and shouldn’t be held to the same standards as our own artists.
It is true that China was cut off from the West for several significant decades of art history, and that—as was powerfully shown in the Asia Society’s recent show Art and China’s Revolution—Chinese art became synonymous with propaganda when Mao banished both Asian tradition and modernist innovation in favor of socialist realism imported from the Soviet Union in the ’50s. And it is true that the first exhibition to challenge this hegemony, illicitly hung on a fence outside the China National Art Gallery in 1979, was immediately suppressed, the painters’ naive attempts at Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism deemed an outbreak of bourgeois liberalism by party leaders. But it is also true that the first contemporary show in that state museum, installed by Xu Bing in 1988, remains one of the finest, a landmark by any standards. Xu designed 4,000 Chinese characters with no semantic meaning, carving blocks with which he printed a library of unreadable texts, collectively titled A Book From the Sky. Inscrutable to the point of being beyond criticism, the work spoke volumes about the cultural consequences of censorship: Language not freely expressed will atrophy to gibberish.
A Book From the Sky was produced before Westerners were an audience for contemporary Chinese art—let alone the primary market—and there’s obviously much to Xu’s work that an American or European might not understand without research. For example, some of the writing is hung from scrolls on the walls, a traditional way of stating dissenting opinions in China. From the standpoint of salability at Sotheby’s, this might be a liability. But from the perspective of art history, it’s an asset of immeasurable worth, contributing thousands of years of Chinese history to the semantic reach of contemporary art.
When Mao banned both the traditional and the modern, he inadvertently allied the two in a way that has no parallel in the West. And while the propaganda of his own era can merely settle into satire, kitsch into camp, the richly symbolic languages of Chinese traditionalism and contemporary Conceptualism can communicate with each other, and even communicate together, as a genuinely new voice.
Artists including the New York-based expatriates Zhang Huan and Cai Guo-Qing, as well as Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Dali, have brought this potent confluence to media ranging from painting to performance, yet no one exemplifies it as convincingly as Beijing artist Jian Wang. Since 1995 Jian has explored the ancient Chinese tradition of decorating urban gardens with jianshanshi—rocks that look like mountains in miniature—symbolically bringing nature into the city. Observing the jarring juxtaposition of jianshanshi placed in front of Beijing’s emerging skyscrapers, Jian proposed to replace them with artificial jianshanshi constructed from stainless steel. He has since created hundreds of these sculptures, often 10 feet tall, by pounding steel sheets over the original jianshanshi and welding the shaped plates together to create a hollow copy. His Artificial Jianshanshi are then buffed to a perfect polish. Set outdoors, they reflect their urban surroundings twisted and bent to the stone’s natural contours.
Jian calls stainless steel “an ideal medium to convey new dreams,” and in effect, his mirroring jianshanshi reconfigure the towering cityscape as a hallucinatory pastoral in which skyscrapers warp into glass and concrete mountain peaks. Nature is evoked, even as we perceive our separation from it. If ancient jianshanshi provided solace, Jian’s rocks manipulate that tradition to conjure more complex emotions appropriate to more complicated conditions.
Like Ai’s extended middle finger eclipsing the gates to the Forbidden City, Jian’s Artificial Jianshanshi are studies in perspective, both visual and historical. Even if an individual artist cannot literally shape urban development, let alone topple a government, contemporary Chinese art can uniquely challenge people’s perceptions, in China and the West, by conceptually leveraging millennia of tradition.