China’s Contemporary Art Revolution
This year, we three students researched the development of China’s contemporary art. This topic includes the influences from the government, worldwide trends, and economical developments. The three of us used interviews and our own research to understand the situation, then wrote what we discovered. The contents of our written work differ a bit, because the phenomenons that we discovered through our research differed a bit. This includes the evolution of Beijing’s art districts, the influence of the censorship on Chinese art galleries, and one artist’s encounters and connection with Chinese laws. Of course, the three of us aren’t able to include all aspects of Chinese contemporary art in our blog. China’s history of contemporary art is fascinating, and we recommend that you research it some more if you’re interested!
Part I: The Art Communities of Beijing
The art community of Songzhuang, just a few hours drive outside of Beijing, sits in an unusual position right now. Just a few years ago, China, specifically Beijing, had the full attention of the art world (and the whole world in general) when the 798 Art District was at its peak popularity, and Ai Weiwei’s fight with the Chinese government reached its climax. Now, only a few years later, it would seem that both 798, the commercialized art zone focusing on new exhibitions and sales, and Songzhuang, the residential art zone supplying areas like 798 with the art that they sell, have lost both their spotlight and their spark. With a sprawling community covering a large amount of land, Songzhuang easily has the facilities to push China’s art scene to even further heights — whether it will, or not, remains unanswered.
The art community of Songzhuang has a longer history than many within modern Beijing; the Chinese government has gained infamy for their tendency to remodel and shape entire city districts to their pleasing overnight, and Beijing’s numerous art communities have been no exception. The areas of Yuanmingyuan and the Beijing East Village in particular were famously closed down during the 80s and 90s. Afterwards, many of the artists residing in both areas moved to the area of Songzhuang, which hasn’t suffered the same fate of the old art communities yet — and considering the size of Songzhuang, hosting up to 2,000 artists by some accounts, it probably won’t. Now that many artists have lived there for a long time, the attitude and environment of Songzhuang is laid-back to say the least.
Inside a small gallery within Songzhuang, I was able to meet with Mr. Hao, a Songzhuang local who’d been producing and selling artwork in the area for over two decades. My classmates and I inquired on how he viewed Songzhuang’s history, and how why he came in the first place. “It was back around 1985 when Yuanmingyuan became China’s art district, Beijing’s art district. But then in 1995, nobody could live there anymore. The area was taken. The police forced the artists out. And then all the artists — over a hundred of us in total, we all moved to Songzhuang. That was back in 1995. Of course, everyone came to Songzhuang to make artwork. The atmosphere was quiet, and because of that, the artists living here could continue to make art.” Mr. Hao’s answers were able to bring the image of Songzhuang more to life for me — it’s amazing to think how an area that started with a couple hundred residents grew to the area that Songzhuang is today. If there’s anything to be said about Songzhuang, it’s the endlessness of art-related infrastructure and housing. It’s really something to see.
While visiting Songzhuang with my classmates, we noticed how little traffic there was until the late afternoon, and how most businesses and galleries weren’t open until the afternoon. This sort of business practice was so unlike what’s considered the norm in Beijing that it really was a shock to see. From what we saw, it would be unfair to come to the immediate conclusion that today’s Songzhuang completely differs from the Songzhuang written about in recent years, but the few western sources and publications that have reached Songzhuang since it left the spotlight will report the same phenomenon: closed galleries, buildings under construction, a lack of spirit, and a strange impression of the area overall.
The reason that Songzhuang is so strange is because of its current status. Ai Weiwei, the resident of Songzhuang capturing the most worldwide attention, has left for Germany, and the publications that once rushed to report on Songzhuang have now ceased to spread any information on the area. These two factors, combined with the previously described lack of spirit, would lead one to think of Songzhuang as a declining community, or a stagnant one at least. If you were to visit the area today, though, that’s certainly not the impression that you’d leave with — from the number of new and under-construction studios, museums, galleries, and public infrastructures, Songzhuang couldn’t be further from a declining area. Songzhuang has lost its spotlight, but it’s now in the process of creating facilities to impress the world — these two truths greatly conflict with each other, and only time can tell what the result of such a great contradiction will be.
Part II: The Government’s Impact on Beijing’s Art Hubs
For practically everyone in Beijing, visitors, migrants, and locals alike, the number 798 should ring a bell. Beijing’s most famous art district got the world’s attention a few years ago when artist Ai Weiwei was at his peak fame and notoriety — for visitors now, though, the art scene at 798 is quite different from what one might think of as a major art district. Why did 798 go through such a change — and how has the Beijing art community responded to these changes?
I don’t mean to say that 798’s empty, or boring per se, but it would be impossible not to notice how how abandoned it seems to feel. As most Beijing locals will tell you, this is because of the commercialization that the area has gone through. During Beijing’s art boom around the early 2000s, 798 increased greatly in size, and its renown spread throughout all of Beijing, and eventually the rest of the world. Tourists and artists from all around the globe rushed to see Beijing’s new “art zone,” but as a result, the area commercialized greatly, and many of 798’s most popular artists left the scene. While there’s no shortage of art being sold in 798, many of the big exhibits and world-renowned artists that once characterized the area have left.
In the past three decades, there have been many major art districts around Beijing, several of which have been shut down or broken up by the government. In the 80s, the government essentially took over the art districts of Yuanmingyuan and the Beijing East Village, forcing the artists living there to disperse throughout the city. Many of the displaced artists found a new home in Songzhuang, an art community outside of central Beijing which began in the 80s and grew to be what’s now known as the largest residential art district in both China and the rest of the world. Much of the art that’s now sold and featured in 798 is said to have come the artists of Songzhuang.
I’ve just arrived in Songzhuang. Down the rest of this block, and as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but art supply stores, galleries, and small art schools. Songzhuang is just outside of Beijing proper, within a smaller area known as Tongzhou. Inside a small gallery, I was able to meet with Mr. Hao, a Songzhuang local who’d been producing and selling artwork in the area for over two decades. “It was back around 1985 when Yuanmingyuan became China’s art district, Beijing’s art district. But then in 1995, nobody could live there anymore. The area was taken. The police forced the artists out. And then all the artists — over a hundred of us in total, we all moved to Songzhuang. That was back in 1995. Of course, everyone came to Songzhuang to make artwork. The atmosphere was quiet, and because of that, the artists living here could continue to make art.” Mr. Hao also explained the main difference between 798 and Songzhuang — Songzhuang is able to house Beijing’s artists, and provide a space for them to work. 798, on the other hand, serves more as a place to sell their works. “Later, 798 grew a lot bigger. Because of commercialization, everything there began to cost more and more, and things became chaotic in the area. The art being made wasn’t as good anymore, and everything became too expensive, so many artists living there didn’t like it anymore. Some of the artists living there came to Songzhuang, the real heart of Chinese contemporary art. All the real Chinese contemporary artists live here in Songzhuang, but many will sell their work in 798.”
798 and Songzhuang aren’t the only two art districts in Beijing — other areas, like Caochangdi, continue to play an integral role in the exhibition and sale of Chinese artwork. It’s the two areas of Songzhuang and 798, however, that may have the most important role in keeping Beijing’s art alive. Songzhuang houses a myriad of artists who can conveniently use 798, just a couple hours away, as a marketplace for their artwork. Many new galleries have opened up in other areas of China, like Shanghai, where many believe the future of Chinese art may lie. The areas of 798 and Songzhuang face no threat, though, due to the success of their current business model, and the new techniques that artists have found to make a profit.
Part II: UCCA, Surviving the Censors
Does the term “art spy” mean anything to you? It does to hundreds of art galleries and museums in China. They know that these “spies” are actually government officials tasked with keeping tabs on art museums to make sure that the artwork falls within governmental standards-meaning no sex, nudity, Mao images, Tiananmen square references, or criticism of the government. Otherwise, any gallery could finds itself visited by the National Security Bureau, fined, and padlocked which forces these galleries to figure out ways to do their jobs while staying undisturbed by government authorities and censorship bureau. One example of how the threat of government censorship affects how well an art museum can go about completing that first objective is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). UCCA is a contemporary art museum in 798 that was founded by Guy Ullens, a Belgian art collector, and his wife Myriam. Since its official opening in 2007, UCCA has become one of the most renowned and important private museums in Beijing. Being a private institution, it is also self funded unlike most other art museums which are supported on the government dime.
Does this kind of self-sufficiency grant them respite from government interference? Maybe not. Recently I interviewed Alvin Li, a former editor of the famous art magazine LEAP, the current English editor of UCCA, and a curator for many of UCCA’s exhibitions. He confirmed that there are “local ministries that run through everything in 798 art district”, including UCCA, and expressed the opinion that “there isn’t much difference whether it’s a privately owned organization or a government owned one”. A closer analysis of UCCA’s history reveals that this statement has some truth to it.
Consider Ai Weiwei and his disagreement with the UCCA in 2014, when his name was omitted from press release statements for an upcoming exhibition honoring Hans Van Dijk, a well known curator and dealer and close friend and collaborator of Ai Weiwei. Disgusted at what he believed to be self-censorship on the part of UCCA, Ai Weiwei pulled two of his paintings from the exhibit. It appears that the UCCA top brass felt Ai Weiwei’s name and the controversy attached to it could lead to internet censorship courtesy of the government which could hurt the promotion of the exhibition, not to mention invite government interference. In a recording, of a conversation between Ai Weiwei and Philip Tinari, the director of UCCA, Tinari, in explaining to Ai Weiwei why the censorship was necessary says “It’s a decision I’m not allowed to make. You know, I’m a stupid foreigner, I shouldn’t even be in China, right?” This perfectly sums up UCCA’s position in China. They may be privately funded and owned, not to mention well respected, but they are not an island. They must still follow a certain set of rules or risk being censored or shut down.
In April of last year, Xi Jinpin passed the Foreign NGO Management Law which is expected to allow the Chinese government more control over non governmental institutions, which could pose a problem for the privately funded UCCA. This is especially alarming because in recent years, Guy Ullens has been considering selling the UCCA to new leadership which makes the future direction of the institution uncertain. Thus, despite the caution and intelligence in which the UCCA has approached the censorship laws, the institution could find itself on unsteady legs in the near future.
Part III: The Rise of Explicit and Sexual Chinese Artwork
If you walked into a gallery full of nude photography, would you be shocked? What if a photo pictured pink smoke blowing out of a woman’s vagina? Would you denounce it as pornography? Because this is a challenge that sexually explicit nude photographer Ren Hang has faced in China. Pornography has been banned in China since 1949 under a very vague legal definition. The dictionary’s definition only states that “men and women having sexual relations” is porn. This unclear definition of porn allowed people to heavily criticize Ren Hang’s photography and even allowed the government to confiscate his work.
Ren Hang was born in Liaoning China in 1987. He discovered his passion for photography around 2008 while studying advertising in college. Since then, his photography has gained worldwide acclaim. He has had solo exhibitions in Antwerp, Athens, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Marseille, New York, Paris, and Vienna. The bright colors and discombobulating composition in his nude photographs create a surreal, dream-like quality. Though they involve nudity, his photographs were more bizarre than erotic.
Western audiences may not have found his photography shocking or pornographic because there was a long history nude art in Europe, but his photography presented ideas that challenged China’s history of opposition to nude art. Nude art faced heavy censorship during the 20th century. In 1914, nude models first appeared in art schools, but stigma kept many from volunteering to model. China also banned pornography in 1949, and nude models were banned from art departments in 1964. During the Cultural Revolution, people condemned nude art as pornographic and bourgeois.
Although Ren Hang definitely challenged this conservative view of nudity, he never did so intentionally. According to Taschen, Reng Hang did not consider his work taboo, and said “I just do what I do.” He stated that part of his nude art’s message was “our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.” He also said “I do not think nudity is challenging — nudity is common, everybody has it” and that he photographed nude bodies because “it’s more natural if they’re not wearing clothes. His regarded nudity as natural, not something worthy of censorship. In his 2013 interview with Vice, he reasoned that “people come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people’s original, authentic look. So I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies”
So if his embrace of nudity opposed tradition, then where did it come from? Former coworkers offered an answer after Ren Hang’s suicide in February of 2017. Ren Hang published huge volumes of poetry about his depression before jumped off of a building in Berlin. His death devastated his fans and coworkers. Many claimed that he his work encapsulated his new emerging generation. Ai Weiwei, an esteemed Chinese artist who used to work with Ren Hang, told TIME that the superficiality and beauty for beauty’s sake in Ren Hang’s photographs “reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial.”
Ai may have been referring to the fact that Hang was born in 1987, and grew up when nude art was becoming more acceptable in China. For instance, artist Chen Zui released the first book in China about nude art theories in 1988 and sold 200,000 copies. That same year, nude portraits appeared in the national gallery of art for the first time and drew over 200,000 visitors in Beijing. These events marked a more open attitude toward nude art.
But from the 2000s through 2016, the Chinese government cracked down on pornography. According to TIME, the CCP wanted to ban pornography that included specific criminal acts but also banned porn for vague reasons like “too much touching.” None of Ren Hang’s photographs followed to the dictionary definition of pornography because they did not portray men and women having sexual relations, but the legal definition of art remained inconsistent enough for his show to be shut down on the suspicion that their might be sexual images involved. He was also arrested for his outdoor photoshoots and almost all publishing houses refused to publish his work. He did not understand the reasons for his multiple arrests but it was supposedly for violating obscenity laws.
The unclear charges against Ren Hang and the censorship of his art revealed inconsistency within China’s ban on pornography. Ren Hang’s career also revealed that legal inconsistencies like this could skew the availability of art in China.
Part IV: How Censorship Shaped China’s Artwork