Melissa Chiu

BEFORE MELISSA Chiu became the Director of New York’s Asia Society Museum in 2004, she was the first curator of contemporary Asian art in the US. Her biggest challenge, then, was pretty basic — convincing people that there was such a thing as Chinese contemporary art.

With the subsequent huge interest in Chinese art in the international art world, Chiu’s new book, Chinese Contemporary art: 7 Things You Should Know, keeps it as basic. An excellent primer for those curious about art across the border, it is the place to begin reading about the art movement that began in China in 1979, coinciding with Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy. Artists groups and collectives flourished briefly. Even state-run art schools and the government produced influential figures.

But, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4 June, 1984, the Chinese Government again tightened its control. Artists continued to work, organising shows in homes but also often in public, braving government crackdowns. Many artists of that generation, such as Ai Weiwei, one of China’s bestknown artists, left the country — beginning a trend of art that has been exclusively displayed abroad. Unlike Indian art, which is mostly bought by South Asians and NRIs, the majority of buyers for Chinese art were in the US and Europe, until about three years ago. This has influenced Chinese art, Chiu says, as much as government censorship. “Artists from the Political Pop movement are forced to continue producing work of that style, instead of allowing themselves to move forward.”

By 1998, when artist Ma Liuming walked nude, lip-sticked, long-haired, androgynous, on the Wall of China until his feet bled, the West was waking up to Chinese avant-garde. In fact, later that year, when Ma Liuming was arrested for a quieter performance (cooking potatoes in the nude in his courtyard, while another artist photographed him) in Beijing’s — since bulldozed — artist commune, the East Village, his detention was extended due to Western attention on the incident.

Chiu says that taboos, such as those around nudity, are not culturally embedded in China; they have been determined by the state. But, as in many other societies, people are willing to avoid crossing lines drawn in sand. (At the recent India Art Summit, the organisers voluntarily decided not to exhibit MF Husain.) Chinese artists understand that nudity, violence and politics are to be avoided to escape police attention. This is true even after 2000, when the state changed its attitude to art and even began collecting experimental contemporary art in major museums around China. It is a mark of the times that the loquacious Ai Weiwei, back in China for a while, was involved in the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

“While promoting trade relationships, China would like to show that it is a more liberal society than the West imagines it to be,” says Chiu, explaining recent state-organised shows of Chinese contemporary art in the West. “They are extravaganzas meant to impress you, like the Olympics.” Though, she concedes, it remains a way by which many people see contemporary Chinese art for the first time.

Chiu’s book also acquaints the reader with a greater diversity of Chinese art. Yue Minjun, among the most widely recognised contemporary Chinese artists, paints his own face, always frozen in toothy laughter, on multiple figures. In Execution, for instance, this disturbing joy is the face of a firing squad as well as of those being shot. Political Pop and Cynical Realism (the movement Minjun is associated with) are the best-known Chinese art movements in the West. But, Chiu points out that experimental art in China today has pre-occupations other than the Cultural Revolution and is exploring newer media. An example is Cui Xiuwen, a conceptual photographer and video artist. She is best known for her Angel series — works featuring a rather bruised Chinese schoolgirl — and her 2002 video installation, Lady's Room, a six-minute video recorded on a concealed camera in a crowded loo in an upmarket Beijing disco. The video sparked legal controversy but also debate about a society in transition.

While Chinese and Indian art is often discussed in the same breath, Chiu cites a major difference. “When India became independent, there was a reclaiming of traditions. But, in China, young people destroyed historical art during the Cultural Revolution. So, the leaning towards conceptual art is heavily grounded in that intellectual understanding of a departure from the past.”

There has been a similar timeline in the internationalisation of Indian and Chinese art. “Historically, art went from the studio to the gallery, and to the auctions only much later in the artist’s career. That’s why auctions were called the secondary market. But, with Chinese and Indian art, this process has been much, much faster. And now, Damien Hirst has followed suit,” Chiu grins, referring to the British artist who created shockwaves by creating work exclusively for a Sotheby's auction in September, bypassing dealers and galleries.

THE AUCTION house seems to give greater control to the artist. But does it really? At a Sotheby’s auction earlier this month, buyers passed over superstars like Yue Minjun and Subodh Gupta for more affordable South East Asian artists. Chiu is placid about this, saying the dip should balance out against the recent buying frenzy.

Allowing auctions to be acid tests of artistic careers blinds one to complex systems of validation. “Artists occupy multiple spaces. Our understanding of their place in history is multilayered, through critical appreciation of their work, through private and public collections, through museums. Some occupy a privileged position in non-profit spaces; others do well in Biennales.”

Simultaneously, Chiu is very positive about the prosperity and power that internationalisation has brought to Chinese and Indian artists. As importantly, it allows artists to live in places other than New York, Paris and London and still be seen as important artists — a cultural revolution of another kind.

(published here)


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