New York is a world away from the main centers of Chinese contemporary art, but one private organization, AW Asia, is building bridges between the crucial New York art market and the singular talents of Chinese artists by promoting their work, loaning important pieces to major museums, and planning events to bring both sides closer in a 21st century exchange of visual ideas. AW Asia’s director Taliesin Thomas and the organization’s founder, Larry Warsh, are on a mission to guide the rest of us to a better understanding of Chinese contemporary art. Their efforts include the publication of authoritative guides on a constantly evolving subject, as well as public installations of Chinese art around the city.
I was personally curious to learn more about the emergence of Chinese contemporary art since its international debut in the early 90s. Why, I wondered, did a series of important Chinese exhibitions quietly take place around the world in 1993, the centennial year of Mao’s birth? Why not earlier with the launch of economic reforms that began in 1978? The answer, it turns out, involved a great deal of recent history. Luckily for me, Ms. Thomas, a Master’s candidate at Columbia University’s East Asian Studies program, and a sometime China expat, was well-equipped to answer all my questions.
“The impact of the Cultural Revolution cannot be disregarded,” Ms. Thomas explained, referring to the decade-long upheaval launched by Mao and his key henchmen to purge his ranks, “The megalomaniacal behavior of Mao Zedong, the trauma that caused for people in their everyday lives, are now finally being looked at in greater detail.” Those footnotes from the Mao years and the era of economic reforms, Ms. Thomas believes, are in plain sight in the works of Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and other contemporary artists. These are stories deeply welled inside those who witnessed what the rest of us merely read about in history books, but in a development of international scale, they are at last surfacing in a visual storytelling that is drawing the attention of art collectors in Asia as well as the West.
By the 1980s, China’s social landscape was changing. Deng Xiaoping’s early experiment with capitalism was brimming with success, and optimistic art groups emerged, drafting manifestos calling for change in a new China. But the flowering of hope also quickly dissipated for many in their ranks, when democratic aspirations were dashed in an event that mirrors the crackdown in today’s Egypt. China, it turned, out, had not changed at all.
“This was all before Tiananmen,” Ms. Thomas pointed out, “but after the incident, artists turned introspective.” They continue to quietly voice their protest through the symbolic gestures found in their works of Cynical Realism or Political Pop. Meanwhile, and despite the drawbacks of a stifling political climate at home, Chinese artists who once lived abroad continue to repatriate to the motherland to make important contributions. Ai WeiWei collaborated with Swiss architects for the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, and Cai Guo-Qiang worked on the visual effects of the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Do Chinese contemporary artists still have reasons for the optimism that once defined them 25 years ago?
“China boasts a fantastic human timeline, and a 5,000-year uninterrupted art narrative,” Ms. Thomas reminded me of the vast scale of the world’s oldest continuing civilization. “China plays a significant role in humanity, and we all have an interest in where the country is going.”
And where exactly is China going? What mood is the country in right now? Today’s news can only guess tomorrow’s China, or report on the Beijing of 5 minutes ago. But I’ll have to agree with one of AW Asia’s – and Ms. Thomas’– premises. If you want to know where China is now, take a good look at Chinese contemporary art. The answers are all there, and you can find them through AW Asia’s calendar throughout the year. Past events have included short courses on Chinese contemporary art, and special exhibitions with artists in attendance. For more information, click here.