Issue Number: 116
The Hayward Gallery focuses on China’s installation art in a new show that explores its place in contemporary art. Philip Dodd reports
It is a truth universally acknowledged that as a country gains global economic power, the rest of the world begins to be fascinated by its culture. It happened last century with the US; now it’s China’s turn. While Berlin, Paris, New York were all quick to respond, Chinese contemporary art only had its first major survey show in London as recently as 2008, at the Saatchi Gallery.
Now the Hayward Gallery presents ‘Art of Change’ focusing on installation art of eight Chinese artists spanning several generations. The challenge for London audiences lies in understanding the cultural context in which the works were produced. Many of China’s most radical artists, for example, want to memorialise aspects of China that are fast passing away. Years ago, I visited Ai Weiwei at his studio and saw the columns from an old temple spilt across the floor. Contemporary China too easily disposes of its past, he told me.
Wang Jianwei, 'Still from Making Do with the Fakes', 2011. © Wang Jianwei 2012/Image courtesy of the artist and Long March Space.
It’s worth noting that as recently as the 1980s Chinese artists had very limited access to art of the West. Instead art from China has had its own cultural resources. In 1989, the seminal show ‘China/Avant-Garde’, at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, featured 186 artists from across China and historically it was far more important than Damien Hirst’s ‘Freeze’ in 1988. We need to know about the sheer variety of art in China since Mao’s death in 1976 in order to know what counts now.
Some Chinese installation art has come out of the art performance scene in Beijing in the 1990s. And some of it is large and theatrical, confirming Western stereotypical views that China is big and brash. But not much has been seen in Britain. The Hayward should help remedy the situation in showing work by very different artists. There is work from older artists such as Chen Zhen (1955-2000), one of the first crop of Chinese contemporary artists to exhibit in London – at the Serpentine Gallery in 2001. The show includes his Purification Room (2000) in which a room full of everyday objects – TV, fridge, shopping trolley – was covered with mud, turning it into a futuristic archaeological dig. Wang Jianwei (b.1958), a marvellously iconoclastic and cerebral artist, is showing his multi media-video installation, Making Do with the Fakes (2011, left) in which visitors to a table tennis hall are invited to hit just one ball across the table.
There will also be work from younger artists such as Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, born in the 1970s. Their installation, Old People’s Home (2007), in which look-alikes of elderly world leaders in wheelchairs bump into one another, was a hit at the Saatchi show.
Let us hope that the differences between the artists are acknowledged: to have left China in the 1980s, as did Chen Zhen, who moved to France, is to have a different history from Wang Jianwei, who stayed and lived through dark times, and different again from those who grew up with Deng Xiaoping’s ‘opening up’ policy in the late 1970s.