Chinese Contemporary Art – An Introduction – Part 2

In the first part of this series I covered the brewing pot that led to the Cambrian explosion that was the Chinese contemporary art world in the early 1980s.

In this post I will continue in that vein. I’m not sure how far I’ll get into the history with this post, but even if I don’t finish today I’ll continue with more posts in the future!

Let’s go back to the Star Exhibition of 1979. As mentioned in my first post, 23 artists who were not formally trained but on a show in Beijing. Although they weren’t formally trained it’s important to note that they had actually been trained. These artists were trained by artists who had already trained in the West.

During the opening of the show itself, only a few hours in, police arrived to shut the whole thing down. Naturally, our artists were not happy! So they took to the streets to protest. The result here was actually very positive! The government allowed them to reopen the show, officially, for a solid week later in the year at Beihai Park, Beijing in an exhibition space there.

The 1980s was a very different China, and resultantly the art world began to evolve in new and interesting ways.

Deng Xiaoping’s policies of openness made the entirety of China more receptive to outside influences. Some have called this China’s renaissance, and it was a period demarcated by feverish idealism and fanaticism. Many during this time began to use art to criticise the policies of the previous decades. In general, China became more willing and open to accept the artistic and cultural ideas of the West.

It was precisely the free-speaking critical nature of many Western works and thought-patterns that enthralled Chinese book audiences during the 80s, where hundreds of Western books were translated and many became national best-sellers. It was during this period that you began to see serious Chinese rebels, not least of all in the art world.

One of the big things that made these artists different to their Western counterparts was their experiences in creating a running social movements. Artists all over China during the 1980s would get together to form movements which experimented with different styles and media, whilst supporting one another functionally and emotionally. The support also came from major publications and art institutions, enabling creativity to thrive. Critics agreed that the traditional styles were incapable of supporting the country’s new direction.

All this led to the 85 New Wave Movement. This term was originally created by Gao Minglu. Although the name includes ‘85’, the movement actually flourished all the way through from 1985 to 1989. The movement was really quite enormous. It involved more than 2,250 individual artists, grouped into around 80 completely self-organised group units. Each group would come together to organise exhibitions, hold conferences and write manifestos.

The 85 New Wave Movement was really important in the development of Chinese contemporary art. Over that period approximately 150 exhibitions were held, so it was a real thriving, pulsing time for new works and the spreading of new ideas.

Thanks for reading this second instalment in my introduction to Chinese contemporary art. As suspected, I have a looong way to go to fully explain the history of this incredible field. I hope you’ll join me soon for part 3.