BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 01 JAN 09
Featured in
Issue 120

The Big Issue

The popularity of enormous sculptures created by Chinese artists has little to do with a rigorous engagement with ideas or materials

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 01 JAN 09

Xu Zhen, Untitled (2007)

Bigger doesn’t always mean better: that’s just common sense. But the popularity of massively proportioned art projects in Beijing over the last two years has proved that an obsession with size still grips many contemporary Chinese artists. It’s hard to pinpoint quite how and when this trend for creating oversized, material-based art works emerged. We all know that the days when artists had to make do with rented, makeshift basements or their own apartments as temporary exhibition spaces are over.

The artist Zhang Huan, whose signature performance piece from 1994 (12 Square Metres) – which involved him squatting in a 12 square metre public toilet naked and covered in honey, fish oil and flies – is now the proud owner of a studio of around 75,000 square feet on the outskirts of Shanghai, where a team of about 100 are employed churning out his works. Some of his most recognizable pieces today are massive and involve a considerable amount of labour: for instance, a towering statue of Buddha, made of incense ashes (Berlin Buddha, 2007), or a stuffed donkey penetrating a tilted miniature of the Jin Mao Tower (the foremost landmark in Shanghai and which was, until recently, the tallest building in China). The donkey’s enormous steel phallus moves in and out of the Tower when the installation is switched on, creating a jarring sound (Donkey, 2005).

Despite their size, Zhang’s works have been collected by many international museums and collectors. Zhang isn’t the only artist willingly to have embraced the optimism of China’s fast-growing art market and the affordability of generous studio space and cheap labour. In Beijing, many artists, both established and emerging, have sought out and occupied large expanses of land, warehouses or disused factory compounds in the suburbs, and set up what often amounts to an industrial production line, as though an artist’s success could be gauged in terms of the number of square metres his studio takes up and the scale of his enterprise. This use of excessive amounts of physical space has, in turn, exerted a profound impact on the nature of many artists’ output. Some simply keep increasing the size of their canvases and sculptures without any artistic justification, to the point where modesty of scale is almost seen as tantamount to professional mediocrity.

Over the last decade in China, a newly developed and unconstrained art market has taken over an art world that was still in its infancy, one that had not yet achieved the institutional diversity that characterizes longer-established structures in other countries. As a result, contemporary art in China has become almost entirely dependent on market forces, which have set themselves up as the dominant, and virtually the only, system of evaluating art works. The buoyancy of the market gave a huge boost to the confidence and ambition of the players and fed into the ‘bigger means better’ frenzy. There were bountiful resources to open galleries of 1,000 square metres, stage expensive productions, mount large-scale exhibitions, produce bulky catalogues and host luxurious opening night parties. All of a sudden, everything was possible. Artists responded to such optimism with attempts at mega-productions.

For an exhibition in Beijing, Xu Zhen, a young artist based in Shanghai, made a gigantic glass vitrine measuring 3 x 9 metres, inside which he placed an enormous dinosaur (Untitled, 2007). He planned to fill the tank with water, as a raising-the-bar response to Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde from 1992, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. However, filling the container with water turned out to be an insuperable technical challenge, so the artist’s vaulting ambition left him instead a figure of ridicule. It is indeed dangerous when artists place too much faith in size, without giving a second thought to its justification.

Even some artists known for working primarily with ideas cannot resist the temptation to create huge visual extravaganzas. Qiu Anxiong is known for making William Kentridge-like animations, whose storyboards consist of a series of water ink paintings based on imagery and stories from both ancient and modern China. In a solo exhibition in 2007, he moved an entire train carriage into the exhibition space as part of his video installation Memory for Forgetting (2007). Images of historical events were projected onto the windows on both sides of the carriage, and viewers were invited to walk through the train as though walking through time.

A year later, another artist, Jing Shijian, moved an old train weighing 45 tons to the site of the 7th Shanghai Biennial, for a similar memorial to recent Chinese history (Express Train, 2008). These ways of engaging with memory and time are little more than illustrations and reminders of fragmented historical moments, with which the artists failed to show any deep intellectual engagement. While many artists in recent years have been obsessed with the scale and technical complexity of their projects, some have also indulged in re-enacting scenes from everyday life, seeking theatrical and sensational effects.

In Wang Du’s 2008 solo exhibition, ‘Somnambulate Realism’, the gallery was transformed into a factory-like production site for marble sculptures, where workers were instructed by the artist to carve out miniatures of some of China’s most recent architectural landmarks, such as Beijing’s new National Stadium, the so-called ‘Bird’s Nest’. The resulting scene was extremely realistic and impressive in scale, complete with lots of noise and dust. Zhang Peili, the father of video art in China, brought a whole factory floor of abandoned sewing machines into the space of OCT Contemporary Art Centre in Shenzhen, which he juxtaposed with a large video projection of the same setting showing people working. Variations on projects such as these have been a popular format for major solo exhibitions, involving a lot of planning, co-ordination and costs geared towards impressing the audience through their sheer scale.

What has been consistently missing from them, however, is a space for reflection, or critical position on the part of the artists. Whether they can be considered art works at all, in fact, is a question worth asking. Is it enough for artists to reflect on the accessibility of labour and the prevalence of mass production in China’s economic structure by simply exploiting it in these projects? What do these kinds of shows reveal, apart from the artists’ inflated egos and their belief that they are capable of turning anything into art? In such physically imposing but conceptually lightweight projects, artists have deliberately allowed their pretensions to conceal their own intellectual insecurity. They have shifted away from filling their canvases and works with grandiose social and ideological narratives, as they did in the 1990s, towards adopting flamboyant forms and tastes in the presentation of their ideas.

This is in stark contrast to a project from 1994, which took the form of a publication titled Chinese Contemporary Artists’ Agenda (1994) (‘agenda’ is a mistranslation of the word ‘proposal’). Following the abrupt disruption of the intellectual dynamism that characterized the cultural renaissance of the 1980s, and the subsequent lack of either official or commercial spaces in which to show contemporary art, some artists chose to continue meeting to exchange ideas privately, eager for more public platforms to communicate their ideas, and this eagerness resulted in the book’s publication. The backing given to the project by a private entrepreneur and friend of the artist Wang Jianwei, while meagre, nevertheless allowed a whole group of artists, including Li Yongbin, Wang Luyan and Ni Haifeng, to describe their concepts in words and sketches and to put them together in that one publication.

Without the pressure to realize these ideas in concrete form, the artists confessed that they found the projects just as exciting – possibly more so – as they would if they had been given the chance to execute them. This anthology of artistic ideas is important not only because it documents some of the artistic concerns of the time but also because it captures the spirit of an era when ideas had precedence over financial gain. The book has long been stacked away and forgotten by most people, not because it was produced a long time ago but because no one has cared much about it since it was published.

The speed and excitement of recent developments in the Chinese art industry have provided little room for the kind of appreciation it would take to read through and contemplate the complexity of some of the concepts it explores. The current stars of the contemporary art scene have instead produced visual extravaganzas that often appear better suited to amusement parks. What has made the situation worse is that, instead of questioning and critiquing such a state of affairs, curators and critics have often promoted it in their writing and exhibitions. It is, of course, difficult to swim against the tide, but isn’t that what art is all about: maintaining a critical distance and exercising one’s own judgement, rather than going with the flow? Ultimately good art is a matter of intellectual independence and conscience – things that, in their search for excess, many Chinese artists have somehow lost.

In some ways, the financial meltdown has come as a relief to many, who think that we can all finally get back to being who we really are, and can win back the space for mental activity that was temporarily hijacked by the market. What will happen in the wake of the crisis? Clearly galleries will no longer be able to afford an annual programme of mega-expensive exhibitions. Artists will have to start thinking small again – and hopefully, ideas will once more rule. It’s a change that’s long overdue.

Main image: Xu Zhen, Untitled, 2007

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.