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Issue 166

Experimental Section of the 12th National Art Exhibition

Today Art Museum, Beijing, China

BY Colin Siyuan Chinnery in Reviews | 16 SEP 14

Li Songsong, One Man, 2012, aluminium, steel, LEDs, oil paint, 3.2 × 2.9 × 120 m

Walking into this exhibition of 47 artists from across China, spread over 4,000 square metres of gallery space, there seemed to be no structure, no exhibition design and no discernable purpose binding the artworks together. The show’s introduction failed to mention a curator or include a list of artists’ names. Yet most of the exhibited works were by well-known Chinese artists, and a considerable amount of money had been spent putting this exhibition together – even though it would be mounted for just three weeks.

Only the Chinese government would have the kind of pocket change to put on something so mysterious or seemingly pointless. The significance in this case, however, lies not in the meanings produced by the juxtaposition of particular artworks or artists’ visions, but the fact this new ‘Experimental Section’ was included at all. For this section marked the transformation of the National Art Exhibition, a huge show of work by hundreds of artists that has taken place every five years since 1949, deciding which artists most capably disseminate Chinese Communist Party ideology to the masses.

China’s contemporary art world still exists in two dimensions: artists, galleries and institutions who can be categorized as independent and contemporary by international standards on the one hand; and artists and institutions (contemporary or otherwise) run by the government on the other. The National Art Exhibition belongs to the latter, a cultural system in the Stalinist mould, established when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. It remained the only permitted system until China started opening up to the world in the 1980s. During this period of Chinese history, only artists belonging to the China Artists Association could make a living as artists, and the National Art Exhibition was the gatekeeper to membership of that organization, selecting artists based on the grounds of their technical skill or their ideological stances.

Once this cultural monopoly was broken in the late 1970s, independent modern and contemporary practices became a possibility, culminating in today’s burgeoning Chinese art scene. However, such independent contemporary art has not supplanted the government arts system. Instead, it peacefully co-exists as a separate but increasingly interdependent universe: government-run art schools have been producing contemporary artists for the past 30 years, the government-run Shanghai Biennale and Guangzhou Triennial are recognized internationally and, in 2012, China’s first government-run contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, was inaugurated.

However, through all of this, the one staunchly conservative Chinese art institution has been the National Art Exhibition, which has stubbornly refused to acknowledge independent contemporary art practice. That is, until this show. There was something so pathetic in the faux self-confident wording of the press release that it almost invited empathy: ‘The Committee for Experimental Art of the China Artists Association aims to […] systemize the content and organization for the category of experimental art.’ After all, for an exhibition that used to determine the fate of all Chinese artists, it’s obvious that in this era many artists don’t want to be associated with the old order it represents. As an example, there was no sign of either Yang Fudong or Wang Jianwei, two of China’s most prominent video artists. Wang, interestingly, was awarded the Gold Prize at the 6th National Art Exhibition in 1984 before discovering contemporary art and turning his back on the old order. Now, with this exhibition, the last bastion of the old order is being forced to turn around and face cultural reality in China. It’s about time, too.

Colin Siyuan Chinnery is an artist and curator based in Beijing, China, and a contributing editor of frieze. In November 2018, his work Hawkers Refrain was unveiled as the first permanent public sound installation in China.