BY Niru Ratnam in Opinion | 05 MAY 98
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Issue 40

The Official Alternative

Now that China is the West's favourite investment opportunity, exhibitions of Chinese art are everywhere

BY Niru Ratnam in Opinion | 05 MAY 98

The immediate post-war period was a great time for bizarre and meaningless exhibition titles. In Britain alone, we saw 'Black Eyes and Lemonade' (Whitechapel 1951), 'Wonder and Horror of the Human Head' (ICA, 1953) and best of all, the hopelessly optimistic 'Forty Thousand Years of Modern Art' (organised by the ICA in 1948). Now, in our post-museum studies days, we have learned to be suspicious of big titles, so the premise of 'China, 5000 Years' at the Guggenheim, New York this spring is a brave one. Neolithic jades, Abstract Expressionism, scroll paintings, Socialist Realism, bronze-work and burial items are all there with two unifying factors behind them; firstly they are Chinese, secondly they have been approved by the Chinese National Administration for Cultural Heritage.

It is this second factor that has not gone down well. The complicity of the Guggenheim has come in for criticism, and the conspicuous absence of much of the promised contemporary work has added fuel to the conspiracy theories. All of this may be unfair: the Guggenheim has been nothing if not honest about its motivations for staging the exhibition. Right at the beginning of the monster catalogue the museum's director Thomas Krens owns up to the trade-fair nature of the show. His ramble, beginning 'China's future demands a special relationship with the United States', is straight out of a diplomatic handbook. Chinese-American trade figures are cited, Chinese students in American colleges are applauded for 'constituting the single largest body of foreign students in the United States', Chinese tourists are welcomed. Perhaps carried away by the honesty trip, Krens even admits the Guggenheim's own global ambitions and the role of the Chinese government in organising the exhibition. Conspiracy theory has never been so easy.

Still, honesty has never been enough to stop liberal breast-beating. Along with the outraged critical notices regurgitating diluted versions of what Krens is happy to admit, art dealers have spotted an opportunity to rebut the supposedly sanitised Guggenheim story and exhibitions of Chinese art have been popping up all over New York. Max Protetch has been the most industrious in countering the Guggenheim show, pre-empting it with 'Photography and Video From China' in January and following that with his March show 'Double Kitsch: Painters from China'. 'Double Kitsch' pinpoints two strands of painting as characterising the contemporary Chinese scene, 'Cynical Realism' and 'Political Pop'. Fang Lijun, with his melancholic paintings of skinheads and desolate backdrops of sky and ocean, features in Protetch's show along with Su Xinping's similarly ennui-laden work and Song Yongping's enigmatic nudes in disconcerting landscapes. 'Political Pop' combines the banal with the political and commercial, and is represented by Wang Jinsong's kitschy figure groupings with individuals painted out, Cao Yong's rat-filled works and Hong Hao's subversions of history.

So far, so good: nasty officialdom at big museum; alternative dissident voices in Chelsea. Mr. Protetch himself informed me that one of his artists was holed up in some village near the Mongolian border, hinting at dark governmental deeds and after a gallery assistant had ascertained I'd been to the Guggenheim she muttered in my ear that this is what they did not want you to see. I laughed nervously in response, for all was not what it seemed. In his essay 'Towards an 'Un-unofficial Art,' Chinese critic Hou Hanru has argued that whilst the original aims of Cynical Realism and Political Pop were to undermine official art discourse, the last two or three years have witnessed a compromise between officialdom and avant-garde. 1 There are three reasons for this: the reluctant realisation by the Chinese state that it has to open up to the market oddly mirrors Political Pop's ambiguous approach to consumerism; there is a similarity in style between Cynical Realism and official modern Chinese painting; and national sentiment amongst the artists involved has been growing. Hanru writes of 'the birth of a new nation/state culture in China, which is based on the compromised consensus between official and unofficial cultures'. His corresponding complaint is that the international exposure these artists have received has lead to a pigeonholing of Chinese avant-garde so that Cynical Realism and Political Pop are 'expected by Western institutions and media', who are attracted by the combination of a Chinese visual language and a dissenting voice. That some of the artists, such as Wan Jinsong, actually make more open-ended installation work only highlights the peculiar choice to frame them as painters. Much of the photography on show at Protetch's first show similarly combined everyday scenarios with political questioning, complying with the parameters of Political Pop.

To complicate the situation further, there's also the matter of economic meltdown in South-East Asia, which puts an interesting spin on the whole shebang. Whilst its neighbours have witnessed riches crumble and economies deflate, China is just about muddling by with its mixed-up idea of the 'Socialist-market economy' which was formally blessed last year at the Communist Party's five-yearly congress. At the heart of the idea is the combination of market-oriented wealth-getting with nanny-state preservation of the old order. The new, compromised consensus in art of which Hanru talks is symptomatic of a wider uneasy consensus in the Chinese political machine. The Guggenheim's show and Protetch's exhibitions are not in opposition at all; they are the two faces of a contorted establishment. Indeed one could argue that as only one of the shows is honest about its role in China's economic self-fashioning, the accusations of complicity may have been directed at the wrong exhibition.

1. Hou Hanru, 'Towards an 'Un-Unofficial Art: De-ideologicalisation of China's Contemporary Art in the 1990s', Third Text 34, Spring 1996