BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Interviews | 10 AUG 16
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Issue 181

What is Important

Critic and curator Li Xianting speaks to Carol Yinghua Lu about tradition, change and leaving the art world

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Interviews | 10 AUG 16

On 14 July 1986, the 51st issue of Fine Arts in China, an art newspaper that existed from 1985 to 1989, opened with a short article titled ‘What Is Important Is Not Art’. Appearing at the tail end of the ’85 new wave art movement, the essay would become a key point of reference in the history of contemporary art in China. In it, Li Jiatun – a penname for the newspaper’s co-founder and editor, Li Xianting – argued that the revitalization of art was not about revolutionizing stylistic paradigms but, rather, a question of intellectual liberation.

As an editor of Fine Art magazine (1979–83) and then at Fine Arts in China (1985–89), Li used many pseudonyms to publish his own, often controversial, writings. In 1988, his provocative piece ‘The Era Awaits the Life Passion of the Big Soul’ challenged a wave of conservatism, later known as ‘purification of language’, which advocated a return to formal considerations in Chinese art academies. His promotion of new artistic movements occasionally led to trouble: in 1983, he was sacked from Fine Art for supporting abstraction in the magazine.

Yu Youhan, Talking with Human Peasants, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 1.7 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and ShangArt, Shanghai

Li was one of the key figures involved in the 1989 ‘China Avant-Garde’ exhibition – the first large-scale public presentation of avant-garde art in the country, which ran for two weeks at the China Art Gallery in Beijing. Many participants have tended to elevate the show’s significance in the history of Chinese contemporary art. However, Li wrote that, by this time, the dynamic of the ’85 new wave movement – which had seen the emergence of many kinds of artistic practice informed and underlined by philosophical ideas, humanistic concerns and conceptual elements – was already waning. The exhibition itself was the testimony.

Following the government crackdown in June 1989, Li was banned from editing but he continued to support several strands of artistic practice, including cynical realism and political pop – both terms that he coined – through his curatorial efforts. In 1993, he travelled to Europe and Australia and was involved in staging two major group shows: ‘Mao Goes Pop, China Post-1989’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, and the Chinese section of the thematic exhibition ‘Passage to the East’ at the Venice Biennale. These were among the first exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art in the West.

Since 2003, Li has lived in Songzhuang, a town 20 kilometres outside the centre of Beijing, which he has transformed into a kind of artists’ colony. Here, he founded a festival for independent films and documentaries for Chinese and international filmmakers. In 2015, the film festival was closed by the police on its opening night. Since then, Li has been prohibited from giving lectures in public. On sensitive dates, his house is watched by state security. 

When I interviewed him at his home in June 2016, Li talked about how his involvement in the film festival had lately prevented him from dedicating more attention to art. He had hoped to be able to end the festival once such events became more commonplace; however, he felt that to do so at a moment like the current one, in which the authorities are clamping down on the cultural sector and civil society more broadly, would be giving up. Li reasoned by citing the Tang poet Han Yu: ‘Injustice provokes outcry’ – a motto he has chosen to live his life by.

Visitors to the 'China Avant-Garde' exhibition, 1989, China Art Gallery, Beijing, photographed by Wang Youshen. Courtesy: Wang Youshen

Carol Lu  In the 1980s, you worked primarily as an art critic. I notice a common thread in all your writings from that period: namely, to create controversy. 

Li Xianting  This was because my role was not solely that of a critic: I was primarily an editor, working first at the magazine Fine Art and then at the newspaper Fine Arts in China. I was always initiating debates in my roles at both publications.

I’m not a theorist. I’ve never received a formal art-history education and I’ve always considered myself an amateur critic. Later in my career, the title of my essay ‘What Is Important Is Not Art’ became a catchphrase that people made fun of and some journalists would ask me rather seriously: if art is not the important thing, what is? 

During my time at Fine Art, new art forms were beginning to emerge, which consciously rebelled against the socialist realist tradition of art-making, which was the singular form permitted by the government. I wanted to speak up for them. All the senior editors were opposed. Terms like ‘good painting’ and ‘bad painting’ were coined in art academies. Their meaning was pretty superficial: a good painting referred to one with technical precision and a complete composition. What artists like Fang Lijun and Liu Xiaodong produced later were ‘bad paintings’: they did not follow the classic realist composition. Instead, something was always missing, they were never complete or the compositions were slightly crooked. I came around to thinking that these editorial debates were not determined by the work itself but by deeper underlying judgements about what art is: it was a question of cultural values. For instance, in pre-1949 China, a person was considered to come from a nice background if they owned a house and some land. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, a good background was a poor one. The criteria ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in art as in everything else, change: they’re products of a society’s ideology.

Lu  In the early 1990s, you coined the term ‘political pop’ to describe works created by artists such as Wang Guangyi.

Li  ‘Political pop’ meant popularized politics. At that time, consumerism had only just appeared in China and we were at a turning point, moving away from the revolutionary era towards a more materialistic culture. I had acquired some funding from the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney, who asked me to curate a post-1989 exhibition and I started doing a lot of travelling within China. I discovered artists such as Yu Youhan and Wang Ziwei, who had been teacher and student, and who, despite not having remained in contact, were both making work that addressed this intersection between consumerism and political culture. The same was true of Wang Guangyi and Li Shan. It was clear that a new trend in painting was emerging.

‘There was a kind of boisterousness to pop, too much clamour, and it suddenly demanded a return, another round of purification. This has always been the case for artistic movements in China.’ Li Xianting

I compared it to the pop art that emerged from American consumer culture and immediately realized the two phenomena were not the same. Pop art in China was about juxtaposition: bringing two things together to produce something ironic, humorous. It was pervasive: I remember, in around 1993, the entire pop music industry was taken over by ‘red song’ fever. Everyone was singing the old Communist revolutionary songs in a pop fashion, even Cui Jian. [A Chinese rock star whose song ‘Nothing to My Name’ was an anthem for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.]

Lu  What about the origin of popi [cynical realism]?

Li  That came even earlier. I wanted to find an English equivalent to Popi Niu’er [a character in Water Margin, a 14th-century classic of Chinese literature] and I picked the term ‘cynical’. I used ‘cynical realism’ to describe new literati paintings [traditionally, art created by scholar-bureaucrats who had either retired from the professional world or never received formal training in painting]. Popi describes an attitude that was a response to the political pressure at the time: it was a form of non-co-operation, yet one that didn’t want to be wiped out. Many modern writers, such as Lin Yutang, Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren, wrote about popi. I used it to describe the early exhibitions of Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, Song Yonghong and Wang Jingsong.

Lu  How do you explain ‘reality’ as depicted in cynical realism?

Li  Artists began to renounce various artistic traditions, like surrealism and conceptualism. They were still putting the skills learned in the academy to use, but they weren’t painting in a traditional style or telling stories; instead, they depicted snippets of life that were decidedly mundane.

The generation of artists that emerged after the Tiananmen Square massacre was charged with a certain energy. People like us, who had lived through the 1980s, were awfully frustrated. Fine Arts in China ceased publication after the events of 4 June; the entire intellectual community was in anguish. It was at this time that this group, who I called the popis, marched in. They had an altogether different attitude and a very detached stance towards life; they vented their frustration through self-mockery. 

Zhang Peili, X? Series: No. 4, 1987, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong

Lu  What about your later endeavours in gaudy art – the exhibitions ‘Phenol Styrene’ (1999) and ‘Infatuation with Injury’ (2000)? 

Li  Gaudy art is, in fact, a sequel to political pop, but no outstanding artists came out of this movement. It couldn’t outdo reality, because reality itself is gaudy enough. In retrospect, I find it rather pointless. Then came the market upsurge in the early 2000s, which watered everything down.

The last exhibition I curated was ‘Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes’ (2003). I was infatuated with minimalism at that point, but in China minimalism was arguably non-existent. I spent some time in the US and was on the lookout for minimalist artists, minimalist music … I was planning an exhibition but the SARS epidemic happened and it fell through. I wanted to show another side to minimalism: what I called ‘minimally minimal yet intricate’. There was a group of artists making this kind of work active in and around Songzhuang art village, who I’d been following since the mid-1990s.

Lu  What was the ideology behind their creation? 

Li  It was like the relationship between minimalism and pop art in the US: there was a kind of boisterousness to pop with too many concepts floating around, too much clamour, and it suddenly demanded a return, another round of purification. This has always been the case for artistic movements in China – they are constantly repeating this process of purification. And it’s not just in art: once, I went away on a business trip and I couldn’t find my own house when I returned after a couple of weeks. At the time, I was living in Houhai: the entire area had been renovated and I ended up at the wrong door.

Lu  When did the split between institutionally sanctioned ‘official’ art and ‘non-official’ art occur in China?

Li  Some argue that contemporary art in China began with the ’85 new wave movement, but I’ve always insisted that it began in the late 1970s. Contemporary art is not a linguistic concept: it simply embodies time – the time we live in today – even when the subject matter of the work is highly realistic. 

‘No other country resembles China [in pace of change] — that you can't find your home after a couple of weeks away.’ Li Xianting

Lu  It seems that, in the 1980s and ’90s, the rule in China was precisely not to have rules: everyone was experimenting. But, since 2000 – especially after 2008 – there are apparently very few people left who are still interested in critically examining the organizational models of the art system. Instead, artists have basically adopted a pragmatic attitude and do what they need to get by. 

Li  This is the unwritten rule. Before, when I visited art academies, no one would recognize me; now, whenever I appear in public, students ask me: ‘What should we do? On one hand, we have to make art, to be creative; on the other, we have to be commercially successful.’ That really struck me.

Many critics rant about the market, but I never do that; I never go beyond the boundary of the art itself. I know art and I do my best to express my opinions but, once outside of that, reaching the territory of the art market, it’s business and I’m really not an expert.

Lu  What’s your take on the group of critics who, in the 1990s, exploited the market as an institutional medium? The 1992 Guangzhou Biennale, for example, was initiated by the art historian Lv Peng but essentially functioned as an art fair: corporate sponsors were brought on board in exchange for profit made from the sale of exhibited works. I heard that you cried at a discussion organized in association with the event. Is that true? 

Li  It’s true, but I had drunk too much over lunch that particular day! Lv had come over in advance to discuss the project with me and, as he was explaining, he got increasingly excited. He said: ‘It’s been so many years and we haven’t been able to accomplish anything. We should stop organizing exhibitions that are purely about art and use the market as a ladder to reach the world from the ground floor.’ But, once I arrived in Guangzhou, I was shocked; there was an entire area where the sponsor had put up stuff from his own collection – nudes, landscapes, all sorts of rubbish. I asked Lv: who is exploiting whom? Is it you who takes advantage of the businessmen or vice versa? I was really agitated. I realized that it was all a hoax: at the end of the day, business duped art. It was partly that which led me, later, to announce that I was quitting the art world.

Lu Because of this incident? 

Li  Not entirely. Those articles I wrote in my early years did not fully represent my own opinions – sometimes, they had to do with cultural strategy and, at other times, it was about provoking debate. Writing those texts was like going to war. I’m actually a slow writer but, at that time, I always had to write things overnight, which was a challenge. Looking back at them now, they contain thoughts and sentences that don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

Fang Lijun, Untitled, 1995, oil on canvas, 2.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong

In any case, after I moved to Songzhuang, my role changed abruptly. A lot of other artists had moved there and, at the time, I had been observing trends in several art districts when I travelled around the world: SoHo, east Berlin, Freetown Christiania in Denmark. I was thinking about ways to run autonomous art districts. I was commissioned by the local government to make a regional plan. First, a museum was built [the Songzhuang Art Museum]: construction began in 2004 and was completed by 2006. The mayor, Wang Qishan, came to the inaugural exhibition and was so impressed he agreed that Songzhuang should be developed as an art colony. Since then, I’ve spent more than a decade trying to solve land-related issues, disagreements among artists and problems between the artistic community and the village. 

Lu  In the 1990s, you maintained a written correspondence with Fei Dawei in Paris. In your letters, you raised the point that, when Chinese artists abroad lose their cultural context, their creativity is exhausted. What was your line of thought?

Li  Fei and I were writing to each other around 1991. At that time, I noticed a phenomenon: namely, that Chinese artists overseas would mail their works back to China. I stayed in contact with most artists that had moved abroad, and I found them to be in a condition that I called the ‘frozen phenomenon’. When they left, they were in the spirit of the ’85 new wave and, after they relocated to either Europe or America, if they couldn’t integrate into the mainstream art scene and become part of it, their work remained stuck in that moment.

Lu  Weren’t a lot of local artists in this frozen state too, still making the same kind of work in 1995 that they had made in 1985? 

Li  Yes, that was certainly the case, though this really depended on the individual. In China, whenever one group of people rises to prominence, another group falls from power. If you can’t overcome yourself, you will soon find yourself abandoned by the times. 

Lu  Do you think it is just as fast-paced today? 

Li  It is. No other country resembles China in this respect – that you can’t find your home after only a couple of weeks away. 

Lu  Do you still follow art being made now?

Li  Very little. My film foundation [Li Xianting’s Film Fund] takes up a lot of time. I only come across new works when I’m on the jury for some art award or other.

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.