Mar 06, 2015 11:00 AM

Paint by Numbers: China's Art Factory from Mao to Now

Chinese contemporary art reveals much of the country's character during its recent history of dramatic transformation; some even say that this art is more social commentary than art. For many like me who have followed the emergence of Chinese art over the past twenty years, the experience has been a mixture of fascination and confusion, irritation and amusement. These paintings, sculptures, video performances and installations seemed to have come out of nowhere in a country that changed from having no galleries at all to the springing of veritable art cities; art that could be bold or bland, highly original or mimicking, rooted in tradition or completely detached from it; and art that shifted from being affordable to reaching mind-boggling prices.

Claire van den Heever, author of Paint by Numbers: China's Art Factory from Mao to Now, brings much needed clarity to an entangled subject. Written as reportage in the first person and incorporating numerous interviews, Paint by Numbers is a well-informed and fluent account of the art world in China over the past forty years that will delight – and warn – both the general reader and the art aficionado.

The book follows a chronological sequence, which best illuminates the correlation between the various forms of artistic expression and the country's social, political and economic changes. During Mao's rule and until his demise, art was synonymous with propaganda. Afterwards, artistic freedom burst from the cracks, and then tracked the alternation of repressive and permissive policies that have marked the country's pulse to this date.

It is thrilling to read of the release of young students from rustication to enter art schools as these reopened. It was during the days of the Democracy Wall that the first art exhibition took place, organized spontaneously by a group of amateur artists known as XinXin (the Stars). A vigorous outpouring of creativity followed and the first masterpieces appeared: Luo Zhongli's Father (1980) – a peasant's portrait no longer idealized but unashamedly showing the man's marks of hardship – and Wang Keping's wooden sculptures making reference to Mao's personality cult.

But this relatively free atmosphere was reversed by the tragic events of June 1989 and many young artists felt compelled to leave the country. Economic development then started to take precedence over other concerns; China's economic openness was matched by the outside world's desire to engage. This period coincided with the first exhibitions abroad of Chinese contemporary art, such as the seminal "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cezanne" in 1991 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Western residents in Beijing had already began to collect the new art – directly from the artists' studios and bought at a pittance – and dealers in Hong Kong had started to show it to the outside world. As if closing a chapter, Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to Beijing and by far by the most important collector of Chinese contemporary art has recently donated his collection to Hong Kong's Museum+.

Van den Heever captures the spontaneity, sincerity and idealism of the first art movements as well as how the market – or those who underpinned it – entered unannounced to steal the show. Trends from Political Pop to Cynical Realism to Shock Art jockeyed for the most radical or daring. These looked like manifestations more akin to branding. Going through the motions, undermining creativity, repetition and recognition were perceived as the key to success. Those aspects may have been overemphasized, but this art lent itself to stereotyping:

Contemporary Chinese art had – at least in the public sphere – become synonymous with large paintings of people's faces: Yue Minjun's smiley men, Fang Lijun's yawning men, Zhang Xiaogang's somber families and Wang Guangyi's revolutionary men.

The author alerts us of the shortcomings: this "big face art" was easily recognizable, easy to copy, fitted easily with the view of China portrayed in Western media, and was easy to sell as well. And it did work, commercially. Record sales at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in 2004 and in New York in 2006 inaugurated a new era where Chinese art became yet another commodity for speculation and investment. Some allege this was part of the general infatuation with things Chinese, for the Chinese stock market index had also soared in the years leading to 2008 until it eventually burst as did everything else. By then, China had created its own auction houses, such as China Guardian and Poly Auction: state-owned, of course.

This point invites controversy. Art has now become a major target for investment second only to stocks and property, so those record prices should come as no surprise. However, van den Heever, echoing the general opinion of neutral observers (those not involved in the promotion and sale of artworks), warns that in China no critical appreciation has been developed alongside this burgeoning market. This is largely true. There were no art critics, and those who could be regarded as such also doubled as promoters or dealers, a situation that still prevails. That means there are no standards. But pretending to gauge what is the real value of an artwork takes us to a larger issue on the substance and the channels that embeds Chinese art into the mainstream of art worldwide. The uncompromising art critic Jed Perl wrote in his remarkable essay "Laissez-Faire Aesthetics: What Money Is Doing to Art, or How the Art World Lost its Mind" that the art world has never been so well-oiled a machine as it is right now, and that when conceptual art reigns supreme:

A painting is simply what everybody or anybody says it is, what everybody or anybody wishes it to be.

In other words, an artwork's worth will depends on the reputation—or pockets—of the collector who has put his money in, or the marketing network of the gallery or how influential is a newspaper or magazine which choses to highlights the work. The intrinsic merit of the work itself, or the skill, the meaning and the experience of art are lost.

Paint by Numbers does not avoid thorny issues: the censoring of the freedom of expression, battled by the formidable dissident Ai Weiwei, more a cultural activist than an artist; the inchoate state of Chinese museums and curatorial standards; and the manipulation of the market value of an artist by heating the auction sales.

Much of the book's information is given disclosing names, but sometimes the source is hidden under "a well-known dealer" or "collector" or "art critic," and the attentive reader has to make his or her own conclusions.

It is illuminating to learn from the artists' own opinions and their personal experiences – the Cultural Revolution being in many cases the most influential – and what they try to say with their work. One learns, for instance, that Yue Minjun's caricatures of laughing heads are in fact self-portraits, if we take his words at face value:

I began to work on images of people that simultaneously aroused feelings of strength and self-mockery, which fitted my mood then, and helped to relieve the unhappiness in my heart. Before I produced these people, I felt my art lacked power. Art should be an expression of one's particular feelings, and should be direct and deep. So I drew one person, and then added another and another until there were crowds of them. Then I felt my emotions were fully expressed.

The full picture of the Chinese avant-garde is completed here with all its luminaries and their more complex subject matter: Artists such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda stand apart, and while their frame of reference appeals to China's centuries old tradition of calligraphy, it is hinted they owe much to having been lived abroad for several years. This art can also be a form of protest that engages with the common people's predicament.

Zhang Dali, one of the few artists to have appeared on the cover of Time magazine, has worked in a variety of media to raise awareness about serious concerns. Lately, he has called the attention on the plight of migrant workers with a series of life-size sculptures in bizarre positions, as showing their powerlessness. Though Zhang is best known for his graffiti on the walls of buildings marked for demolition, ephemeral artworks which he entitled Dialogue. Strongly opposing the obliteration of the urban environment, Zhang Dali explains:

You can also enjoy a modern life in an old house in Beijing if gas, hot water, Internet, telephone access and a heating system are provided. People should solve those problems, not demolish old houses. So, when I saw them demolishing the old houses, I was heartbroken. But I could do nothing by myself. I could only paint something to raise people's awareness and let them comment. Some officials said that by demolishing them, we can create a beautiful new China. Sorry, I don't want a new China. I want the original one that belongs to our culture.

It is hard not to agree with the author that the future of Chinese contemporary art will depend on the interplay between the two factors of government policies and the market. Insofar as freedom of expression remains curtailed, art on its own terms cannot be expected, and only painting by numbers – a mechanical production seeking commercial success – will be the outcome.

Juan José Morales writes for the online cultural journal He has a Master of International and Public Affairs from the University of Hong Kong and has also studied international relations at Peking University (Beida).

Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books

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