Using Art to Build Bridges

Chaos and Order

Installation “Chaos and Order”, made by Chinese and Swedish artists

Using Art to Build Bridges

Every time I travel to Sweden, I arrive in Copenhagen, then in Malmo, and cross the bridge over the grand Öresund channel. On my way I enjoy the fresh taste of the ocean breeze. It’s said that one hundred years ago, a young Swedish girl wrote an imaginary plan on a piece of paper, sealed it in a bottle, and cast it into the sea. Later, a young man from Denmark picked up the bottle, and looking at the paper sketched the form of a bridge… this became the Öresund Bridge which I have crossed many times. From dream to reality, the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden took 100 years to complete. Where is the bridge connecting China and Sweden, and how long will it take?

Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge

Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge

China is rich in mountains, rivers and lakes, and naturally has a long history of bridges. The symbol of the bridge also occupies an important position in contemporary history. After the founding of the country, the first bridge designed by China as an independent nation was the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, and it became a symbolic piece of architecture for the entire country (1960). Its grand blueprint was printed on the 1962 edition of the two cent Yuan bill. Not long after in the 1980s, a film titled Most (Savage Bridge) was popular among all Chinese people. The film’s subject matter is the resistance of Fascism in Yugoslavia, and it’s widely loved theme song, “Bella Ciao,” remains a household name even today. Bridges are architectural accomplishments and the background for historical stories, and they have left deep impressions in many countries.

In architecture, bridges are comparable to skyscrapers; the former representing the ability of humans to step across states of separation, the later representing the ability of humans to live at great heights above level ground. In the ancient story of the tower of Babel, the human language became chaotic. Unable to communicate, all things fell apart. The loss of a common language represents the differences and conflicts between cultures. Perhaps for this reason, building bridges became an attempt for people to overcome obstacles and break down distance. To connect with one another once more, understand and cooperate with one another again, this project has continued until today. Today, however, the material and method is no longer limited to the architectural study of reinforced concrete, wood, and stone, but also includes communication, the internet, sports, and art. The desire among humans for mutual understanding has never stopped.

Put simply, art is a cultural experiment that can transcend daily language. It can help us open new possibilities for communication with people of different national, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. The airline industry and the internet have greatly promoted contemporary bridges. Artists and audiences can easily travel across borders (although visas are ever more difficult to obtain) and art can easily be disseminated (although censorship organs remain). Art can be a bridge not only to provide opportunities for discussion but also to begin a process of self-understanding. After going abroad, an artist introduces the existential struggles and aesthetics of their own region to an audience of a different cultural background. In one way, art is a visual form that can transcend language barriers. In visual works, people can see the universal interest and power of art. In another way, contemporary art possesses a sharp insight, even criticism, into the situation of reality. Some works can make audiences view not only art but also issues in society with interest and care. Some of these problems can be local and regional, others universal. It’s like the words that Kajsa Haglund quoted during the bridges project exhibition in Kunming, “Art is a guerilla movement that should belong to the ministry of defense. Is the minister of war informed?” I appreciate these words, because by addressing contemporary issues, art’s constantly transforming methods have a resistant and ineradicable purpose. This is the reason people will always need art. Using art to build bridges is also a kind of guerilla warfare.

The Bridges Project brought together Chinese and Swedish artists for a joint exhibition at TCG Nordica Cultural Center in 2010 and now, two years later, for this second exhibition. I am reminded of the words of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in his poem titled “Gallery.” In this poem there is a scene where every artist is compared to a star. Each has its own atmosphere, temperament, movement, and orbit. Some are made of fire, and some of ice… Bringing together artists from different cultural backgrounds, life experiences, work methods, and dispositions to work together, cooperate, and exchange is like bringing 11 stars (artists) from the universe to a certain time and a certain formation. From Chaos to Order, this really is a cooperative work!

Finally I would like to warmly thank the Swedish artists for their ceaseless efforts to build a bridge of art between China and Sweden. Thanks to Uppsala Museum and Bror Hjorths Museum for preparing everything and making it possible for this bridge of art to meet with everyone in Sweden. TCG Nordica Cultural Center in China is also always striving to build bridges of art and culture between China and Northern Europe, between West and East.
Building bridges with art becomes a fusion that is both experimental and alternative. Best wishes for the completion of the second exhibition of the Bridges project!

Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Gallery Director, Artist)
July 26th, 2012, Kunming
Translated by R. Orion Martin

* 中文原文

Chaos to Order

“Chaos to Order”, detail

Interview with Adam Lik Lui

Thought-Image Landscapes, oil on canvas

Interview with Adam Lik Lui

Time: Afternoon of July 18, 2012
Location: TCG Nordica Gallery, Kunming

Luo Fei: Curator at TCG Nordica Gallery
R. Orion Martin: Art worker, translator
Adam Lik Lui: Artist

R. Orion Martin (hereafter Orion): After you returned from the United States in 2005, what was your impression of the Chinese contemporary art scene?

Adam Lik Lui (hereafter Adam): At first I thought about moving to Beijing, and Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Hao invited me to stay with them. Later I realized that my body wasn’t suitable for living in Beijing. The sandstorms were terrible, and I think that if you’re going to make art, you need to be in place where your body is a bit more comfortable. In Beijing there’s a feeling that you’re wrestling on an enormous stage, and it’s something I’m not fond of. I like to peacefully settle down in a location.
At that time I thought that Chinese art was in a terrible state. It was all commercialism and hype, like selling stocks. When artists got together, they would talk about brands and luxury goods instead of art. The successful American artists I know are all very low key and lead simple lives. I think it’s great that the bubble burst in 2008. It allows us to reflect a bit. We can’t over-speculate art to such an absurd extent. I returned to Yunnan in order to peacefully paint, take photos, and think.

Luo Fei (hereafter Luo): Your paintings after you had just returned to China feature clear symbols such as pandas, Chinese tunics, and umbrellas. Now you have moved towards pure abstraction. What caused this change?

Adam: When I had just returned I was bewildered. I saw other people painting like that and thought [that style] had ideas behind it. After a time I discovered it wasn’t interesting. Many people were just developing their own recognizable symbols. It was too Pop, too preachy. It lacked artistic perseverance. I realized that artists need to have their own unique style, and express things from their inner world. Of course among those paintings I did there were some that were good, but I never published or exhibited them.
This new group of paintings is based on my reverence of and return to nature. Nature is the eternal vessel and mother of life. I believe nature is created by God. When I enter nature, I am struck by a vast longing and creative power, a feeling of drifting. Especially when I take a plane above the clouds, I feel an inner release and tranquility.

Luo: I think your paintings search for a stark contrast between nothingness and reality, between movement and stillness, between dry and wet, between pure and mixed colors. Is this correct?

Adam: Adam: Yes, abstract art in China is actually just [the Chinese artistic tradition of] xieyi (spontaneous expression). My recent series of “Thought-Image Landscapes” is an example. In Thought-Image Landscapes I listen to the wind and observe the scenery. Traditional Chinese painting has always carried poetic connotations, integrating images with texts and poems.
Actually I began making abstract works when I was living in Hong Kong in the 90s. Later I returned to oil painting from ink paintings.
The essence and significance of art is to create the realization of the present and the recollection of the future! It is to enjoy all of the experiences and joys that the artistic process brings, and have an ultimate justification for and rich interpretation of life.

Luo: In the past year you have been using your iPhone to take pictures. This method is more sensitive and convenient in capturing a feeling of daily life. In your experience, what is the difference when using a camera phone, traditional SLR or film camera?

Adam: Professional cameras put people on guard because they seem so much like those used by reporters. When I use an iPhone, there’s no fear. People act very naturally. As soon as you take out a professional camera, everyone scatters. Mine has been in my home, resting for the past year. The iPhone also has software that allows me to photograph and edit at simultaneously. It’s also useful for consultation when I paint landscapes.
In the Dali International Photography Exhibition coming up in August, we will have an exhibition named “Cellphone Yunnan – the Images Around Us.” This allows everyone to find their own method of recording and become their own director. I want to thank Steve Jobs for making life more beautiful and changing the way we see the world.

Years has left a mark, by iPhone

Orion: Today there are many people using iPhones. In regard to your audience, how can looking at your works be more valuable to them than looking at those that they themselves have taken?

Adam: My works worth the gaze of the audience because of their cultivation, unusual entry point, and unique viewpoint. I search for subjects that can convey content and significance in conventional and unconventional ways. This is true of all things that are worth looking at, and a fundamental goal in my work with the iPhone.

Luo: A few years ago when LOMO photography was popular, it was common to cover the walls with photos during exhibitions in order to construct the overall exhibition atmosphere. This is quite different than the methods used for traditional photography. Have you thought about how best to display cell phone photos?

Adam: For the exhibition we’re preparing now, we have decided on a unified system. There will be a frame of 45cm by 45cm and the artist will decide the dimensions of the photo inside. It could be the size of a postage stamp or some other dimensions. This will be relatively conventional exhibition style.

Luo: Whatever media they use, all artists face two questions. The first is how to develop their own language that is not merely based in their tools. The second is how to effectively communicate with their audience, that is, how to display their works. As I understand, the best platform for smart phone camera photography should be the internet, such as Weibo, facebook, and other Social Networking Services (SNS). In a conventional exhibition space, the audience primarily admires the works and has no actual interaction with the works and the artist. But if a photo is posted on the web, it will quickly receive comments, support, likes, and attacks. Internet friends may even use Photoshop to recreate and reinterpret your works. The interactivity is very strong. If the photos you take have news value, they will quickly become a public event. Photographers aren’t just artists, but citizen reporters. In other words, in a digital environment, cellphone photography is not just for aesthetics but for information and social contact.

Adam: That’s right. The internet is more interactive. In the next 20 years, will paper media cease to exist?

Luo: Perhaps after some time the profits of book publishing will be 80% from digital sales and 20% from paper-based works for collection.
Last year in Louisiana, Copenhagen I saw an exhibition by David Hockney that was done completely on iPads and iPhones. I found that his iPad based works were almost of the same quality as his oil paints. Do you think cellphone photography can stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional photography?

Adam: In terms of development, it should be possible. From film to digital and now to cellphone photography, we should keep an open attitude. In the future there will be more iPhone artists around us. I think that the media they use is the only difference. It’s important to take many photos and gradually develop, and to pay close attention to the composition, lighting and message. If it has a clear message that comes across naturally, that’s enough. Actually I see many people using iPhones on the internet who shoot very well. There’s no need to compare equipment, so instead we compare ideas, vision, and accomplishments. You can write with a pencil or a Parker fountain pen. Ultimately we don’t care about what you write with, but whether your essay is good or not.


按:此次访谈由马睿奇(R. Orion Martin)邀约探讨政治波普和玩世现实主义,相信这两种艺术风格也是西方对中国当代艺术最直观的认识。我自己并没有亲身参与90年代当代艺术,只是从各处了解到相关背景,并看到其巨大的影响,无论在市场、国际还是艺术院校。我根据自己对这两类艺术风格的粗浅印象和判断、对我所了解的社会处境,予以了相应的讨论。不正之处,还请读者指正。

Wang Guangyi




Mao Tse Tung - Andy Warhol





Yue Minjun Cynical Realism






从风格来说它们是不一样的,但它们之间的内在精神有着密不可分的关联。总的来说我们可以说它们是同一事物的两面。政治波普试图通过娱乐态度和资本主义形式来突破既有体制和意识形态。玩世现实主义基于一种虚无、无意义和嘲笑的态度,这个态度也不只是发生在艺术领域,也在文学领域,比如王朔。 政治波普和玩世现实主义的共同点是,缺乏对问题的积极有效回应,对历史的正视态度,缺乏更具前瞻性建设性的精神力量,这也一定程度上影响到后来中国当代艺术普遍犬儒、虚无的精神面貌。但从另一个角度讲,他们所创造的图式也成为后来中国社会价值观集体下滑和物质主义生活方式的预言,至少在这一点上,他们是预见到了。




总的来说这个类型是用来描述89之后的一拨艺术家,但这也的确影响到很多艺术家的创作直到今天,特别是很多刚毕业的艺术学生。 在05年左右你去北京798会看到很多这类作品的跟随者,其中有个类型,高名潞称作为“大脸画派”。这都是玩世现实主义派生出来的,比如巨大的自画像、粉红色身体、简单平涂的绘制方式、肤浅的画面感觉等等。这些东西既影响到艺术风格,也影响到艺术的精神和艺术家的态度。





我同意,现实是无法跳过的,你必须正视它。我们说对北京艺术家而言,这是他们的现实。尽管整个中国都处于这种处境,各地艺术家都在中国整体的历史进程之中,但中国巨大的疆土和悠久的历史决定了地方性知识的巨大差异,地方性的艺术风格在80-90年代区分还是很大的。那时有许多不同的群体,比如西北、西南和南方艺术家就不怎么表达狭义上的政治议题。不同的地方找到他们各自的传统和处境。 云南艺术家从未专门画毛主席,如果谁这样去做,其他艺术家一定会感到非常吃惊。这也是为何风景艺术在这里这么流行的原因,因为这是云南艺术家的现实。


在他们在西方世界获得成功之前,中国普通百姓是不会看到这些图像的。在最近这些年,他们成功之后在主流社会媒体获得影响力,有时你甚至可以看到方力均、张晓刚等人的作品出现在一些小说和电影里。 但普通观众如何看到他们,我不确定。曾经有一段时间,有一些文章批评他们专门向西方展示中国丑陋和讨厌的一面。






我想对很多人来说可能更多是市场策略。这里面当然也有政治风险。比如唐志冈的作品最初也受到政治波普和玩世现实主义影响,在风格和内容上都有。但他的作品有着既尖锐又幽默的讽刺,因为涉及到军队、人性和我们的社会。他的作品在2000年初期仍然不能发表,曾经他的作品在一个美术学院院报刊登过,后来被全部召回封存。我认为在他的作品里有态度,但艺术家都需要在政治、商业和艺术之间保持着某种平衡。 而大量的政治波普我认为是没有态度的,他们关心表面符号和姿态,而非政治。

Political Pop




我想很多艺术家都用这种策略,也许很难从单件艺术品来判断和解释他的这个说法。为了理解艺术家的观念和作品,我们需要用更长远的眼光来看待,比如他们最近几年甚至十几年的作品,甚至他们的生活。比如王广义,我更同意他的作品来自民族主义立场。在2008年,萨科齐邀请Dalai Lama之后,中国发生了抵制法国的抗议事件。王广义和其他艺术家参与了抗议,甚至拒绝参加在法国的展览。























Revisiting Political Pop And Cynical Realism, Discussion With Luo Fei


By R. Orion Martin

It’s difficult for me to remember the first images I saw of Chinese art, but it’s almost a certainty that Wang Guangyi’s commercialized propaganda paintings and Fang Lijun’s yawning mouths were among them. As Chinese contemporary art emerged onto the world scene in the 1990s, two groups of artists, labeled Political Pop and Cynical Realism, came to represent Chinese art to the western world. Although these works continue to fetch some of the highest prices in the Chinese art market, they have been criticized both from within and without the Chinese art community. I spoke to curator and artist Luo Fei about the origins and legacy of these artists. Our discussion is divided into defining the works, a discussion of the works themselves, and a review of how they were received.

Wang Guangyi

Defining Political Pop and Cynical Realism

Orion Martin: Li Xianting was the first to propose definitions for these styles in a 1992 issue. Can you give me your personal understanding of what defines Political Pop?

Luo Fei: Personally I’m not sure if it’s Li Xianting who put forth this concept. In fact this kind of art is not particular to China, in the Western political waves of the 60s and 70s there were already artists who employed this kind of style. An example is Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse Tung. The concept of Chinese Political Po was established and widely excepted during the 1992 “Post 89 Chinese Modern Art Exhibition” in Hong Kong.

Political Pop is often understood as appropriating images of political images and symbols, and mixing them with a commercial style. I think first of a few artists such as Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan.

Mao Tse Tung - Andy Warhol

It’s primarily oil painting?

In the beginning it was only oil paint. Later, there were sculptural pieces and prints as well. It’s worth mentioning that early American Pop art was all prints. It was an important method for the copying and mass production of Pop art, and Wang Guangyi’s Political Pop is oil painting that mimics the style of printmaking.

How about Cynical Realism?

It was proposed by Li Xianting. I first think of Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin. Besides Yue Minjun, the other artists later gave up their early period Cynical Realism style. I think Yue Minjun’s paintings remain Cynical Realism through and through. They are very boring, just ridicule and self-mockery.

The East Village of Beijing was an important center for artists, and there are many interviews from that period. Among these were a group of artists who, after the suppression of the 1989 student movement, felt intensely disappointed by the incident, and disappointed by authority figures. They felt it was all a kind of joke, and this changed their attitude. I think this is the generational background for the appearance of Cynical Realism in the early 1990s.

Yue Minjun Cynical Realism

They are quite different than the philosophy inspired artists of the 1980s.

That’s right, the 1985 movement believed that this (1989) was the time for them to change society and art. They were possessed by a heroism complex, that they want to save this sick society, a kind of intense feeling of historical heroics. Afterwards they found that the people in power aren’t ready to accept change.

Wu Hung has described this as a feeling that art is powerless in the face of political power.

These artists are in Beijing, and as a result they are influenced by the center. In Yunnan at that time, artists were more interested in the artist’s inner life and psychology, and these art styles were called “life flow.” The Beijing artists, in contrast, were very influenced by the political environment of the capital.

Is it fair to group Political Pop and Cynical Realism together or are they quite different?

According to the terminology and style they are different, but there is an inseparable spiritual connection between them. Generally we can say that they are two sides of the same thing. Political Pop is trying to use a playful attitude and the forms of capitalism to break open the existing system and ideology. Cynical Realism is a form of nothingness. Meaninglessness with a mocking attitude. This not only happened in art but also in Literature, like the writer Wang Shuo.

I believe that the common ground of Political Pop and Cynical Realism is that they lack an active response to problems and a direct response to history. They lack the strength of spirit to be farsighted and constructive. This also certainly influenced the widespread cynicism in later Chinese contemporary art and the focus on nothingness. But from another angle, their visual production also became a prediction of the collective decline and materialist lifestyle that dominated Chinese societal values in the coming years. At least in this respect, they were quite prescient.

Li Xianting also talks about this attitude in post-Cui Jian rock.

That’s right, at that time, the bands Three Prominents of Moyan and Tang Dynasty were representative.

Is there work being made today that fits these categories?

Generally speaking this type is used to describe a group of post-89 artists, but it also certainly influences many artists even today, particularly recent art school graduates. If you went to 798 in Beijing in 2005 you would see many followers of this kind of work. Among them was a style that Gao Minglu named “Big Face Group.” These are derived from cynical realism. They feature enormous self portraits, pink bodies, simple and flat painting styles, superficial images, etc. These things influenced art styles but also the spirit of art and the attitude of artists.

The Work Itself

Now I would like to take a moment to analyze the way these works typically operate. Political Pop is known for adapting symbols from China’s tumultuous recent history, including Cultural Revolution and Mao symbolism. Why was this an important development?

I think these images are an important visual resource. This history was never clarified. Many things were concealed or hidden, even until today. Through the art, the artists are trying to express their feelings and attitudes towards this past. It is a stone in Chinese history it can’t be moved. Artists can only use their own way to challenge or express it.

David Spalding has pointed out that for a long time, these images were “the only images allowed,” and so any artist looking into the recent past of art and culture will unavoidably confront them.

I agree. Reality can’t jump over such a thing, you must face it. We say that for the Beijing artists, this is their reality. All of China went through this struggle and all Chinese artists exist in the course of all of Chinese history. And yet the vast territory of China and established traditions determined great differences in the local and intellectual trends. The local art styles during the 1980s and 1990s are radically different based on location. At that time there were many artist groups, such as those in the Northwest, Southwest and South, who did not express this narrow political topic. Different locations found their own traditions and predicaments.

Yunnan artists never paint Chairman Mao. If they did, other artists would wonder why. This is also why landscape is so popular, because this is the reality for Yunnan artists.

Some critics have interpreted these works as China publicly engaging with its past. Was it that significant? How were the works received by the Chinese Audience?

Before they became successful in the western world, normal people would never have seen those images. In recent years, after they became successful they also gained influence in mainstream media. Sometimes you can see works by artists like Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang on novels or films.

But how do normal audiences see them? I’m not sure. There was a period of time when many essays criticized them for showing a terrible side of China to the western world.

Gao Minglu has commented that they are not really “Pop” because Pop relies on contemporary images while these artists reach into the past.

Warhol and other American Pop artists did not use historical images.

But Warhol is definitely the biggest influence for these artists, correct?

I think perhaps he’s not the only one, as the influence of Pop reached very far and in affected the artists in many ways. In 2005, for example, there were many Yunnan sculptures using a Pop style. Their typical method was to use fiberglass with car paint finish, creating a glossy and flat sensation. At the same time it gives one the feeling of industrial production.

A feature of Political Pop (and to a lesser extent Cynical Realism) is that the works deal directly with political themes but refuse to take a stance. Can you comment on this strategy? Is it a result of the political environment? Does it reflect a true ambivalence of these artists towards the past?

I think that for many it’s a kind of marketing strategy. It is more successful in the market. There is of course political risk. For example Tang Zhigang’s work initially was influenced by Political Pop and Cynical Realism, both in terms of style and content. But his works have a piercing yet humorous style, as they deal with the army, human nature, and our society. He couldn’t publish on magazines in the early 2000s. One of his appearances in an art university newspaper was published but then recalled, and all of the copies had to be kept in storage. There is attitude in his work, but all artists must find a balance between political, business and art.

But I think the majority of Political Pop works lack attitude. They’re focused on the surface symbols and posturing, but they don’t engage the politics.

Political Pop

Let’s talk about some of the contradictory ways these works have been interpreted. Sometimes they are described as very critical (commercialism is the new communism), and other times they are seen as nationalistic (as if saying “we need a new propaganda to resist commercialization”).

Personally, I don’t think this art is critical. Maybe in the beginning it was, but today it is not. It’s more like a game in which you use Communist symbols and brands.

Wang Guangyi has said his work comes from a non-standpoint (无立场), in which every standpoint has merit so none is correct.

I think many artists use this strategy. It is very difficult to interpret a single work of art. In order to understand their viewpoint and works, we must use a longer view to look at their production, such as their work over many years or even their life.

As for Wang Guangyi, I would agree that his works come from a nationalist standpoint. In 2008 there was a protest against France after Sarkozy invited the Dali Lama. Wang Guangyi and other artists joined the protest and refused to exhibit in France.

In general, non-standpoint is a valid strategy for artists. However, I think that when look at Wang Guangyi’s career, it is clear that he is indeed taking a stance. Other artists are the same. Looking at one piece it looks neutral. But if you look at their work for a long time, not even a long time just ten years, you will have a deeper understanding of them.

Gao Minglu has been a vocal critic of the artists such as Wang Guangyi for tapping into the suffering and profiting from it. He says they are complicit, no longer seeking confrontation.

I agree. It’s like rotten food. The artists themselves don’t eat it, they package it nicely and give it to others. I think artists need to go deeper into the history, and not just exploit it.

Are there examples of other artists who have gone deeper and examined this more successfully?

It depends on the definition of successful. If the standard is market success, then although some artists go deeper into these issues, they are not necessarily more successful. If the standard is whether artists take responsibility for history, and whether they participate in constructing a public society, then I think there are some artists on this path. Wang Nanming (art critic and author of The Rise of Critical Art) is interested in this kind of investigation by artists like Lei Yan (who, for example, has made works that examine the history of China’s wars).


Wang Ziwei (王子卫) started painting Mao as early as 1987 but these works made no impact either in China or abroad. Why were such images more important in the 1990s?

I am not to clear on the concrete conditions of this artist. Sometimes the development of artists is tied to their participation in important exhibitions. Sometimes the time also needs to settle. 20 or 30 years later, people can look at the history more objectively, and reevaluate the art of the past.

An important part of that publicity was Li Xianting’s essay, which became famous not only in China but also among western art audiences. Did Li discover this trend or did he create it?

I don’t think he created it. He encouraged it, but in the beginning it stems from the artists themselves. As far as I know, after the events of 1989, many people had the same feeling of disappointment, dejection, and profound powerlessness. However, he discovered that many artists were very happy and joyous. They were having lots of parties, looking for girlfriends, and dancing. He asked himself, “How can they have this attitude?” and concluded that this was a new attitude. Of course at that time he was also very influential so if he encouraged this kind of art, more and more would flock to join it.

The first Chinese artists in the Venice Biennale were invited by the curator Achille Bonito Oliva in 1993 and were drawn almost exclusively from Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Was this a valid strategy in 1993, or was he overlooking other artists? Did this help solidify the reputations of these artists?

I’m not clear about how many artists he saw or who was the bridge or contact person for the curator. I don’t think he could pick the artists by himself, because normally foreign curators depend on a contact person from China. Perhaps the foreign curator and the Chinese contact argued because of differences in opinion.

In Oliva is not the Savior of Chinese Art, Wang Lin (王林) writes that he had a Chinese advisor who presented many works, but then went on to choose only Political Pop and Cynical Realism.

I can imagine that, because these works coincided with the conjectures and imagination of the western world after Tiananmen. The western world still had no conception of what was going on in China, and these works shocked people. If we saw this art coming from North Korea today we would also be shocked.

The market has embraced these artists an unprecedented way. How much was that a factor?

At that time I think the market was very important, especially the western collectors. In the 80s or 90s it was considered pretty good if artists were able to sell work to foreigners. Li Xianting also presented a thorough academic background to explain why these works were important. The art critics also supported its rise.

It was like a perfect storm in which the market, critics, and curators all converged on these artists.

This example still has influence on the way art is organized in China. If organizers can combine the support of critics with the purchases of collectors, than that art is labeled successful.

Cynical Realism

Finally, I want to ask a more subjective question. These works are the best known Chinese contemporary works, the most prominent in world art history. Do they deserve this position?

They have an established position in today’s art history. I don’t know if they will still be there 100 years later. I imagine they will be, but I don’t know if it’s really important, if it will really have influence. Personally I don’t think these artists are particularly mature or outstanding in terms of art and consciousness.

However, I do think that the images these works produced will be important to a generation of visual studies. When I toured European museums with other Chinese artists, we got to see the works of true masters. I and the other artists felt that our works were weak in comparison, and yet Chinese art has become so expensive. It’s almost the same price as those masters now.

I think it’s because these works are important in understanding China. They may not be as important as other recognized masters in art history, but do in fact represent an image of China. In this respect, they may be considered classics.

Many thanks to Luo Fei for working on this text with me. For more resources on Cynical Realism and Political Pop, see these sites.

The Paintings of Wang Guangyi: Revolutionary Acts? by David Spalding
Mao Zedong – Stylistic Resume as Critical Method by Martina Köppel-Yang
Cynical Realism – An Exponent of Contemporary Chinese Artistry by Annette Labedzki
Pop Art: At the Time of China’s Cultural Revolution by Lihua Zhao, for Fine Art Registry
Don’t believe the hype about Chinese art by Ana Finel Honigman
A Brief History of Cynical Realism via Fang Lijun by Sinopop
Between Bada and Calvino–Guangci’s Post-Political Pop Narrative by Zhu Zhu

Reunification: Fu Meijun, Li Yuyue art exhibition

post-cardReunification: Fu Meijun, Li Yuyue art exhibition

Curator: Sha Yurong
Academic host: He Libin
Artistic director: Luo Fei
Translator: R. Orion Martin
Host by TCG Nordica
Opening: 20:00, 2012-7-3
Exhibition duration: 2012-7-3 – 2012-9-15
Address: TCG Nordica, Chuangku, XiBaLu 101, Kunming
Tel: 0871-4114692

Preface to “Reunification”
By Luo Fei

Once when I was speaking with a westerner who managed a collection of photos of old Beijing, he said to me that China has no history, it only has experience. I was stunned when I heard this, because he hit exactly upon a deep wound of ours.

These words are surely more appropriate when applied to the universities in Chenggong campus, just outside of Kunming: This city has no history, only experience. As a satellite city, the art scene here does not yet have “grounded atmosphere” connections like an identity or history, so it can only relate to its immediate experience. Among those are the visual experience of the media environment, and physical pain, the most direct and universal experience. These become the main horizons and spiritual state for the works of many graduating art students. They are adept at mixing together all kind of classical images and symbols, and investing them with the inherent playfulness and anxiety of adolescence.I understand that Fu Meijun and Li Yuyue’s works were produced under such a background and logic.

Fu Meijun’s oil paint and propylene works use concise lumps of color to build closed but continuous spaces. Lightbulbs, plants, beds, tables, chairs, and other scattered furniture are placed on the canvas with people, forming the logic of a hidden narrative. He primarily focuses on scenes related to the narrative and physical experience of adolescence. In another group of works, he breaks down Chinese characters into shattered geometrical forms that playfully interact with small figures. At the same time he uses the language and themes of pop culture and the internet for his works, creating a gently humorous effect.

The subjects of Li Yuyue’s paintings are drawn from San Xing Dui Masks, and the classical visual style of the art history from East and West. In addition, he employs the smiling expressions of Cynical Realism. The form of the masks, originally used for religious purposes, seems more to possess the spying mentality and mischievous attitude of cartoons. The laughing San Xing Dui Masks, straw bodies, blocked jars and the repeatedly appearing currency certifier, these barely relevant symbols are assembled together as a metaphor for the fragmented and broken hyper-reality of contemporary visual society.

It’s natural that among the creation of students it will be easy to find every kind of zeitgeist, to see the influence images have on them, and to see their growing maturity in technique. But art is not only about art. The road of art is also about understanding a unique self and the source of creation. These grow together along with the process of creation and personal experience. I hope that this exhibition will become a blessing for Fu and Li as they begin their journey.

July 6, 2012

Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei Part 2

Note: This interview is posted by R. Orion Martin, and this is the part II(Part I). Thanks Orion:)

This is part 2 of an interview I did with curator Luo Fei, in which we discussed the successes and failures of the Chinese art market, and its influence on art. Our discussion is loosely based on the views that Huang Zhuan expressed in a 1991 interview with Art Market.


Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010, Sale price: $534,600

Orion: In the 1990s and later, some curators asked companies for economic support in order to create independent galleries. Is this a better solution? Perhaps some galleries work like this?

Luo Fei: Strictly speaking, they do not support. Rather they rely on a kind of exchange. They ask for gifts from the artist or collectors in order to regain the capital invested in the exhibition. There’s no free lunch. Continue reading

Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei Part 1

Note: This interview is posted by R. Orion Martin, he interviewed me last week, and this is the part I. Thanks Orion:)

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

In 1991, Huang Zhuan participated in an interview for the magazine Art Market. In it, he argued that the creation of an art market in China would establish a relatively fair arena in which artists could compete while also supporting those artists. He further explained that artists are always under pressure (political, religious, social, and economic), and that the test of a true artist is how he or she responds to that pressure.

20 years later, I think many in China would say that the development of the art market didn’t work out quite as well as he predicted. I sat down to discuss his ideas with curator Luo Fei.

Orion: Let’s begin by talking about what happened to the development of the Chinese art market after this interview written. During the 1990s, Chinese art was “discovered” by foreign dealers.

Luo Fei: Yes that’s right. In the 1990’s foreign embassies became important to Chinese artists as alternative sites of exhibition.

Orion: This is the so called “embassy art”?

Luo Fei: Yes. At that time artists had no space to exhibit. Sometimes they would show in embassies or private spaces. Of course, the artists who were able to exhibit in an embassy or a diplomat’s house were those artists who were already discovered and were relatively well known.

Orion: Throughout the 1990s there was more and more attention paid to Chinese art circles, but what about major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies? When did they become involve?

Luo Fei: I’m not sure about the specific dates, but the legitimization of 798 was a major turning point because it was a signaled that the government had acknowledged contemporary art. In the beginning 798 was a spontaneous, independently founded community like the Artist’s Loft in Kunming. It was a place where artists and art organizations gathered together and resisted the pressure of urban development. Then in the mid-2000s it was recognized by the government as a cultural center.

Orion: The 2000 Shanghai Biennale was also an important turning point, correct?

Luo Fei: That’s right. I remember reading many art magazines talk about the biennale when before they had never introduced contemporary art.

Orion: Around 2006 the art market really began to heat up. Since then it has cooled a bit, but there was a lot of money invested in the 2000s.

Luo Fei: In Yunnan during 2005 and 2006, the hottest thing was wasn’t the market but Jianghu (a series of experimental exhibitions funded by the Lijiang Studio). After that, the market’s influence on Yunnan became stronger and stronger. Particularly in 2006, many Yunnan artists were invited to display in Shanghai and about 20 or 30 artists participated in an exhibition. Most of the pieces where oil paint, sculpture, installation and photography. One particularly large event was the “New Impulse” exhibition held at the Yuan Gong Fine Arts Gallery. I think this definitely had an influence on Yunnan artists, the chance to go out and exhibit, look at different kinds of exhibition. Through these large exhibitions, artists with commercial value began to filter out. Some good artists sold all their works and began to work closely with galleries.

Personal experience with commercialization was an important learning experience for Yunnan artists. I remember that once when I was installing an exhibition in Shanghai, someone from China Post came and asked if I was willing to print my works on postcards. They wanted to expand the market and its influence by printing these postcards. I remember thinking that there were no China Post officials in Yunnan going to exhibitions and asking about collaboration, and if you went to them they would definitely look at you with indifference. The entire Yunnan market was still clearly very immature.

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998, No. 26, Sale price: $2.6 million

Orion: What happened then?

Luo Fei: In those years there were many artists who moved to Beijing or other locations and established studios. Many of their studios were huge, even as big as a gallery, in order to make large works. Some young artists also began to employ small teams of assistants to produce their work. At that time there was really a lot of investment in studios, art production, teams and selling. I did a very simple installation involving a loudspeaker on a six meter long wooden pole that played recordings of the prohibition of violent and grotesque performance art in public spaces. They wanted to take the installation to Shanghai but to move that long piece of wood across the country they had to rent a huge shipping container. Personally, I thought it was unnecessary, I just wanted to do a new art project in Shanghai. But at that time many galleries really didn’t care how much the price was. They wanted to try presenting a grand exhibition. I think that this kind of thing rarely happens today unless you are a very successful artist.

Orion: In your opinion, does the market now establish a “legitimate arena” with “rules of competition”? (terms drawn from Huang Zhuan’s piece)

Luo Fei: First I should say that I’m not in the market. I focus on experimental art. But my friends and teachers who are involved say that the art market is no different than other areas of the economy. In actuality, the Chinese art market is governed by Chinese rules of competition. All of the society’s rules of competition clearly have problems, there are too many unwritten rules and background connections. For example, Bo Xilai’s case is dramatic because there are a lot of things going on behind the official news. Maybe the art market is not as dramatic as the political sphere but it has the same characteristics.

The infamous Bainsbridge vase

The infamous Bainsbridge vase, a dusty antique discovered in an English home that auctioned for a stunning $85.9 million dollars

Orion: Are you referring to corruption in the art market?

Luo Fei: It’s a bit different but yes, it’s there. In politics we have corruption, but in art circles it is expressed in a different form. For example, if a boss wants to support an artist, he may ask someone to buy their work at a high price in an auction.

Orion: There are reports that during auctions of Chinese works, some organizations will plant buyers in order to push up the prices.

Luo Fei: Yes, it’s a game. In addition, the critics who assess value are also involved. The boss will gather buyers and art critics for dinner. The critic says good things and at the end of the night he/she gets a red envelope (Chinese tradition for passing gifts of money or bribes). It’s good that the critic gets some income but they lose their independence.

Orion: Zhuan sees a very large role for critics in the art market. Do you think critics can be the arbiter of art’s value?

Luo Fei: This is one of the critic’s responsibilities, to distinguish between good and bad, to assign art value, and to publicly interpret art. But as to the value of art, I personally do not believe that critics can act as the final arbiter. In terms of the public value of art, I am more interested in establishing a robust art system based on museums. Museums are a more fair way of selecting outstanding artists. Critics today are all self-employed or teaching at schools. Some work in galleries. I work at TCG Nordica, and therefore my responsibility is to introduce artists to the public. Interestingly, some independent curators will ask their students to write essays for them. This makes evaluations of worth very dubious and ambiguous, turning art criticism into a kind of advertisement.

Orion: They just tell the students to write some nice things?

Luo Fei: Yes, as a kind of practice for the students. Artists often complain to me about critics who do this. You can read the work and recognize that it’s really bad.

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 1, 1994, Sale price: $8.4 million

Orion: You mentioned that museums are a better alternative, but if there were more museums, wouldn’t they be like the Yunnan Provincial Museum? I recently saw an exhibition there that was absolutely terrible.

Luo Fei: I’m not talking about official museums. I mean those run by companies or independent individuals. In this system, buyers buy the art in order to collect the history. The public institution (whether private or a type of organization) profits from society, and then those profits are translated into cultural value and given to society. This is the function of those museums.

Orion: We’re talking about independent large scale galleries and private museums.

Luo Fei: Yes, we need different kinds of organizations that can show the public there are different values. Ideally, art critics would not have all the power. Different systems would reflect different values. We need a rich art ecosystem with all kinds of organizations including commercial, nonprofit, experimental, government, religious, classical, fashion, conservative, large scale, small scale, stable and mobile. The audience can decide what good art is, or what is good in different areas.

Part 2 will be posted next week.