The Geographic Deification Shift of Chinese Contemporary Arts and Artists

by Xindi Guo

Cao Fei, 2009, Birth of the RMB City
Cai Guoqiang, 1994,The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No.16

1. Introduction

A Traditional Chinese Wash Painting
The fist piece of artwork is a drawing from a project named The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No.16 developed by a Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guoqiang in 1994. Cai Guoqiang developed this drawing with gunpowder and paper, which are two important elements in the traditional Chinese culture. This piece of drawing is so abstract that I guess no one can understand it without an explanation. The image reminds people the prospect and the genre of Chinese wash painting. The second piece of artwork is a screen shot of a project named the Birth of the RMB City. RMB City is a virtual city that developed in the online world, Second Life by a younger generation contemporary artist, China Tracy (Cao Fei). Compare to Cai Guoqiang’s artwork, it is very easy to identify elements in Cao Fei’s art. They are symbols of modern China: a panda, the Bird’s Nest (Beijing National Statium), the Oriental Pearl Tower of Shanghai, as well as a huge wheel of bicycle. It reminds people the image of industrial revolution and the process of urbanization. They are also the common symbols of the world. From these two pieces of artworks, we can see that in the past twenty-five years, a significant change has occurred in Chinese art. The evolution of Chinese art involves a shift from being geographically identified with a western influence to an independent identity with less geographical identification due to globalization. Using the Bakhtin’s dialogism and intertexuality, I will examine this change.

2. Theory: Dialogism and Intertexuality

Dialogism or dialogic is a term that all new works are in continual dialogue with other works. The Russia philosopher Mihail Bakhtin thinks that dialogue is a basic living style of human beings and no one live outside of a dialogue (Wikipedia, n.d.). He argues that new meanings are developed with the process of reflecting to previous meanings (Irvine, n.d.). People use concepts from former dialogues to create new concept. For example, people always talk about what they read, what they saw and what they listened before to make new thoughts. In contemporary art, all kinds of artworks are put into dialogue with previous artworks, opinions, cultures and philosophies. New artists develop their artworks according to genres, techniques, and materials that already exist.

Bakhtin treats dialogue as a continual process but not an unchangeable position (Wekipedia, n.d.). In this term, texts are not unchangeable and their functions and relationships are indifferent to potential dialogues. For example, people have different reflections or understandings after listening to a same song because they use this song into different dialogues. In the world of contemporary art, this process was shown as the meanings of artwork shift with times because the dialogue is continually changing.

Intertextuality is the references to other texts (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). According to Kristeva, the term of text combined by two axis. One shows the connection of author and audiences (Kristeva, 1986). The other shows the connection of this text and former texts. Every text achieve its meaning through these two axis. For example, people use a pop star to make a story. At this time, the speaker is assuming people know characteristics of this pop star. In the world of contemporary art, this process was shown as contemporary a reflection, critique and discussion of former artworks (Wikipedia, n.d.).

3. Background: 50, 60 Vs. 70, 80

A heated debate about how Chinese contemporary artists identify their role in the world art industry has happened science 1990s in China. To accept the assimilation from western culture or to reject it has perplexed many Chinese artists who were born in 1950s and 1960s. After the 1978, with the end of Cultural Revolution, China has begun to open its door to the world. In late 1970s, some Japanese amines like Astro Boy and Saint Seiya began to come into Chinese Market. In late 1980s and early 1990s, western pop culture including popular word such as “cool”, popular products such as Coca-Cola, pop stars in music industry and film industry gradually came into China. Pop art represented by Andy Warhol and other artists begin to effect Chinese art industry. The new art movement allowed Chinese artist to rethink Chinese traditional art with a critical sight. From that time, Chinese artist have continually found identities for themselves.

3.1 General Background of Chinese Artists Born in 1950s and 1960s

Cai Guoqiang

“Famous overseas but unknown in China” has become a tag for many artists born in 1950s and 1960s. This generation artist grew up in a closed China and was affected by Cultural Revolution a lot. After the Revolution, many of them received Chinese traditional art education in China and went abroad to study world contemporary art. They started their career in western countries and use their artworks to discuss their thoughts about the relationship of eastern and western culture, the future and the past, as well as human beings and Mother Nature. In 1990s, they gradually got famous in the western world. They gained attention of Chinese contemporary art industry after they got success overseas. Chinese common people began to know them just in recent years. After they went to western countries, they experienced a huge culture shock of arts, which let them began to re-examine contemporary art in China. The cracker artist Cai Guoqiang said that he first time feel that the range of art is far more than he thought after he came to Japan in1986. Everything can be an art and everything can be used as materials of artworks (Baidu, 2011). He first time feel that art can be so free. This concept is so different from what he learned in China. It encouraged him to continually use gunpowder and crackers to develop his art. After Cai Guoqiang travel around the world, he pointed that if contemporary art in China looks like an ‘underground party’, the contemporary art in Japan is more like a ‘guerilla’ and only the contemporary art in the United States is a ‘well-equipped army’ (Baidu, 2011). This thought let him abandoned all the achievements in Japan and decides to go to New York to start over in 1995 (Baidu,n.d.). Many artists like Xu Bing and Huang Yongping had the same thought with Cai Guoqiang. They thought to get approval in western countries is the symbol of success. Through their works, they are trying to create dialogue between western culture and eastern culture.

3.2 General Background of Chinese Artists Born in 1970s and 1980s

After 2000s, a younger-generation artist who was born in 1970 and 1980s has emerged. Although they may never learn western art on purpose, they were growing up in a world with iPods, Internet and pop arts. They lack of Chinese traditional education in some kind. They drink Coca-Cola and began to learn English when they were in primary school. They regard art as pleasure not serious topics. They use art to discuss current economy, their small community, and imaginations about future. They may not go to any art institute but from variety backgrounds. They care less about the differences between western culture and eastern culture or other geographical debates. Many of them are very popular among younger people who are at the same age of them or younger than them. In my eyes, they are not critics but more like rebels. In this blundering society, they sometimes just want to create something cool to gain a sense of existence. For example, people refresh statuses on social network websites every couple minute. They post photos of their general lunch because they feel lonely in the big world and they need to do something to make a sense of existence. It quite similar with Andy Warhol’s constantly copy and make everything big. Another typical example is call up a group of people to make something fool together such as streaking. They are eager to gain people’s attention.

3.3 When the Two Generations Meet

Cao Fei (a.k.a China Tracy)
Cao Fei (a.k.a China Tracy)
From late 1980s to 2000s, China has changed a lot with the process of urbanization and the development of economics. As the art producer and the owner of WM Company, Kimiko Mitani Woo said, “China is the only country and culture that has the closest distance between the old and the new.” (Woo, 2011). Actually, she wants to point out that the Chinese contemporary artists use a very short time to redefine themselves. This term happened in about15 to 20 years. In the 15 to 20 years, the older generation artists like Cai Guoqiang, got success in the world and went back to China and they found that many Chinese young artists have already become the opinion leader among their generations. Compare to the sensitive geographic identification of old generation artist, young generation artists “have strong aspirations of independence and are globally minded” (Woo, 2011). Chinese young generation artists are trying to integrate new techniques and foreign cultures in their arts. The new generation artist Cao Fei thinks that old generation artists use many symbols that represents China such old boat, Chinese medicine and calligraphy because they tried to gained attention in the western world and they think it is their responsibility to show the fabulous Chinese traditional culture to the world. However, her generation is more relax because they don’t think use Chinese cultural elements are their responsibility (Cao, 2008).

4. Geographical Dialogues of Two Generations

In China, both young and old generation artists continually use their artworks to make dialogues geographically. Through this process, they try to find their geographical identifications in the world art industry. While they use their artworks to reflect Chinese culture, western culture, world culture and even reach the whole universe, young generation artist care more about themselves. This difference is mainly shown by the contents, the subject matters the forums and medium that used for making art.

4.1 Geographical Dialogues Reflected by Content

Xubing, Book From the Sky, 1987
Xubing, Book From the Sky, 1987

Cao Fei, RMB City, 2007
Cao Fei, RMB City, 2007
Zhang Zhouile, Triangulation Project,2011
Zhang Zhouile, Triangulation Project,2011
A geographical dialogue change has happened in the past 25 years in Chinese art industry. With the time pasted, the content of Chinese contemporary artworks changed. As shown by the three piece of artwork, the first one can be easily identified as typical Chinese contemporary artwork, because it is full of Chinese elements including characters, calligraphy and print techniques. The second one is something relate to China, but hard to identify the nationality of the artist because some elements are from western culture while some of them are from Chinese culture. The third one looks totally like an artwork from western culture because it is a totally western style artwork.
Xu Bing
Xu Bing

In 1987, a Chinese contemporary artist named Xu Bing who was born 1957, started his artwork named Book From the Sky, which is “comprised of printed volumes and scrolls containing four thousand ''false'' Chinese characters invented by the artist and then painstakingly hand-cut onto wooden printing blocks” (Xu Bing, 1987). While asking Xu Bing what inspired him to do this, he said, after Chinese Cultural Revolution, he began to read a lot of books every day. This process was like a starving person who ate too much sometime and began to feel uncomfortable because his stomach cannot digest all those food (Xubing, 2009). That is why Xu Bing stopped reading on 1987 and started to work on his project, Book From the Sky. He didn’t hire any assistant but use four years to complete it by himself because he wanted to use these four years to re-think knowledge he learned before.

The contents of Xu Bing’s project remind me Chinese characters, traditional Chinese calligraphy and traditional Chinese books. Actually, he was trying to create an imitation of Chinese traditional books via the print technique and sculpture technique. The fake book that he made looks very exquisite and fabulous, which makes audiences believe it is a real book written by abstruse characters. Through this artwork, Xu Bing made a dialogue to Chinese traditional books. In this dialogue, Xu Bing successful separates the meaning from the shape of a book. This piece of print art makes people feel familiar because Xu Bing appropriates the elements from the shape of Chinese characters and books. Also this piece of art looks strange because those characters are not real characters.

Despite of the dialogue of Chinese traditional book culture, Xu Bing also tried to make a dialogue to the fast-developing Chinese society. Xu Bing felt that China changed a lot science late 1980s, which made him feel familiar but strange (Xu Bing, 2009). Book from the Sky was trying to express this complicated emotion. When modern architectures started to take the place of Chinese traditional architectures. People began to doubt whether we should destroy old architectures to build new buildings. Cities in China had already lost its original personalities and become similar.

A young generation artist named Cao Fei addresses the urbanization issue of China via her art project, the RMB City. The RMB City is a virtual city that developed in the online world, second life. Cao Fei videotaped constructing process as a documentary film named the Birth of RMB City and make many short films to tell stories happened in the RMB City. She uses these footages to reflect social issues in China. Now she is trying to construct her RMB City in the real life.

[RMB City Construction, Week 1]

The documentary film, the Birth of RMB City is a dialogue about the urbanization issue of Chinese society. The RMB City is a City composed by all of typical architectures from big cities in China. They look modern, tall, and similar and are lack of personalities. The contents that Cao Fei use in this project include avatars of people from different world, common people, city workers, Laozi, Mao, Marx, Lehman, etc., architectures from Chinese cities like the shabby dorms for construction workers, the Bird Nest, the HSBC Bank, etc. and magic animals from Chinese ancient poems. This city is highly hybridized.

Compared to Xu Bing’s artwork, the contents of Cao Fei’s work are more diverse. She not only uses Chinese traditional cultural element to construct her artwork, but also uses modern and post-modern Chinese cultural elements, western cultural elements, and the world cultural elements as contents. While Xu Bing uses a fake book to imply the popping up issues with fast economic development, Cao Fei directly points out that the speed of culture development in China cannot match the speed of economy development. While Xu Bing was trying to bring up a discussion topic, Cao Fei directly states her opinions.

4.2 Geographical Dialogues Reflected by Subject Matter

The geographical dialogues shift is reflected by the subject matters of artworks in the past twenty-five years in Chinese art industry. Subject matter is what artists try to express in their artworks. For the old generation contemporary artist in China, they identify themselves as pioneers, so they address the dialogues between eastern culture and western culture. Topics of their artworks are usually very big and abstruseness. The young generation artists in China identify themselves as egoists. They care more about what happened around their small worlds. They do think culture difference is important to them, because with the western culture have already become the world culture, they are representative of a hybrid of western culture and eastern culture. For example, the young generation Chinese listen pop music much more than traditional music, so the pop music culture belongs to them.

Cai Guoqiang is a contemporary artist in China born in 1957. After he finished his college at Shanghai Theater Academy, he went to Japan to lean contemporary art in 1986 and went to New York to develop his career in 1995. The subject matters of his artworks, especially early artworks, are very huge and deep. In 1995, Cai Guoqiang was invited to the La Biennale di Venezia for the first time. Cai named his project, Bring to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot, which made a dialogue to the story of Venetian merchant, Marco Polo traveled to China in 12 century. He drove into Venetian with an old boat from his hometown Quanzhou, Fujian province and took a lot of traditional Chinese medicines. He sold those traditional Chinese medicines in a vending machine during the exhibition to create a dialogue between Chinese traditional medical technique and a western sales technique. Through this project, Cai was trying to show the process of how Chinese culture launched western world.

In September 2011, Cai gave a speech at Brown University. He said that when he was in China, artists always worried about how western people saw their artworks. Then he went to Japan, and found Japanese artists also considered the culture differences too much. Cai said that he decided to escape from the disturbing cultural issue and make some art for human beings to talk about the common issues of the world. In his artwork, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, he used his fireworks to explain the principle of nuclear explosion and to imply that the nuke on this earth is like a black hole in the universe created by human beings. In his another project named The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, he used crackers to create small images of mushroom clouds, which is a significant symbol in 20 century. He made the mushroom cloud in many typical places including the Nuclear Test Site, Nevada and
Manhattan, New York. It is very interesting to use gunpowder to reflect the effects of nuclear explosion. While gunpowder was invented for celebration, it is also used for making weapons. While nuclear explosion bring us new energy, it became the most horrible weapon in the war. It is also very interesting to make those fake mushroom clouds in different places to give the clouds different meanings.

Different from Cai, young Chinese artists are using art to reflect things around themselves. With the effects of Japanese Manga and Murakami Takashi’s Superflat movement, their artworks are more direct and flat. Jiji is a young generation designer from Shanghai, China. He created the image Hi Panda and designed many related products like T-shirts, mugs, etc. Jiji is using the panda to represent the young people born after 1980s in big cities. They are egoistic and independent. They reject to grow up and desire people’s attention. He is trying to discuss how pop culture affects Chinese young generation. While asking Jiji where will be his major market, China or Europe, he said that he never thinks about where is his market. He only wants to use his design to express his ideas. He appropriates the Campbell's Soup Can and Mao’s Red Book to make interesting images. However, when asked him why his use these symbols, he said it because he thinks there are cool. He means that Chinese young generation thinks those symbols are cool.

Compared to Cai Guoqiang’s cultural topics and Xu Bing’s cultural re-thinking, the subject matter in Jiji’s art is very simple: to express himself. While Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing were seeking chances in western art industry, Jiji’s art is developing in Shanghai and gained the world’s attentions.

4.3 Geographical Dialogues Reflected by Forum and Medium

Despite in content and subject matters, a geographical dialogues shift is also reflected by forum and medium that the artists used. Medium and forum are the carrier of their ideas and the publishing channel of their artworks. Old generation artists usually use old art techniques like painting and sculpture to express their ideas. Museums and traditional galleries are the forums that artists would like to use twenty years ago. Young generation artists use variety of new media and new technologies in their artworks and they got variety forums to publish their artworks.

Compare to Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing, who became famous in museums, Cao Fei, Jiji and a young generation artist are the heroes on the Internet. They use blogs, video websites, social media platforms and personal websites to publish their ideas and get successful. Via social media websites, they get fans and become opinion leaders in a small community. With more and more people pay attention on their arts, they gets invitation from famous galleries.

Despite forums, different generation artists use different types of medium to make their dialogues. While Xu Bing use print technique and Cai Guoqiang use painting and dynamite techniques, new generation artists are using new techniques including computer science, web design, multimedia design and intermedia design to make arts. Cao Fei developed her RBM City on a virtual websites named Second Life and Jiji use drawing software to design his Hi Panda series.

With the development of technologies, old generation artists also continually change their techniques to make their arts. Cai Guoqiang used to use thousand times of experiments to try how to make a lifelike mushroom cloud by a small cracker. However, now he plants cmos chipsinto into every single cracker to accurately calculate explosion time and location. In his project Transient Rainbow, he used this technique to draw rainbows in the sky to memorize 9.11. That is to say, nowadays, artists in their artworks use more and more medium and forums.

5. Geographical Dialogue Upon Ideology

While talking about the geographical identification shift of Chinese cotemporary art that is reflected in the contents, subject matters and medium and forums of artworks, the cause of this change basically is a change upon ideology. With the process of globalization, people have continually blurred the geographical boundaries. Twenty-five years ago, western culture is the lead culture all over the world. Chinese artists want to get successful in western world. They went to western countries and take the responsibility of introducing eastern culture to the west. They identified themselves as representatives of Chinese contemporary artists. They use typical Chinese elements to construct their works because they want to show their identification in the western world. Now, the western culture has become a world culture, eastern culture and other kinds of culture have begun to gain attentions. The new generation Chinese artists were growing in a hybrid culture. They have hybrid identifications and independent personalities. They identified themselves as free artist or independent artists. They don’t need western culture or eastern culture to be different, because they think every one is unique as individuals.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, with the fast development of economics of China and the process of globalization, pop culture and the post-modernism art made a huge effect on Chinese contemporary art. In the dialogue with western culture, Chinese artists have changed from being geographically identified with a western influence to an independent identity with less geographical identification. This change will continue in the future years in Chinese contemporary art industry. The new issue bringing to Chinese young artists will be how to make innovations with different cultures and different identifications.

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