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Spring 2006 | v.02 n.02 |

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On Contemporary Forms in Chinese Art and the “Diachronic Approach”
of the 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006

Wu Hung

Chief Curator of the “First Chapter”
section of the 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006
University of Chicago


This short paper has two focuses. The first is the context and significance of new art forms, including multi-media art, in contemporary Chinese art. For example, why have these forms attracted experimental artists since the 1980s and 1990s? What do these artists want to achieve by using them? What are their contributions to contemporary art in general? The second focus is a major section in the 2006 Gwangju Biennale, for which I serve as Chief Curator. Entitled “Trace Roots,” this section intends to present and interpret contemporary art from a “diachronic” approach. I will explain why we have decided to take this approach and how we are using this approach to organize the section.

To understand the meaning of contemporary art forms in China, we need to consider these forms, such as installation, performance, video, site-specific art, and multi-media art, as a vital component of a global/local dialogue. This dialogue has been one of the most powerful driving forces for the development of Chinese experimental art since the 1980s: it has stimulated experimental artists to explore their self-identity, to expand their visual vocabulary, to make traditional Chinese concepts and forms part of global contemporary art, and to re-contextualize international art trends amid domestic concerns. The same dialogue has also made a significant contribution to international contemporary art, especially after the early 1990s when Chinese artists began frequenting large and small exhibitions abroad.

The conversation between Chinese artists and global art scenes did not start from the 1990s, of course. But for a long time it was equated with the Westernization of Chinese art. From the early twentieth century onward, many Chinese artists abandoned the traditional Chinese brush. Some traveled to Paris and Tokyo to study Western oil painting and sculpture first hand, but those who remained home also had ample opportunities to learn foreign art forms and techniques. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 did not stop this historical process, but restricted the model of academic learning to social realist art of the Soviet Union. For more than three decades this particular “Western” style dominated Chinese art, but it became history after experimental art grew into a national movement through the ’85 Art New Wave. Participants in this avant-garde movement embraced all brands of modern western art developed outside the canon of realism (including, for example, surrealism, Dadaism, abstract expressionism, conceptual art, body art, and Pop art). But perhaps more important than these individual styles, the introduction of new, contemporary art forms allowed young Chinese artists to bridge the gap between East and West, which had existed as a fundamental conceptual framework in which artists and historians envisioned modern Chinese art. In other words, these artists no longer had to make choice between oil and ink painting (and hence to choose a rigid identity as a “western-style” or a “Chinese-style” painter), but could develop a transnational artistic identity for themselves by adopting contemporary art forms.

They could do so because unlike oil and ink paintings, these contemporary art forms, such as installation, performance, and multi-media art, actually defy a rigid cultural identity. What these forms provide to Chinese artists, as well as to artists from other non-Western counties, is an “international language,” which not only confirms their own contemporaneity but also allows them to incorporate indigenous art forms, materials, and expression into contemporary art. This explains why their works can have both strong local references and international appeal, and why such works, while responding to regional history and memory, have also become regular components of Biennales and Triennials around the world.

I want to emphasize this point because the identity of Chinese experimental art has long been a contested issue. It is routinely caricatured by official Chinese critics as a local imitation of western contemporary art. Many Western critics actually hold a similar view. If they praise this art they tend to emphasize its political significance by calling it “unofficial” or “underground.” Both views continue to frame experimental Chinese art within the East-West dichotomy, even though this art itself has transcended this dichotomy. If we examine the history of this art carefully, we find that from its beginning, Chinese experimental art was a branch of global contemporary art -- an identity determined not by where artists live but by the concepts and forms of their works and by their intended audience. The key to understanding these artists and their works is to discover how global-local experiences and perspectives were negotiated through specific art forms.

For example, one of the earliest multi-media works in contemporary Chinese art is a video/sound installation by the Beijing artist Wang Gongxin. Wang came to America in 1987 as a visiting artist in the State University of New York at Cortland and Albany, and afterwards took up residence in Brooklyn, New York. He didn’t take a permanent residence in the United States, however. Starting from the early 1990s, he and his wife, artist Lin Tianmiao, embarked on a nomadic lifestyle, traveling between Beijing, New York and other international cities year round, while creating worked to convey their experience as global travelers. The installation, called Brooklyn’s Sky, resulted from this desire (figure 1). It was inspired by an American folk belief that if a person dug a deep enough hole, he would emerge on the other side of the world in China. However, since Wang Gongxin is Chinese, he started his fantastic journey from Beijing, by digging a well in his small apartment there. At the bottom of the well he installed a small video monitor. As if looking through a transparent window, the visitor could see on the screen a piece of sky – the sky above Wang Gongxin’s Brooklyn home.

I can list many other artists, whose choice of art forms helps them to express their experiences both as global and local artists. Zhang Dali, for example, became a graffiti artists in Bologna, Italy, and created thousands images of his self-portrait on Beijing’s streets as his dialogue with the city after he returned to China in mid-1990s. He then transformed such site-specific images into photographs and videos for traveling exhibitions. The picture in figure 2 for example, appeared in an exhibition I co-curated in New Yorks’ International Center for Photography and Asia Society Museum last year. Cai Guoqiang is another artist who has made the global/local dialogue a central theme of his art. Using the gunpowder invented by the ancient Chinese, he has staged “firework” installations and performance in many countries around the world, often combined with other art forms such as painting and video. In the ambitious project he undertook in China, called Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, he traveled along the Great Wall to its western limit. There, assisted by local people, he laid down a 10-kilometer-long fuse in the Gobi desert. Its simultaneous explosion created the spectacle of a “wall of fire,” as if the Great Wall had suddenly come to life and grown to an unprecedented length (figure 3). In the First Guangzhou Triennial I curated in 2002, this work was represented by a long scroll painting and a video. 


Figure 1. Wang Gongxin, Brooklyn’s Sky, Digging a Hole in Beijing,
video installation, 1995.


Figure 2. Zhang Dali, Dialogue, video installation, 2004.


Figure 3. Cai Guoqiang, To Extend the Great Wall of China by
10,000 Meters, Project for the Aliens No. 10
, performance and
video, 1993.


These examples lead me to the second topic of this paper, which is my plan for the First Chapter of the Sixth Gwangju Biennale, schedule to open in early September, 2006. This Biennale has a “bifurcate” structure, presenting and interpreting contemporary art from two complementary perspectives, one synchronic and the other diachronic. In my view, this structure has great potential to solve a serious problem in curating multi-national exhibitions, namely, how to retain the authenticity of non-western contemporary art, instead of “flattening” it to suit a preexisting art historical narrative and exhibition mode.

Here “flattening” means simultaneous conflation and growth: the depth is turned into horizontality; events and representations are reconfigured into lateral networks and synchronic relationships. Such transformation has its liberating effect, to be sure. One startling example is the rapid multiplication itself of biennales and triennials – even China has seen a dozen or so such exhibitions within its borders, all created in the past 5 years except for one. Organized and sponsored by provincial and municipal governments, official art institutions, private companies, philanthropists, and independent curators and artists, these events have only one thing in common: their emphasis on global connections and their penchant for being contemporary. As such they merge into an international system of art and commerce, to which they contribute heightened excitement and anxiety, generated not so much by the art itself but by the unprecedented transformation of an enormous country and its 1.3 billion people. 

Regardless where a multi-national exhibition is held, in Venice or in Shanghai, it easily “flattens” the historical dimensions of a regional contemporary art through a simultaneous process of decontextualization and recontextualization— a process that resembles the act of collecting. The contemporaneity of a regional art is redefined as a suspended moment outside any historical narrative. In the case of contemporary Chinese art in such settings, while it is reframed within a global context, it nevertheless cannot be “inserted” into the existing history of modern and contemporary art because of its specific timing, inspirations, criteria, and context. This dilemma has further led to a particular perception of individual artists: because most non-western artists are automatically associated with their countries or regions, they too have become suspended. This is why those truly original artists actually suffer most from this perception: even though their works appear in numerous international exhibitions, they disappear in standard histories of contemporary art or are grouped into a separate, minor chapter.

These reflections lead to a practical, curatorial issue: How to “de-flatten” regional contemporary art in a multi-national exhibition. As the curators of such exhibitions, it is natural for us to search for the best artists and the newest works to realize a given curatorial project. My earlier reflections, however, raise questions about the implications of this practice in displacing, decontextualizaing, and appropriating “regional” artists and their works. These questions cannot be answered by means of cultural preservation – the interaction of contemporary art in a global space is an irreversible trend and must constantly produce new meaning. To respond to these questions productively we need to reflect upon the existing models of multi-national art exhibitions; the goal is to bring artists from different parts of the world into a genuine artistic and intellectual exchange.

This goal is idealistic but not utopian. Many efforts can be made; a primary one would be to reintroduce the notion of “depth” into a multi-national exhibition. I believe that the “diachronic” approach of the Sixth Gwangju Biennale can help realize this goal. I define this approach as artists’ dialogues with histories and memories, and as their responses to previous aesthetic and visual languages. Since such dialogues and responses constitute important aspects of contemporary art in general and transcend regional boundaries, what unites or separates artists will be their artistic aspirations and strategies, not their birthplaces, residency, or ethnicity. Abandoning the conventional structure and elements of history of art, such as chronology, stylistic evolution, and linked events and artists, the exhibition will instead sort out concepts and paradigms which have been most essential to contemporary artists’ perception and imagination of the East.

Instead of producing a “counter narrative” of the prevailing chronicle of modern and contemporary art, therefore, this part of the Biennale will hopefully open up new spaces for historical imagination. Intersecting with a “synchronic” section that focuses on global networking and information technology, such a diachronic dimension will add three-dimensionality to a presentation of today’s art.



Wu Hung,
Chief Curator of The First Chapter of the 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 is an art historian, curator and writer. Dr. Wu is currently Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Chinese Art History at the University of Chicago, Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, and Consulting Curator of the Smart Museum of Art. He was the Chief Curator of the First Guangzhou Triennial and his books include Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future, Between East and West (2002).

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