Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 19, July 30 - August 5

New-Art After the Fall

Reviewed by Frankie Fathers
Hot-off-the-press China New-Art provides a comprehensive, well-illustrated guide to Beijing's contemporary art scene.

China New-Art
Edited by Zhang Nianchao
China Esperanto Press (1999)
RMB48 in Beijing bookstores

Naked from the waist down, a blindfolded Chinese man in an army jacket stands stiffly to attention, a frightened pink parrot tethered to his bandaged penis.
Swaddled in a padded wool jacket, a lone graffiti artist stomps through a Beijing construction site, scanning the urban jungle for a new concrete canvas.

These are indelible images from Zhang Nianchao's deliciously illustrated book, China New-Art which has just hit the shelves of mainland bookstores with official approval for nationwide distribution.

The book offers a rare view of the works of 23 avant-garde artists, many of whose pieces are only shown at foreign galleries or remote warehouses. Some of the works have been featured in limited distribution mainland publications such as Ai Weiwei's collection of essays and photographs called the Grey Cover Book (Huipi Shu), and its white and black-covered companion volumes. Most of the artists in China New-Art are from the Beijing vanguard clique that is hauled out for display every time foreign students of contemporary China want to write about mainland counterculture.

Nonetheless, China New-Art is a mainland first: a widely distributed book that presents, in less-than-wholesome full color, a selection of disturbing contemporary works that reveal the tears in the fabric of socialist spiritual civilization.

Featured in the book is recent arrival Liu Xinhua, who ritually lathers his penis each day with black ink and squashes it against a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, leaving an ominous image. Not just limited to printing in books, Liu was last seen, trousers-down in Beijing, pressing his appendage against a friend's cheek. His glass boxes adorned with penis prints are surprisingly poetic.

Although China's art scene is mainly dominated by men, Chen Qingqing's spider-web installations stake a claim for the promotion of China's women artists. Searching for a partner, a blouse woven from lonely-hearts advertisements and thin threads, explores the yearning of a modern Chinese woman. Chen, who studied and worked in Austria for several years, only recently returned home to live and work in China.

Her Woman 1- Cemetery, also delves into the hardships of bound feet, a painful practice which ended with the 1949 Communist take-over. Feet that could fit comfortably in the palm of a hand were seen by society as highly sensuous and a prerequisite for an upper-class woman. Families would break their daughters' toes and bind bandages around their feet to restrict growth. Most women, except for peasants, were resigned to years of hobbling around on aching and hideously deformed feet.

Women 1 - Cemetery features a chair, its seat smothered with dry roses hiding a pair of lotus-sized embroidered shoes and its arms and legs bandaged with layers of newspaper clippings. The piece was shown in Vienna in 1997 and is featured in China New-Art.

Zhang Huan, enfant-terrible of the prestigious Inside Out exhibition of Chinese art held in New York earlier this year, also stars in the book. Zhang is well known for his work 65 Kilograms, in which he chained himself to the roof beams of a barn in eastern Beijing, blood dripping out of a tube inserted into his neck and spattering onto warmed white trays several meters below. The sickening stench of roasted blood filled the white room, forcing many viewers to leave. China New-Art contains photographs of Pilgrim 10, Zhang's work at the New York show: the artist lay on top of a block of ice set on an antique Tibetan bed, thawing the ice with his body heat.

Zhang Dali's works are far removed from a conventional gallery setting. China's leading graffiti artist trades traditional media for a spray can of black paint and the capital's old crumbling walls. Zhang has covered thousands of Beijing's semi-demolished areas with his Dialogue Series motif -a profile with a bulging forehead and jutting chin. He uses graffiti to question the bulldozing of huge tracts of the capital's oldest architecture to make way for flashy department stores.

"My dialogues are concerned with the city we live in. It is up to citizens
to decide whether the change in this city is good or bad," Zhang observes.
Zhang and the author of China New-Art (whose own works are included in the book) were both pioneers of China's first artists' village, set up in the late 1980s near Beijing's old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan). The village reflected the explosion of experimental art sparked by market reforms begun in 1979, which opened China's doors to the rest of the world and relaxed social mores. However, the laid-back official attitude toward daring art forms ended in the spring of 1989, when authorities closed the largest approved exhibition of avant-garde art ever in China. The legendary art exhibition of new and unconventional art at Beijing's Art Museum displayed the cream of contemporary art since 1985. Police were aghast when one of the artists included in the show brandished a gun and fired two shots at her work - two mannequins in separate phone boxes connected by a phone line. The closure of the show represented the end of a thriving decade of free and open art experimentation.

A short history section at the back of the book discusses the history of contemporary art on the mainland, touching on the above-mentioned exhibition as well as as events like the Concept 21 performance. One of the most radical performance pieces in the 1980s, Concept 21 was a series of outdoor performances held in sub-zero temperatures in the winter of 1986.

The group of artists chose a freezing day to strip off and display their naked bodies to the audience and "feel the trembling of life in the air." Two artists, one dressed in white and another in black, careened through woods on bicycles to create blurred moving lines between the trees. Others perched, arms outstretched, on the sides of the Great Wall, swaddled in black, white and red bolts of cloth.

Fully bilingual (in English and Chinese), China New-Art provides an illustrated guide to the Beijing avant-garde art scene and a brief statement by each artist. Also included is a summary of the social and historical changes that influenced artists to abandon the repressive style of socialist realism required of artists by the Communist Party after 1949.

China New-Art is available now in most local bookshops.

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