Experiencing environmental art

Despite its limitations, developmental art in mainland China is exhilarating.

by Diana Fu

In the midst of seas of concrete, Beijing holds pockets of treasures. This last week, I stumbled upon one hidden between the ancient walls of the city’s watchtower: an avant-garde art gallery.

Here, I found some of the most tantalizing artworks cast in the space between ancient stone floors and wooden pillars reaching three stories high. The exhibit, called Viewing Space, included a series of sculptures exploring art’s relationship with Chinese philosophy. Unlike the state-run National Art Exhibition that I had gone to a few months ago, it actually stimulated my brain cells.

The exhibit included a series of sculptures by a young artist born in Yunnan, China, and educated at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. According to the museum brochure, his works explore “a post-modernist reflection of how self-knowledge is possible.” However, I prefer to carve my own sense from the sculptures themselves.

One of my favorite installations was titled the “Meditation Boat,” which started off with a bare-bone structure of a black stone boat. Behind it lay the same structured boat with a bulged dome weaved from thin tin wires, leaving the spaces between the wires empty. Behind the second boat was a third boat with the dome filled in with steel netting.

The sculpture reminded me of one’s psyche that can become so complicated, solid and fixed that we forget how to reduce it to its minimalist, essential state. I liked that his art didn’t force an interpretation on me.

Contrast this to a work at the National Art Exhibition that had captured a prize in a national arts competition: a realist painting of a girl that was so detailed you could see the knitting of her sweater. It was beautiful, yet it left me no room to think. But, maybe, that was the point.

In China, there’s still a sense that “official art” needs to reflect the voice of government. So it was not surprising that a large number of award-winning artwork depicted bloody revolutionary battle scenes, courageous Communist Party leaders and tough female soldiers. However, there is hope. Wu Hung, an expert in Chinese experimental art, said the ’90s were a decade of independent artists forging a “social foundation, which would guarantee regular exhibitions of experimental art and reduce interference from political authorities”.

This is a big step from the 1989 China avant-garde exhibition in the National Art Gallery, which provoked police intervention because of “dramatic activism.” The pro-democracy movement of ’89 was also the year that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Today, Beijing has vibrant pockets of experimental art communities that attract world attention. However, I have the sense experimental art is not yet accepted widely among the average Chinese citizen. For instance, the sunbathers sitting right outside of the watchtower that I visited were completely oblivious to the existence of the gallery nested inside its walls.

I’ve also heard critiques that experimental art such as those exhibited in the famous factory-converted gallery called 789 exoticize “Red China” to cater to the Western eye.

Despite its limitations, I think the development of experimental art in mainland China is not only exhilarating but also has the potential of creating new public spaces that can allow one to challenge the status quo.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China. She welcomes comments at [email protected].