– YIP, Olivia Wai-ka

a work of photography seen at the Art HK 2010

The Art HK has often been a chance for a friends’ reunion of mine every year in late May. It was never a bad idea to gather old friends for an art fair like this and dine at a local hotpot-restaurant with beers afterwards. I did not mean to be critical at first, but the ‘selling’ activities were too overwhelming. With special privilege provided by a friend working in a local gallery, we were able to attend the VIP session of the Art HK 2010. On a more general level of observation, it was the guests in attendance that first caught my attention. Most visitors were extraordinarily well-dressed – they looked as if coming from a world beyond mine. Even the general spatial set-up of the event to me had defamiliarization effects. Here and there, I saw people selling and buying, waving credit cards in the air to close deals of unbelievably high cash amounts. The spatial arrangement of the venue (the HKCEC) also allowed me a rather unique experience beyond a normal exhibition visit. In my understanding, exhibition sites should be considerably designed in terms of lighting and classification of usage to fit the specific needs of the artworks, their themes and, most importantly, the visitors’ viewing experience. However, the art space of Art HK did not seem to have taken much consideration in these aspects. The experience of walking in the art space reminded me of that in supermarkets like Walmart overseas. Lighting was uniform. Artworks were exhibited as properties of individual gallery with little design sense for visitors’ experience, as if the galleries were themselves brand names that mattered more than the individual products. One felt that the works were not as important as the sale of works.

In particular, many Chinese photographic works shown in the Art HK 10 reiterated my study of the photographic imagery of New China. In general, people born after 1980, those from 20 to 35 years of age, are hailed as the new Chinese generation. Geremie R. Barmé, an Australian sinologist who has conducted numerous studies on China, defined this particular cultural phenomenon of identifying Chinese generations by birth year as ‘generationalism.’ The identity label ‘post-1980s’ is a product of such propensity. Works by new or young Chinese artists are identified as the new photographic images of China, with a strong emphasis on the distinct self their works display. With these artists’ explicit, self-conscious efforts to represent their nation in the global arena, one cannot help but ponder on what makes them distinctively Chinese. How do these individuals represent contemporary Chinese culture? Is self-representation in new Chinese photography really as unique as the artists and critics suggest?

As a matter of fact, the new Chinese group is not merely identified by birth year, but also by the inherent history. A prominent reference in Chinese history that primarily functions as a dividing line distinguishing the post-1980s group is the Cultural Revolution, which transpired between 1967 to1976. In this period, often dubbed Maoist China, Chairman Mao Zedong and members of the Party had imposed great constraints on individual expression to promote collectivism for the nation’s good. Artistic productions were ruled by uniformity and homogeneity. The older generation of artists experienced various political campaigns and purges while their creative works were merely state products serving the interests of the Communist Party. On the contrary, people perceive the new Chinese artists’ group as the post-Maoist or post-Cultural Revolution generation. In truth, they are identified as those born toward the end of or after the Cultural Revolution, suggesting that they never actually experienced the trauma. This specific fact about the new Chinese artists also becomes a major parameter for a stereotypical characterization of them. Free from the traumatic burden of their predecessors, these young new artists experience less control in creative exploration and manage to break away from the imposed official look of art. Their works of art thus expressed certain qualities of the emancipated individual, albeit exercised with due self-discipline to avoid offending party-line (face) values. These artists are identified as – and still identify themselves with — a new and entirely different breed of Chinese who no longer live in a trauma-laden China whose pace fell behind the West.

In Art HK 10, individuality, a self-consciously crafted identity, the inherent psyche and emotions in the new Chinese artists’ works are easily recognizable or often screaming. Emerging individuality embodied in their works generates the emancipatory fever against communist collectivism of Maoist China. These works, exemplars of a new freedom in the global community, also propagate a new myth of freedom revolving around a new set of ‘Chinese’ images. To take a different perspective, the new generation Chinese artists have become victims of a special kind – their bodies are individuated within a collective framework, to be subjugated to new China’s new logic.

Indeed, since 2000, there has been an alarming tendency for commercialisation in the development of contemporary Chinese art. The current fever produces a new system of art that is speculative and market-driven. Numerous auction reports are regularly published in art journals and magazines, offering evidence that contemporary Chinese art always exceeds high estimation sales in the global market. As Vicki Lui, curator of a local art gallery, observes, some young art learners or not-yet-famous artists in China are too much educated, or even brain-washed, with the monetary value of art, as they witness how some of their compatriot-artists have achieve international fame and turned rich in auction sales, and how contemporary Chinese works continue to become hot items in the global art market. To quote scholar Jing Wang, China’s contemporary art needs to be exorcised in view of ‘an outbreak of ideological epidemic’ with factitious generationalisation of art serving the global capitalism and its endless international trading under the new China’s capitalist logic. Under the thrust of globalisation and marketisation, it is doubtful who actually owns contemporary Chinese art — by the Chinese, or rather by collectors and buyers as what is now produced are designed to reflect what they want and expect to see. People may never see Chinese art but the nullity of dead art within the capitalist factory. No wonder the Art HK 10 sells artworks like dead meats. The generationalisation of art and artists becomes the capitalist’s branding tool for propagating the grand narrative of the globally competitive new China. To acquire such an image, absolute isolation from the Cultural Revolution and hence complete disregard for the unpleasant history is necessary to package a new appearance for China. Eventually, the ceaseless feedback loop under the said generationalisation and global capitalism may lead to the destruction of art and creativity in China. It is now time to defend real creativity and freedom, one that is independent of the revolving cultural imagination of the new China, before it is too late. (YIP, Olivia Wai-ka)

Works Cited

Barmé, Geremie R.. In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Wang, Jing. Culture in the Contemporary PRC: the China Quarterly Special Issues New Series, No.6. Ed. Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 10-26.
__________. High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China. California: University of California Press, 1996.

Hong Kong International Art Fair []
Hong Kong Conventional & Exhibition Centre, May 27-30, 2010