Preparing the entrepreneurial individual artist

pillarA review of ‘Art of Change’, an exhibition of contemporary performance and installation art from China in the Hayward Gallery, London, 7 September – 9 December 2012.

Andy Kennedy and Au Loongyu

How to map contemporary Chinese art?  What kind of political and social issues does it relate to?   Most people who are interested in either politics or art know about Ai Weiwei, whose work spans both.  Then there are the kind of artists who you might find on the Saatchi Gallery or Art Speak China websites – like  Yue Minjun, who specialises in paintings and sculptures  of ecstatically grinning men, or Wang Guangyi, who parodies the Maoist variety of Socialist Realism with his images of comrades heroically striving for the latest commodity.   But much of the art at the Hayward exhibition appeared neither as overtly oppositional, nor as cynically embracing the market.

The plaque by the entrance door suggested there was a theme of change in the art that related both to the huge socio-economic changes affecting China, and to the Daoist tradition.  One of the sources for Daoism is the Book of Changes (best known via the yin-yang symbol) which suggests that the universe, including human beings, is in a state of constant transformation through the interplay of opposites.

In the first gallery was an installation by MadeIn Company, which was a set of plaster casts of stones apparently used during protests. The stones had left hollow voids.  Au pointed out that workers protesting in China did not normally resort to stones.  Andrew wondered if protest became hollowed-out once it entered an art gallery.   Or perhaps voids (as in Daoism) can be productive, not simply negative.

But Au found the wordplay interesting. The name of the (purportedly not-for-profit) enterprise was an ironic reference to China’s export-driven capitalist model, but was also a play on the Chinese words meaning ‘without a roof’.  Au pointed out that many ordinary people had lost their homes as more and more land was opened up to urban expansion and infrastructure projects.

Insecurity became one of our themes.  We saw insecurity as the main reference in Just A Blink Of An Eye, a performance conceived by Xu Zhen (also involved with MadeIn Company).  The performer (who could be East Asian or white, depending on when you went) seemed to be endlessly falling, her arms outstretched, her back horizontal.   Her feet were touching the floor, but there were no other visible means of support.    We thought of the famous quote about capitalist modernity from the Communist Manifesto: ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

Civilisation Pillar, by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu (2001) consisted of a six-metre-tall column of human fat collected from plastic surgery operations.   A monument to status obsession and the commodification of the body, it reminded Au of the huabiao columns formerly erected in front of imperial palaces and tombs.  Five thousand years ago, according to the story, the clan ruler Yao set up a huabiao so that people could post their criticisms of his administration in public.   Yet with the coming of the first absolutist and centralized state in China under Emperor Qin Shihuang in 221 BC, the huabiao, as with many other things, was incorporated into the imperial culture and its meaning was turned upside down.

Au associated the column of fat with the notion of present-day absolutism and commercialisation marching together towards the “modernization” of China.  He imagined reclaiming the original meaning of the huabiao by making his own column, plastered with posters from the Beijing Spring of 1978-9.

The piece that really depressed us was the table tennis installation by Wang Jianwei, in which we became the players.  It was called Surplus Value.  Before long, the ping pong ball would disappear into one of the deep grooves in the table.   We gathered that this was supposed to amount to a critique of economic exploitation, but the work itself seemed to embody the near-impossibility of any response to this state of affairs except for a resigned/despairing shrug of the shoulders.

At least Xu Zhen’s video The Starving of the Sudan opens up more of a space for critique and reflection.  In this film of a performance/installation in Beijing in 2008, a small African child, whose mother supervises him, is also watched over by a stuffed vulture, gallery visitors, and us.  The film recreates a famous photograph of the 1993 Sudanese famine by Kevin Carter, who subsequently committed suicide.  Obviously voyeuristic, the work could be seen as both commenting on and enacting Chinese exploitation of Africans in the global economy.

For many artists in this show, it appeared that the breakneck speed at which China is changing from a peasant country to an increasingly urbanized one is excessive, and the associated ccommodification of everything too crude.  Some, then, expressed the need for a return to a respect for natural rather than human-created change.

Silkworms and silk featured in two rooms of works by Liang Shaoji.   Au was reminded of a Tang dynasty poem in which the silkworm is like the lover pouring out their love until they die.  Is the silkworm also the worker, forced to expend their mental and physical strength for someone else, up to the point of death?  Liang’s worms have worked tirelessly for him, coating all manner of objects, such as large metal chain links, traditional lattice partition walls, and stones, with their silk.   Recuperation through the agency of nature can be costly for nature.

In the work Happy Yingmei, by Yingmei Duan, you first entered a covered space by crawling through a small opening.  The artist crouched at the end on a stool, between two groups of small trees; their leaves covered the floor.  Dressed in a nightgown, humming a tune, she would approach you and give you a small piece of paper which instructed you to have a conversation with an old person, in case they might be lonely, or to have a meal with a family member.   Everyday human relationships were imagined as redeeming us from selfish individualism.

We learnt that artists had worked collectively in the 1980s to create subversive performance and installation pieces, often influenced by Western avant-garde modernist art.   In 1989, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, the state crushed the democratic opposition to Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms.  Afterwards, it became much more difficult for artists to work together.  The entrepreneurial individual artist, producing expensive objects for the Chinese and international elite, was being prepared.  Sometimes, in this exhibition, we were reminded of other possible paths.


Au Loong Yu is an anti-globalisation activist based in Hong Kong.  He is the main author of the recently published book China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility (Merlin Press; Resistance Books; IIRE).

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