‘Art of Change: New Directions from China’

I’m scrambling around in amongst paperwork in my slightly messy UK office to find the small A6 booklet that accompanied ‘Art of Change: New Directions from China’ exhibition, currently on display at the Hayward Gallery, London, until the 9th December 2012. I finally got to see the exhibition earlier in October, accidentally arriving at the same time as a curatorial tour with Dr. Stephanie Rosenthal, in time to take lots of critical notes that I wrote on the said booklet and to make somewhat inappropriate critical comments. Needless to say I got stared at due to my passionate and impromptu verbal discourse. Now where is that booklet? Here is it! So glad I found it. Now what did I say? Hmmmm…oh I remember…

Prior to seeing this show, I’d heard a lot of mixed criticism from friends and colleagues saying that Western criticism deemed it as an acceptable representation of contemporary Chinese performance art and documentary of these events…whereas from a Chinese perspective it was seen as past news, a past tense, a very niche view of only a certain circle of artists, where the works had been presented and played out before on the international stage. So what did I think? Well, positive remark did not really prevail that Thursday evening, although, curatorially, I can grasp the strategy they used, which I’ll now explain.

According to Stephanie…the exhibition displayed the art forms of performance and installation from China where we can learn the most from and the most characteristic forms of contemporary Chinese art. Works on display were ephemeral, representing “change” in an international way. They are experimental in the avant-garde, routed in the avant-garde (this is questionable in my mind, certainly the use of the term “avant-garde” in relation to these works. I am having personal conflicts with the terms modernism, avant-garde and contemporary all in relation to Chinese art at the moment)…undermining the situation of contemporary Chinese art. They are transforming, changing, never in a stable state. A real sense of instability and how this is related to Daoism’s belief of the endless circle where there is no stable state. They are away from the gratification of the original context from which they were made. Their roots within Eastern philosophy on the notion of a copy, also relating to Duchamp and the “ready-made”. They are important as they are seen to be works that were defining in opening up artistic process in China, presenting a vision of how contemporary Chinese art is today (again this is really questionable as it is such a fragment of the artistic diversity that exists and I would never say that it was just performative practice that had or has the power to open minds, Chinese as well as Western minds). She spoke about the idea of “performative installation” and that it was not intentional to recreate works. They are trying to reference what influence the artists had had on other artists in the scene, individual as well as artists groups. The exhibition aims to show development, also displayed here through an archive, but the artists here are not part of a historical exhibition in that sense as when you look at history in China it is not linear (this is a big truth in my view). Health and safety is not as big an issue in China whereas the West has restrictions (at which point I began to question whether this affected the translation of an artwork if it can take place in nearly unlimited ways in China but are more controlled here in UK parameters…but then China has the limits of political censorship so its swings and roundabouts really). They are exhibited here in a way that they can’t in China due to the government through a supportive approach using it as an opportunity or a platform for discussion rather than letting the works disappear as they would in China. (As they would in China?! Right…) There is a consciousness, a set of ideologies, beliefs again rooted in this Eastern philosophy. There is a quest for an “art system” referenced against Western constructs, copied in China, attempting to undermine communist capitalism. The exhibition tries to look into what ways knowledge is formed and how we create our own reality, but is there a reality?

Exactly…is there a reality? And does this exhibition represent the reality of contemporary Chinese art, specifically performance and installation art? To me, there are more prevalent works by these artists and others that would give Western eyes more of a balanced and insightful view into cutting edge practice. This exhibition in part uses the curatorial strategy of “internationalism” touching on “Chineseness” that I examine in a Chapter of my PhD thesis, also as part of historicised, archival chronology. I realise that an institution of this kind has to provide accessible and logical interpretive reference points from which the public can feed and take knowledge, but I just felt it could have been pushed just a little further…how? Through the “art of change”, changing your curatorial strategy from how research begins, who you talk to and ultimately the artists and works on show…

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