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Melissa Chiu, Museum Director and Curator for Contemporary Asian and Asian-American art at the Asia Society, has had a long involvement with Asian contemporary art and is recognized as a[…]

Chinese art, before and after Tiananmen.

Topic: Using Art to Tell a Different Story about China

Melissa Chiu: I think the impact of this is that you’re always seeking to tell another story about Asia . . . a story that people are less familiar with. And in this way, some of the curated exhibitions that we take on may work with a pre-conceived assumption. For example, I curated an exhibition some years ago about art from the Pacific Islands. And most people’s assumptions of the Pacific Islands is a notion of paradise. And so all of the works that I selected from of these artists was all about kind of pushing this idea of paradise further, or kind of wanting to disavow an idea of paradise. So I think that what we really wanna do is tell a different kind of story with the one that you might otherwise associate with Asia.  I think one of the most interesting things to say about Chinese contemporary art is that it really has this 30 year history. And when I talk about it, we . . . we often cite the most important kind of birth date, if you like, as 1979 when _______ declared his open door policy in China, which allowed the opening up of China. Artists in China at that time were allowed to engage with western art history in a way that they hadn’t been able to before. And there are these important moments within Chinese contemporary art that allow us to identify three main phases defined by decades. Mostly throughout the 1980s you saw this kind of frenetic energy and engagement with western ideas. And that is often cited as the kind of most experimental period. And then throughout the 1990s after Tieneman on June 4, 1989, we saw a restriction of activities that artists were able to stage. They were shut out of galleries . . . any galleries and museums. They couldn’t show their work in the public sphere. And during this decade we also saw the internationalization of Chinese contemporary art; that on the one had Chinese artists were prevented from showing their work inside China; but around the time of the mid-1990s, there was much curatorial interest, especially in Europe and places like Australia. And there were many international opportunities for Chinese artists to show their work outside. And then of course, everything changed in 2000. There was a real opening up of China. And the Chinese government itself had a different kind of relationship with experimental artists. They decided that it was okay for Chinese artists to show their work in museums. And we have since seen the Chinese government take on experimental artists at, you know, kind of national representation such as at the ______ premier . . . kind of a contemporary art event that happens every two years in Venice.  I think that we haven’t yet seen a . . . I mean we’ve seen styles developed in China that are peculiar to China, and have a resonance in China, and tell a particular story about China; but I think that the way that our production is at the moment is that it’s often harder to export those styles. We haven’t I seen that happen yet. In fact, one might identify other kinds of influences going into China at the moment. I think that certainly when we see Chinese styles – home-grown stuff – exported, then we’ll really know that New York is no longer the center of the art world, but that it resides somewhere else  I think there are two artists that I would identify. Both of them are, in some ways, from the younger generation. The first would be _______ who is a young woman who lives in Beijing. And I think that her project for the Venice ______ involving second life is really a great introduction, I think, for us in terms of ways that art and technology can work together. And certainly the avatar that she created – in her own likeness of course – but I think also ways in which she has in other works – such as her photographs where she has shown people actually in the factories in China – has been one of the few occasions we have seen artists engage with China’s factories. You know that’s one of the funny things about Chinese contemporary art; that although you have this whole, huge country devoted to manufacturing, in many cases it’s something that you haven’t seen appearing in Chinese artists’ work.  And the other artist I would mention is _________, who primarily works in video. And he, I think, creates these quite extraordinary films that have . . . that speak in two ways or two sides. There are two sides to them. On the one . . . on the one hand they are very much about the nostalgia of Shanghai as a wonderful place in the early 20th Century where it was very much a cosmopolitan century. It was often referred to as a Paris of the east. And he’s able to conjure up that kind of sensibility in his black and white films. And on the other hand it speaks very much to Shanghai’s emergence as a major financial center in the region. And he, in some of his video works/films, really shows that emergence of this young, urban, middle class – or yuppies if you like. So both of these artists show in different ways the kind of changes that are going on in China, but in very unique ways.  I think that at one time, especially if we look to China’s more recent history in the 20th Century when the Cultural Revolution occurred, and there was a desire to kind of destroy the _____, to wipe the slate clean and start again with what were kind of more scientific models and approaches to art making. However, I think that this younger generation of artists . . . I think that they look to history in different ways. And in fact, in many cases they’re going back to the classics and reusing them in very different ways. For example, one artist called _______ has taken a very important Chinese scroll painting, and he has inserted contemporary figures into that scroll painting. And so it’s a real bringing together of traditional form and contemporary, everyday life. So I think that that’s one kind of use of the classics; but I think we must also be mindful that Chinese visual traditions continue on. And in fact there is a very lively ink painting seen in China that’s a very lively calligraphy seen through associations as well as at the art academies. And that’s one of the important things to remember about Chinese contemporary art; that there are these parallel worlds that sometimes intermingle and intersect. But we have on the one hand the experimental contemporary art scene that I’ve been speaking to. And we also have this classical continuation of tradition through, obviously, mediums like ink. And that’s an important thing to remember about Chinese culture.  I think that on the one hand, these . . . this younger generation is given a voice; but I think what is . . . what is also interesting to note about China right now is that the generation of artists who are mostly in their 50s right now, a lot of them left China around . . . _____ the time of ’89. And they ______ different art centers around the world, most likely Paris and New York, in fact. And what’s really interesting about this is that there has been a huge return to the homeland. And many of these artists, even if they still continue to reside outside of China, have come to work at a high level with either business or government policy figures to actually influence China. And so I would say that certainly that generation who are in their 50s now have come of age. And they have a great deal of importance . . . important roles to play within society . . . within Chinese society. But what’s interesting about the diaspora population is that they obviously bring to China a different set of values that has been changed by their living outside of China for over a decade now.


Recorded on: 7/11/07