Around the opening of Shanghai Biennial in Fall 2000, more than ten avant-garde exhibits were organized by community art groups in the country. The largest one Fuck Off not only made a bold statement of their standpoint, but also presented a series of controversial works, among them including a performance involving the eating of a dead baby. The government-organized Biennial undeniably set off this confrontation. A result of the modernization of China, a revolution in thought surfaced from the underground. It touched on something the Chinese government had been evading: How should China establish its contemporary art and new culture?
Since the ’80s, complex relations have existed between avant-garde art and politics, such as that between the Stars Group (Xing Xing) exhibit and the Democracy Wall; Scar Art and Anti Moral Pollution Movement; ’85 New Art and Bourgeois Liberalization; and the Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition and the ’89 incident. To many, avant-garde art was extremely sensitive. On the other hand, art exhibitions flourished. Public galleries in Beijing were open for rental – even to avant-garde artists. It was the major income for the institutions. The most influential exhibitions at that time were exhibitions by Robert Rauschenberg and Xu Bing, the Body Art Exhibition, and the Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition. All were held in the China Art Gallery. More experimental projects often took place outdoors, exemplified by the Earthquake event on the Great Wall and Concept 21 at the Beijing University campus.
In the ’90s, after the ’89 incident, Beijing government museums shut their doors to avant-garde exhibitions and all new media-like installation, photography and video art. This gave rise to a lot of underground, rural and home exhibition activities. Being raided by the government, however, was not unusual. Some artists and theorists, in search of room for development, migrated overseas, such as Gao Minglu, Xu Bing and Zhou Yan to the US; Hou Hanru and Huang Yongping to France; and Kong Chang’an to Italy.
In 1995, the government dispersed the cluster of artists based in Yuanmingyuan, considered too near to the politically sensitive neighborhoods of the University of Beijing and Qinghua University. At the same time, the Eastern part of Chaoyang District became a new artist colony, when a group of behavior artists and rock musicians moved in. Moving east became the trend. Tongzhou District in the eastern part of Beijing accommodated the biggest camp of avant-garde artists over the next few years. It was the must-see place for curators, critics and dealers of China and overseas.
In Southern China, contemporary art found its foothold in official galleries, they being far away from Beijing, the ideological center. Art here tied in with commerce rather than politics. At the same time, commercial galleries specializing in Chinese contemporary art entered the scene. The more successful among these are operated by expatriates in Beijing and Shanghai, such as Red Gate Gallery run by Brian Wallace; Courtyard Gallery by Handel Lee, China Art Archive and Warehouse by Hanz Van Dike; and Shanghai Art Gallery by Lorenz Herlbling.
In the late ’90s, alternative art spaces emerged as something in-between galleries and art museums. A non-profit experimental ground for contemporary art, they mainly focus on presentations of artists’ work-in-progress, seminars and academic exchange. A relatively well-known example is Beijing’s Loft, inside the western-style restaurant of the same name. The contemporary style of the establishment attracts a lot of yuppies. The new media center is run by Lin Tianfang, assisted by his artist sister and her husband. The main programs of Loft comprise of exhibitions, discussions and modern dance. BizArt of Shanghai was established in late 1998. Renovated from an old factory, the art space is located in a quiet corner of the busy city. BizArt is run by David Quadrio from Italy and Katelijn Verstraete from Belgium. Exhibitions or events such as discussions and music programs are held on average twice a month.
Besides alternative art spaces, independent art curators are also significant, replacing the role of art critics in the new art scene. In the course of collaborating with overseas curators, Chinese artists recognized the importance of curators. In addition, the socialization of contemporary Chinese art has granted curators the position of bridging the art circle and the public. Active curators in China include Li Xianting, Wu Meichun, Huang Du, Feng Boyi, Huang Zhuang, Pei Li, Gu Zhenqing, Wang Nanming, and Zhang Zhaohui. Professionally trained and different from the previous generation of curators who held onto notions of idealism and collectivism, they focus on personal creativity and are happy to deal with sponsors and the media. They put their emphasis first and foremost on curatorial strategy, personal taste and charisma. Outstanding examples of projects included Wu Meichun’s Post-Sensitivity; Leng Lin’s It’s Me, Ai Weiwei; Feng Boyi’s Fuck Off; and Zhang Zhaohui’s Departure from China and Food as Art.
At the turn of the century, more alternative art spaces have emerged in Beijing. These include Jiao Yogi’s BASH; Li Zhenhua’s MSG; and Yuan Yang Arts Center invested by Yuan Yang Real Estates Company. What we can foresee is that, following the economical development of China and a relaxed political climate, artists in China will have more exhibition opportunities open to them.
(This text is an abridged version edited by Cheung Mei of the original essay submitted to the IN-BETWEEN: International Conference on Independent Art Space. Translated by Howard Chan.)