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The anonymous «Tank Man»

The anonymous «Tank Man» standing before the advance of a column of tanks, Beijing, June 5, 1989. GETTY IMAGES

Crowds celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall

Crowds celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 12, 1989. GETTY IMAGES

Cover of “The Global Issue,”  Art in America, July 1989

Cover of “The Global Issue,” Art in America, July 1989

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Inside Out:

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Inside Out: New Chinese Art, 1998.

Ai Weiwei, Sichuan Earthquake Photographs, 2008

Ai Weiwei, Sichuan Earthquake Photographs, 2008

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fireworks Project

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fireworks Project for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

Installation view: Bilbao’s Rent Collection Courtyard, 2009

Installation view: Bilbao’s Rent Collection Courtyard, 2009, at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on the occasion of the exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe (March 17– September 20, 2009).
Photograph by Erika Barahona Ede

Did you know that...?

The Didaktika project helps visitors to explore certain key ideas of the exhibitions through educational spaces, and special activities.

On the occasion of the exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, this didactic space presents a comprehensive timeline to contextualize contemporary Chinese art.Beginning with the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, this chronology provides an insight into the major social, political and economic changes that impacted the lives of Chinese artists and the artwork they produced. At the same time, global geopolitical events also impacted the rise of China as a major power of the 21st century.

All this, in order to facilitate the understanding of the art exposed.


Mao Zedong, founder and Chairman of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and a key figure in the history of communism in China, passed away from disease on September 9.

The incarceration in November of the Gang of Four, a faction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials led by Mao’s last wife Jiang Qing and accused by the state of enabling the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, marked the end of this devastating period (1966-1976).

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was formally established after the Vietnam War (1955-1975), a prolonged military conflict between North and South Vietnam with the significant U.S. involvement in order to avoid the spread of communism.


The Central Committee of the CCP elected Deng Xiaoping new Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, who implemented a program of "Reform and Opening": a series of policies aiming to modernize China through liberalization of state control over the economy and a new openness towards Western culture following decades of isolation.

Until late 1978, artists continued to create works under the wings of Social Realism, a style of Soviet-influenced realistic art promoted since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 that aimed to glorify communist values.


China and United States formally established diplomatic relations reversing decades of Cold War opposition.

Beijing artists campaigning for expressionist styles of modern art hang their works from the fences outside the National Art Gallery in the first Stars Exhibition in advance of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. When the exhibition is prematurely closed by local authorities, they march on City Hall under banners demanding artistic freedom. Weeks later, a second formal Stars exhibition is held with official support in Beihai Park, Beijing.

In December, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against a growing insurgency.

Scar Painting and Star group arose as the two most important art movements that questioned the conditions and recent history of contemporary China.


Chinese government officially implemented nationwide the One Child Policy as the population reached 900 million.

In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S imposed an embargo restricting exports of grain to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

China provided Iraq with military support during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88).

Challenging the Maoist precept that art had to serve the revolution and people, the magazine Meishu published an article by one of the members of the Stars group proclaiming “art for the sake of self-expression”.


The Chinese Communist Party undertook until 1984 the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign aimed at erasing the Western values which were supposedly undercutting people’s commitment to Communism: freedom, self-expression and artistic license.

Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of the south of this Western Asia country. China-Palestine ties were very close since Chairman Mao Zedong’s era to the extent that China recognized the State of Palestine in 1988.


China launched its first communication satellite into space showing the enormous progress of its space program.

Organized during the campaign against spiritual pollution, the Sixth National Fine Arts Exhibition opened simultaneously in different cities across the country. Its conservative content provoked discontent among artists, especially the younger generations.


A wide range of artistic groups and unofficial exhibitions flourish in what would later be dubbed the ‘85 New Wave Movement, as artists across the country searched for new languages embracing a wide range of artistic manifestations: performances, meetings, conferences, lectures, magazines, and happenings.

ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) exhibition, held at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, became the most important exhibition of a Western contemporary artist in China. Seen by more than 300,000 viewers in just 18 days, it had an enormous impact on the artists of the ‘85 New Wave Movement.


An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the USSR spread a radioactive cloud over Russia and Europe.

The 1986 Student Demonstrations arose in many cities countrywide protesting against the government’s policies and the lack of democratic practices. The authorities quickly responded by launching the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign which, until mid-1988, hindered many avant-garde artistic activities.

An association about 30 art critics was founded under the name of The Chinese Modern Art Research Committee. Among its objectives was the organization of a nationwide avant-garde art exhibition which was finally opened in 1989.


Western style fast-food chain reached China with the opening of the first KFC store. McDonald’s followed in 1991.

Following Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s steps, Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a program to restructure Soviet economic and political policy, known as Perestroika (Russian: “restructuring”).


China/Avant-Garde, a monumental survey of experimental art organized by a committee of critics and including work by 186 artists opens at the National Art Gallery, Beijing on February 4, marking both the climax and the ending of the 1980s art movement. The show is shut down temporarily after artist Xiao Lu fired a gun into her own installation.

In March, Tibet held the largest anti-Chinese demonstration in decades coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the revolt against China that resulted in a crackdown and the Dalai Lama’s exile. That same year, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The exhibition Magiciens de la terre, organized by Centre Pompidou and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, revolutionized the international art scene by presenting a global survey of contemporary art, with fifty Western artists showing alongside fifty artists from non-Western countries, including three artists from China (Huang Yong Ping, Yang Jiechang, and Gu Dexin).

On June 4th, the authorities violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests, pro-democracy demonstrations mainly led by students and intellectuals in and near Tiananmen Square since April. Thousands of people died.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November marked the end of the Cold War and the division between the communist Eastern Bloc and the democratic and free-market Western bloc.

English scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) the World Wide Web. The instantaneous access to data from all over the world would revolutionize human experience of time and space, and power the rise of the neo-liberal world order and ideals of the borderless world.

During the eighties, and especially after the Tiananmen crackdown, several contemporary artists left China to live and work abroad (Ai Weiwei, USA; Chen Zhen, France; Cai Guo-Qiang, Japan; among others). With their creations, that moved freely between a variety of Eastern and Western art sources, these artists contributed to the rise of the so-called phenomenon “global contemporary art”.


The first stock exchange in mainland China since the foundation of the People’s Republic (1949) is formally established in Shanghai.

Organized by the French organization Les Domaines de l’art and presented in the village of Pourrières, Chine: demain pour hier became the first exhibition of Chinese avant-garde art in Europe.

Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait triggered the Gulf War (1990-1991). China remained neutral during this military conflict involving international forces led by the United States that had enormous political, social and economic impact on the Middle East.


The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), world's first communist state and former Chairman Mao Zedong's model for development in China, was dissolved in December.

Artists and critics pursued underground shows and ephemeral interventions in public spaces to advance their commitment to avant-garde practices despite tightened surveillance after Tiananmen (Big-Tail Elephant Working Group) and organized symposiums to discuss the path of Chinese contemporary art (Artistic Creation in the New Period).


By making his famous Southern Tour of more economically open regions of China including Shanghai and Guangdong, Chairman Deng Xiaoping reinforced the government’s commitment to deepening 'reform and opening' measures first launched in the 1980s.

The exhibition Encountering the Others, organized alongside the IX Documenta, Kassel, displayed the creation of several Chinese artists.


USA and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) complementing the START I, signed in 1991; both were agreements to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. China conducted a major nuclear test in October despite the international campaign led by the United States to arrange a nuclear test ban.

Looking for cheap accommodation, a group of artists settled in a workers’ village suburb on the east side of Beijing. Known as the Beijing East Village, this artistic area was the site for a string of inspired performances, and was visited by British artists Gilbert and George on the occasion of their show at the National Art Gallery.

China is unsuccessful in its bid to host the 2000 Olympics, sparking a wave of national introspection and self-criticism.

Many exhibitions helped disseminate The Chinese avant-garde movement in the international art scene: China Avant-Garde: Counter-Currents in Art and Culture; China’s New Art, Post-1989; the 45th Venice Biennale; and The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

By capturing the country’s struggle between communist values and capitalist methods, and aided by a string of international exhibitions, Political Pop and Cynical Realism became the two Chinese art styles that attracted the most attention outside China.


Construction of the Three Gorges Dam began. The world's largest hydroelectric project caused in the 2000s economic, geologic and environmental problems such as the increase of the landslide activity or the change of the area’s weather.

In 1994, Internet arrived in China and authorities implemented a tight system of censorship and surveillance, which continues nowadays under the name of The Great Firewall of China.

Black Cover Book was published privately and circulated underground by artists Ai Weiwei, Zeng Xiaojun, Xu Bing, and art critic Feng Boyi, reproducing proposals by Chinese artists and transmitting news of international developments. Two further editions would appear later, White Cover Book (1995) and Grey Cover Book (1997).


Beijing hosts in August the Fourth World Conference on Women, which discussed women’s equality issues to the global stage, a major milestone for China’s re-engagement with the world after the isolation that followed the Tiananmen crackdown.

A series of missile tests conducted by the People’s Republic of China in the waters surrounding Taiwan led to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, compromising the stability of the Sino-American relationship.

The exhibition Asiana: Contemporary Art from the Far East, organized in the context of the 46th Venice Biennale displayed art from China, Japan, and Korea. Curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, Gino Di Maggio, this exhibition was further proof that Chinese avant-garde artists were gaining importance in the international art scene.


Image and Phenomena, held at China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, was the first exhibition devoted to video art in China.


Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who opened China's economy to the world, passed away in February.

On July 1, Hong Kong returned to China after decades of British rule bringing to end more than 150 years of colonialism.


The exhibition Inside Out: New Chinese Art, held simultaneously at the Asia Society Galleries and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, travelled internationally featuring more than 80 artists from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and expatriates living overseas.


At the turn of the millennium, the Y2K bug (Year 2000 bug) was supposed to collapse the global economy and plunge the world into chaos due to the use of two-digit abbreviations for years in computer storage systems.

Cai Guo-Qiang won the Golden Lion Award at the 48th Venice Biennale with the partial recreation of the Chinese monumental social realist work Rent Collection Courtyard.Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard also earned him a complaint to the Chinese Court over plagiarism and copyright infringement which was finally dismissed.


The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that had begun in the mid-20th century exploded into the violent second Palestinian intifada (2000-2005). In spite of the close relationship with Palestine, China tried to play active part in the endless Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Loft New Media Art Space, the first new media art space in China, opened in Beijing.

Claire Hsu and Johnson Chang co-founded in Hong Kong the Asia Art Archive, the first institution dedicated to collecting materials to document contemporary Asian artists’ activities.

Co-curated by Hou Hanru, Toshio Shimizu, and others, the third Shanghai Biennale, held at the Shanghai Art Museum, becomes the first major international exhibition of contemporary art in China.


China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December bringing the country towards a new period of openness.

After the 9/11 attacks, US, Europe, China, and Russia engaged in the fight against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Two years after Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion, the exhibition in which animal and human body parts and corpses were featured in some installations, the Ministry of Culture prohibited any kind of artistic manifestation including violence, blood-letting or obscenity.

The exhibition Living in Time: 29 Contemporary Artists from China, held at Hamburger Bahnhof Contemporary Art Museum in Berlin, marked the beginning of the authorities’ official support towards contemporary art.


The First Guangzhou Contemporary Art Triennial entitled Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000) presented a historical and academic survey of Chinese experimental art in the 1990s at the Guangdong Museum of Art.

The 4th Shanghai Biennale, held at the Shanghai Art Museum, looked into the dramatic and complex urban transformation of China’s large cities in the last two decades of reforms and their impact on culture and lifestyle.


US President George W. Bush, supported by Spanish and UK Prime Ministers, invaded Iraq aiming at disarming Saddam Hussein's regime. Further investigations proved that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Five artists were supposed to represent China at the first ever Chinese national pavilion in the context of the 50th Venice Biennale. Finally, the pavilion was canceled due to SARS, an atypical pneumonia named severe acute respiratory syndrome that began spreading rapidly around the world from China.

The Centre Pompidou presented Alors, la Chine?, an exhibition curated by director of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) Fan Di’an and organized in association with the Chinese government. It is the first official presentation of contemporary Chinese culture abroad.


Although in a temporary site, China had for the first time a national pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale. The exhibition, entitled Virgin Garden: Emersion, was curated by Cai Guo-Qiang.


On the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale, China participated in its own national pavilion with a presentation curated by Fan Di’an that explored the impact of China’s fast-developing urbanization in architecture.


China’s enormous economic growth led the communist country to become the world's second largest exporter after Germany overtaking the US.

The comprehensive survey ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art inaugurated the Ullens Center for Contemporary art in Beijing’s ‘798 Art District, a former military factory area transformed into an artistic quarter in the early 2000s.


More than 87,000 people die in the Beichuan Earthquake on May 12, including thousands of schoolchildren whose deaths are attributable to the shoddy “tofu dregs” construction of their schools and the corrupt system that built them. Artist Ai Weiwei, working with other activists, organizes citizens to collect the childrens’ names and basic data and posts their findings on the Internet. This project establishes Ai as China’s most famous dissident artist.

The Beijing Summer Olympics opened on August 8, marking China’s arrival as a major player on the global scene.

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang, named Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, was responsible for the extraordinary firework and pyrotechnic displays watched by billions of people across the globe. Although the Olympics slogan was “One World, One Dream”, China remained the same authoritarian state after the event and some artists kept defying its rules.

Two new versions of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard, entitled New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard and Bilbao’s Rent Collection Courtyard, were created in 2008 and 2009 on the artist’s solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao respectively.

A few months after the Beijing Summer Olympics, the global economy faced the worst worldwide financial crisis in decades.

In December, hundreds of intellectuals and human rights activists sign Charter 08, a petition calling for specific constitutional democratic and human rights reforms. Soon after, its leading signatory, the poet Liu Xiaobo, was imprisoned. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

China’s economic growth continues apace, overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010.




Wednesday, May 9, 7 pm

A meeting with key exhibition artists Zhang Peili, Huang Yong Ping and Shen Yuan in conversation with the show’s curators Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru.

Further Information

Photo shared reflections


Curatorial vision
Friday, May 11, 2 pm, Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Key Concepts
Wednesday, May 23, 6:30 pm by Marta Arzak, Associate Director of Education and Interpretation

* Sponsored by Fundación Vizcaína Aguirre

Further Information



June 1, 2 and 3

Film season with a selection of works by the artist and film-maker Ai Weiwei. 

Further Information


Audioguía y guías adaptadas

Audio guide and adapted guides

The audio guides, available at the Museum entrance, provide further information on the works in each exhibition.

Ask at the Information desk for audio/video guides for people with cognitive, hearing and/or visual impairments.  

Listen to audio guides


Express Tours

Free quick tours on the artworks exhibited. Check times, topics, and available languages at the Information desk.

Schedule: Tuesday to Friday, 5 pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm. There are no express tours on holidays (except Sundays) Length: 30 min.
Tickets: Free admission. Min. 5 people, max. 20 (first come, first served; no prior reservation). Groups will not be admitted

Further Information

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