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Huang Yong Ping’s two-part architectural installation is an arena of life. The Bridge, an arching, serpentine cage, contains snakes and turtles crawling among scattered Chinese bronze sculptures of mythological animal forms. Beneath it, live reptiles dart among hundreds of insects inside the tortoise-like structure called Theater of the World.

Huang’s design refers to the panopticon, an eighteenth-century prison concept by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham that enabled constant surveillance from a single central point, and that was later taken up by Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for how modern societies control their subjects. Huang’s installation is also inspired by the mythological creature and Daoist deity Xuanwu, a hybrid animal with the head and tail of a snake and the body of a tortoise—symbolically the most potent pair in Chinese cosmology, whose union, according to some tales, created the universe. Drawing on Daoist cosmology and magic, Foucault’s theories on modernism as prison, and debates on the ills of globalization, Huang wrote:

Is the Theater of the World an insect zoo? […] A space for observing the activity of “insects”? An architectural form as a closed system? A cross between a panopticon and the shamanistic practice of keeping insects? A metaphor for the conflict among different peoples and cultures? Or, rather, a modern representation of the ancient Chinese character gu (chaos)?


NO U-TURN: 1989

China/Avant-Garde opened in Beijing at the National Art Gallery in early February 1989. This monumental exhibition, held in the institution that epitomized China’s socialist norms, canonized the conceptual and experimental art that had flourished throughout the 1980s. By presenting work that defied easy explanation, including performance art, installation, and ink abstractions, the participants announced a new direction for modern art in China. Gu Dexin installed a wall of blowtorched plastic debris resembling melted body parts, Huang Yong Ping offered a diagrammatic collage showing instructions for tearing down the museum building, and Xiao Lu fired  a gun into her own installation, precipitating the first of the exhibition’s two closures. The exhibition’s logo, the “No U-Turn” traffic sign, suggested that after a decade of social and economic reforms there could be no going back.

In May three China/Avant-Garde artists—Gu, Huang, and Yang Jiechang—traveled to Paris to participate in Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Georges PompidouAs “the first worldwide exhibition   of contemporary art,” this landmark show proposed a reconsideration of Eurocentric art-world hierarchies, juxtaposing established artists from the West with others from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and  Latin America. While the show was criticized for exoticizing work by folk and indigenous artists, its apt selection of Chinese artists hinted at the coming rise of global contemporary art with nuanced works offering radically non-Western viewpoints.

Back in Beijing, in the early morning of June 4, the army cleared demonstrators from Tiananmen Square, killing thousands, marking the end of a democracy movement to which advanced art had been closely allied. In the months that followed, the publications and institutions that had catalyzed artistic discussion throughout the 1980s were reined in or shuttered. A period of reflection was followed by a prevailing mood of cynicism as artists and intellectuals lost faith in the party-state’s ideology of reform. Many artists left the country.



The events of 1989 and their aftermath transformed China. Artists faced the era following the Tiananmen crackdown in a spirit of sustained, measured reflection, moving toward analytic, conceptual work that had begun to emerge during the 1980s. Across the country, a critical consciousness doubtful of authority systems, including bureaucracy, ideology, and language itself, drove artists to unmask social conventions and to try to expose the processes that perpetuated complicity.

A loosely affiliated group of artists with ties to the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, including Geng Jianyi, Qiu Zhijie, Wang Guangyi, Wang Jianwei, Wu Shanzhuan, and Zhang Peili, produced a steady stream of conceptual projects. Many of their works evinced mechanistic processes, documentary sensibilities, and minimalist means that slyly mimicked the systems the artists sought to subvert. In Beijing, the New Measurement Group—a collective of three artists whose cooperation aimed to eliminate all traces of any single individual’s input—pursued a distillation of art into itemized rules   and instructions. In Shanghai, abstract painters such as Yu Youhan and Ding Yi developed rigorous mark-making systems. While they channeled the Conceptual practices of earlier artists in Europe, the United States, and Japan, these artists were also responding to their immediate surroundings—in which power structures, when poked, reveal their own absurdity.

Made in China, 1997–98

Xu Tan
Made in China, 1997–98
Sofa, desk, plastic chairs, bathtub, bed, floor lamps, Mylar, computer desktops, keyboards, speakers, plastic toys, stuffed animals, jigsaw puzzles, helium balloons, VHS tapes, slide projectors, color slides, bottled Chinese cooking condiments, dimensions variable; four color videos, with sound (33 min., 51 sec.; 24 min., 28 sec.; 32 min., 13 sec.; and 5 min., 35 sec.). Courtesy the artist
Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018



The spring of 1992—when Communist Party statesman Deng Xiaoping made his “Southern Tour” to promote a new chapter of economic liberalization—may have been an even more significant turning point for China than 1989. From that moment, the path forward turned away from socialist command and toward free-market capitalism and neoliberalism. Earlier dreams of democratic transition would succumb to a new kind of authoritarianism. Urbanization and globalization would occur at an unprecedented scale and speed.

The key artistic impulse that accompanied this transition was the resurgence of “realism.” The first stirrings occurred in Beijing, as a group of figurative painters at the Central Academy of Fine Arts began to use the techniques of Socialist Realism to reveal the drab experiences of individuals in the throes of enormous social change. Like their contemporaries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, these artists turned their academic training to the hapless, disaffected lives of those at the fringes of a new society.

The speed and scale of the Pearl River Delta’s urban transformation was the most exaggerated. Its cacophony attracted Dutch architect and thinker Rem Koolhaas, who wrote in his groundbreaking research on this region, “A maelstrom of modernization is destroying everywhere the existing conditions and everywhere creating a completely new urban substance.” This urbanism, which Koolhaas saw as doubly characterized by a lack of “plausible, universal doctrines” and an “unprecedented intensity of production,” proved compelling to Guangzhou’s Big Tail Elephant Working Group, who used art to engage with and intervene in the rapidly changing environment.

For artists working in cities throughout China, an urgent new reality became at once the inspiration and the medium for a new kind of social art, which used the raw conditions of daily life to comment on the velocity of economic transformation.



In the mid-1990s Chinese artists began to participate in international biennials and other shows accompanying the rise of global contemporary art. Many works of this period deal with various artistic ideas making their way into China and present theoretical critiques of China’s place in a newly global world. Ai Weiwei, who returned to Beijing in 1993 after a decade in New York, spearheaded a series of journals as a forum for Chinese conceptual artists to exchange ideas and to place their work in a wider, international conversation. He advised, “Always distrust authority, be suspicious  of centralist theories, doubt your alleged cultural influences.” Many  of the artists in this show appeared on the pages of these Black, White, and Grey Cover Books.

One of the key practices that took hold was performance art. In 1994, a makeshift community of outliers and drifters gathered in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Beijing that they dubbed the “East Village.” There, in the shadows of high-rise construction, artists used their bodies in feats of extreme physical and psychic endurance to realize a matter-of-fact connection to real life.

Another direction was at work in Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun’s exhibitions Image and Phenomena in Hangzhou and Post-Sense Sensibility in Beijing. The participating artists created an art of sensation and conceptual realism in implicit dialogue with Young British Artists artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn.

Incorporating animal and even human body parts, their installations and videos stressed the importance of what they called the “intensity of perception.” These radical exhibitions presented young artists who concentrated on “the lowest and most basic level of physiological and psychological experience” to bring art back into the realm of visceral reality.

GALLERIES 207 and 209


Running alongside the history of contemporary art inside China is a parallel history of Chinese artists working and exhibiting abroad. In the 1990s and early 2000s, international biennials and exhibitions of global contemporary art staged sweeping narratives engaged with topical themes such as identity, diaspora, and globalization.

Works by Chinese artists were often prominent exemplars in these exhibitions. Some artists came to understand the new ways in which they were being presented, conscious of both what this system might expect from them, and how, using art, they might subvert it. Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Shen Yuan, and Yang Jiechang recouped traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy, along with culturally charged mediums like gunpowder and ink, to cast themselves as shamans of an alternative reality that could counter the modern West’s ills. They reveled in what Chen called the “transexperience” of living in between multiple temporalities, cultures, and worldviews. They sought to give that unruly condition fantastic form.

By the mid-1990s other artists had turned their critical lenses to the ways their work was used to serve the multicultural demands of a newly global art world, even as they depended on these international exhibition opportunities in the absence of a well-developed museum and gallery system inside China. Artists such as Yan Lei and Zhou Tiehai expressed their anxiety about this interface by using hoaxes and satire to expose the distorting influence foreign curators and critics were wielding over the Chinese art world.

Real-world events, which increasingly involved China, also began to intervene. In 2001 a U.S. spy plane nicknamed “The Bat” was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. Huang Yong Ping’s Bat Project shows how art explored the nuanced complexity of the shifting geopolitical realities around the turn of the millennium.

GALLERIES 202 and 203


In July 2001 Beijing won its bid to host the Olympics. In November of that year China was accepted into the World Trade Organization. The international validation conferred by these two events sparked a sense of anticipation that intensified as countdown clocks across China ticked down to the Opening Ceremony: at 8 p.m. on August 8, 2008, China took its place as a global power. But for many artists, Beijing’s spectacular pageant failed to rouse the expectedtriumphalism. Rather, what developed in 2008—the year that also saw the tragic Sichuan earthquake in May and the global financial collapse in October—was a concerted social activism born of an urgent need to change the course of events. Against this backdrop, several multiyear communal projects led by artists, critics, curators, and activists emerged around the country, ranging from Ai Weiwei’s political mobilization to Ou Ning’s rural reconstruction project.

Skeptical of the party-state’s Olympic motto, “One World, One Dream,” the artists and collectives in this section created their own asylums, sanctuaries, and laboratories, seeking to effect social change through direct action in virtual and real communities. They were at the crest of a broad international current of artist-activists pushing for participatory, socially engaged practices—something beyond the white-cube gallery. The common medium was now the Internet, which provided both a social-network infrastructure, as in the Shanghai Contemporary Art Archive Project, and an alternative social reality, as in Cao Fei’s RMB City. These artists have been similarly engaged in constructing worlds outside the limitations of artistic space, shaping individual lives, and overcoming if not overturning endemic problems. They seek to change real-world conditions through the power of imagination and truth.

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