Any visitor lucky enough to teach in a Chinese art school (as I have, this past year, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing) soon learns how obsessively hard working and immensely talented students are. And so it is unsurprising that when after the Cultural Revolution, artists were able to access contemporary Western traditions, rather suddenly a number of them achieved international recognition and fabulous financial success. As Smith explains in the Foreword, she adopts the biographical format because as yet, too little is known about “why (these artists) do what they do, and in the way that they do it; in short, how impulse becomes expression” (p. 10). A history of late-modernist American art might make only tangential references to the civil rights movement; the Vietnam War; our attacks on Iraq; and 9.11. But in China no artist could escape responding to the end of Cultural Revolution, 1976, the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the economic reforms, which created a capitalist economy. Karen Smith moved here in 1993, and so this perfect entry point allowed her to witness the dramatically swift social transformations, which made possible an ambitious avant-garde. It may initially seem odd to locate the birth of the Chinese avant-garde so close to the present, for in the West that period style label is associated with the late 19th Century. But “in the early 1980s, China was emerging from a long period of being effectively cut off from the outside world” (p. 43).
When Clement Greenberg developed his canonical account of American-style painting, he identified Jackson Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists as heirs to early twentieth-century French modernism. China has very distinguished modernists, the great Wu Guangzhong, who was born in 1919, is still painting, but their concerns are too distant for them to play any role in Smith’s history. Her avant-garde artists borrow from the West, but it is impossible to map their development onto the history of our artistic development. China really is another world. Mao, the most important political figure, is not easy for Westerners to understand, for though his responsibility for great disasters is acknowledged, he is much admired. Xu Bing, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, still expresses “a strong Maoist art philosophy that art should derive from routine life and should serve the people” (p. 369).
Nine Lives focuses on artists who mostly remained in China, figures whose careers Smith has followed at a first hand. And so it deserves to be supplemented with her account of Ai Weiwei, who spent the 1980s in New York City. Living there “his response to his own personal experience was to deny China—his roots, his culture and the value system that had been imposed upon him” (p. 59). But since he returned to Beijing in 1993, and, taking a major role there in serving to inspire Herzog & de Meuron’s planning for the 2008 Olympics, clearly now he is part of the story.
Smith describes Wang Guangyi’s appropriation of Maoist propaganda techniques in Great Criticism Series: Andy Warhol (2002); Geng Jianyi’s laughing faces; Fang Lijun’s images of “the sense of isolation” (p. 142); Gu Dexin’s decaying red meat and spoiling ripe fruit; Li Shan’s homoerotic images of Mao; Zhang Xiaogang’s deadpan portraits; Xu Bing’s deconstructions of calligraphy; Zhang Peilli’s video showing public social dancing and Wang Jianwei’s, which displays emerging social conflicts. A great teller of this “history that has yet to be set in stone” (p. 23), her narrative combines marvelous detailed interpretation with suggestive a historical perspective. Geng Jianyi, she notes, is “political, because he was inspired to take a grim look at what politics does to the people it indoctrinates” (p. 133). Gu Dexin refuses to conform to rules because he was “raised through that era when the self, its inclinations, aspirations and emotional states were secondary to the communal furthering of society, and expected to be suppressed” (p. 191). Nine Lives is a great book because it describes a greatly fascinating, as yet little understood visual culture, because Smith’s narrative is startlingly lucid, and because she avoids entirely the theorizing that bedevils all too much contemporary writing about contemporary art. Li Shan, she writes, “is not given to sophisticated allegory” (p. 239). The same could be said of her. I am in awe of her humane generosity, wide- ranging sympathies and ability to make well-defended discriminations.
Karen Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China The Updated Edition. (timezone 8, Beijing, 2008)print