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Edition 18

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Essay

Back to the avantgarde

EVERY PICTURE TELLS a story. Sometimes what happens around a picture can be as telling as the picture itself. Without having to change in any way, the picture finds itself in such interesting times that its meaning and value alter. That is what happened to some art works seen for the first time in an exhibition in Beijing in February 1989. Let me tell you their story, through to the present, now that the Chinese art market has become red-hot. It's an intriguing illustration of anomalies and adjustments across the board in China's unparalleled social transformation.

There was excitement about the plan to hold a large-scale exhibition of new art from around the country in the late 1980s, and a lot of last-minute activity as word spread through art schools and artist groups. A structure was improvised to manage the aspirations and logistics of an event that had a strong cultural/political agenda yet needed to work within existing, never quite spoken constraints. The vision was to place the creativity of a new generation at the centre of the nation by bringing the best contemporary work into the official space of the capital's National Art Gallery. It would be a defiant, exuberant and revelatory show. The modus operandi was complex, unwieldily collective and hierarchical at the same time, as three men – brilliant scholars, passionate advocates, adept critics – occupied the top of a curatorial tree. This arrangement reflected an artistic culture organised around a pyramid of state-run art schools and official agencies, though there was theoretically room for outsiders. As the final selection approached, more and more artists arrived in Beijing with their work to jostle and lobby for inclusion. The curators had pressures and compromises of their own too, involving political and cultural indebtedness, recognition of status, friends and favourites. There were the egos of artists to manage, and the disruptive will of the crowd. Yet even here, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the rival Zhejiang Art Academy in Hangzhou, the two schools at the apex of the national art hierarchy, held the high ground and few artists who were not officially trained got in. This was less outsider art than change from within.

The event was called straightforwardly the Chinese Modern Art Exhibition. It became well known by the foreign name it adopted, China/Avantgarde, with its no u-turn street sign logo indicating no retreat from new artistic freedoms. The exhibition's processes exposed the throbbing nerve centre of a society undergoing major change: that's why the organisational procedures are worth emphasising. Art was at the intersection of culture, politics and economics; the marker, the witness, a bearer of meanings way beyond itself. And that is where its value lies, in retrospect. That is how it asks to be read.

In the glorious millennia of Chinese culture, no expression is more exalted than visual art: at its rarefied heights, with brush and ink, art and writing become one; matter and mind unite; the individual maker, acting in a moment of history, inscribes cultural continuity. The most prized Chinese art is essentialist in this way. That's why the transfer of treasures from Peking/Beijing to Taipei by the Nationalists prior to the Communist victory in 1949 was so fraught: possession of those art objects gave legitimacy to determine the true China.

 

BEIJING WAS COLD that February, grimy and dim, with frozen snow compacted on muddy ground; an austere study in monochromes – grey skies and walls, concrete and brick buildings, bare black trees. People wore blue or khaki overcoats, or muted apparatchik fashion. The boho look around the art school was jeans and baggy wool jumpers and snug down jackets. You needed good shoes and gloves and a cap to pull down over your face, particularly when riding a bicycle. It was a rough, bustling city even then, before the construction boom and the influx of population from the provinces, before the ring roads and the traffic. But there wasn't much glitz. That came after 1989. There were few bars or coffee shops. Phones were scarce and unreliable. The best news traveled by word of mouth. China was not yet exporting most of the world's consumables so things could be expensive or hard to find. The real economy was a system of personal relations. It depended on who you knew. Still does. A dog's obeyed in office, and every dog likes a bone.

The Chinese National Art Gallery was a barn of a place dating from the early 1960s. It did not operate as a national art museum in the conventional sense. The permanent collection, if it had one, was seldom seen. Instead it was a venue for prize exhibitions, annual surveys and retrospectives of approved artists, generally following a conservative line. The economic reforms, however, had introduced an element of gallery for hire, including more daring foreign shows. Australia, for example, had two exhibitions there between 1987 and 1990. None of that diminished the symbolic status of the site near Wangfujing, Beijing's classiest shopping street, within walking distance of the headquarters of the Cultural Bureau, which was responsible for safeguarding China's cultural heritage, and not far away from the lakes and courtyards around the Forbidden City where the leaders and powerbrokers lived.

In protest against their exclusion from exhibition opportunities, back in 1979, the Stars group of artists had displayed their dissident work on the fence outside the Chinese National Art Gallery. The impulse was similar a decade later in 1989 when China/Avantgarde managed to take over the whole cavernous building. This time those against the fence were artists engaged in the argy-bargy of acceptance and rejection in the lead-up to the opening. The fact that much of this new, often transgressive art was large-scale installation, sometimes with an element of performance, did not make it any easier for the curators to manage individual contributions or apportion space. The tension was compounded by having to keep things under wraps in case of last-minute intervention by the authorities. Responsibility for the event crossed different jurisdictions that could be at odds with one another, when they weren't in the dark. The liberal Minister of Culture Wang Meng, a novelist, was credited with giving the exhibition the green light. He must have read the tea-leaves from higher up: veteran leader Deng Xiaoping's daughter Deng Lin was an artist and could be a liberal patron. It was a time of galloping liberalisation and no one knew where the lines would be drawn.

The exhibition attracted a crowd. You needed a ticket to get in and tickets were hot. The opening was made provocative by a performance event that involved the distribution of large amounts of shrimp and large numbers of condoms; a Beijing version of the Summer of Love. It then, famously, moved to a different level when artist Xiao Lu, a highly connected princess in these circles, borrowed a gun and fired two bullets into her installation. The work, called Dialogue, consisted of two telephone booths, the shape of a man in one and of a woman in the other, with a red telephone between them.

The Dialogue was shattered, and so was the exhibition. Xiao Lu's act, involving unlawful use of a firearm in a public place, caused a shutdown after three days of protracted negotiation and the organisers were fined. At the same time the show made world news. It was more remarkable for introducing a core of artists who have gone on to dominate subsequent international showings of Chinese art, at Venice Biennales and the like, in Europe, and the United States. All three curators – Gao Minglu, Li Xianting and Hou Hanru – have continued to work in powerful positions inside or outside China, framing the presentation of Chinese contemporary art both domestically and internationally. China/Avantgarde focused energies that had been gathering since New Wave Art appeared in art schools in China in 1985. It declared the arrival of a new generation of artists who were making up for lost time. While inspired by fervent engagement with their predicament as Chinese, in the time-honoured manner of Chinese intellectuals, they were equally international in their influences and ambitions. Their energies were to aggregate with those of their contemporaries – writers, students, intellectuals, workers – and expand into the protest movement that led to the June 4 massacre as 1989 unfolded.

ZOUXIANG SHIJIE (MOVE toward the world) has been one of post-Mao China's slogans. That trajectory will culminate in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where China's international participation is so complete that the world is brought back home. In the 1980s many Chinese looked aspirationally to the West, often denigrating their own culture. It was still not easy to get out of, or to get into most Western countries. Art proved to be a passport. A disgruntled, dissenting edge added urgency. Part of this derived from a sense of opportunity denied, a chip on the shoulder which readily combined with larger notions of national grievance. China's long and illustrious tradition was felt to block the way forward for contemporary artists, or to keep them apart from the creative mainstream, or simply to deserve far greater recognition. Whenever a Van Gogh sold at auction for record millions, a Chinese would pound the table and ask why a Chinese work could not command such a price. Or when it would. If I met an academic painter who could do a passable imitation of an old master, people would joke that he'd get millions for his work at Sotheby's – if only he could get there. Ironically, it's the new masters who have conquered the auction houses. Fine traditional Chinese painting now lags behind.

If these attitudes were innocent, they also reflected the fact that there was no art market to speak of in China at that time. Even historically, into the twentieth century, the buying and selling of painting in the high literati tradition happened discreetly, out of view. The exchange of brush and ink paintings more properly formed part of a gift economy among practitioners and connoisseurs. Works were passed on as expressions of respect or tribute, perhaps tacitly in expectation of other benefits.

This practice continued in the communist period when artists were supported by the state and directed to serve it in return; personal gain for artworks that in theory belonged to the people was not the way to go. Especially during the Cultural Revolution, the state was able to requisition art that might then resurface for sale, usually to foreigners, through a government store. These attitudes continued in the 1980s when artworks were commonly given as gifts but seldom sold.

The exception, developing at that time, was the so-called unofficial artist, the independent, often self-trained practitioner who got no benefit from the state and therefore felt justified in selling their work for cash. The main market for this was the small numbers of foreigners, like myself, who had access to foreign currency and were prepared to part with a couple of hundred dollars to support a friend, decorate an apartment or, in some cases, acquire something you just had to have. This market was totally unregulated, of course, embryonic and haphazard. The exchanges were kept private, so as not to arouse suspicion.

Even this was never a pure market in the economic sense, since the artist's livelihood, studio space and materials still usually derived indirectly from the state, through family members who had access to accommodation and the numerous other benefits of workplace affiliation; 'the iron rice bowl'. This has wound back substantially since the late 1980s, but the enmeshment of contemporary Chinese artists in the invisible economy of China – personal access to public or corporate resources through invisible means – is considerable. In that sense, much Chinese art even in 2007 is generously sponsored by the state.

Back in 1989, however, the gift economy dominated, with further resistance to the commodification of art demonstrated by radical, transitory modes of conceptual, installation and performance art. For the artists there were no collectors anyway. State institutions were not in a position to authorise acquisition of works that had not been through bureaucratic approval processes. As China/Avantgarde wound up, people were asking what was going to happen to all the work. Most of it was returned to the artists, making it their problem. Even today institutions in China don't really collect recent Chinese art: there is only one Chinese national among the acknowledged major collectors. The rest are foreigners.

THE EXHIBITION AS a whole was thrilling. Among a vast, mixed array (297 works by 186 artists), there were any number of exciting, appealing, unsettling and memorable works. I knew some of the artists and curators, at least by name and from magazines. I had followed this emerging art since I arrived in China three years earlier, attending as many exhibitions as possible, in official venues, art schools, diplomatic apartments and the rare solo show by an independent artist in a made-over space. There was a great deal to interest me, both in the work itself and in how the artists operated in a cultural milieu that was recovering from devastation and anxiously inventing its own rules. I felt that the artists gave me more insight into what was happening in China than almost any other group. They were the agents and the expression of contention and change – creativity at its most engaged. It was a poet, after all, who predicted a year ahead of time that things would blow out of control in Beijing in 1989.

Amidst much that was thought-provoking and impressive, a handful of works really spoke to me. These included three pencil drawings by Fang Lijun (b 1963) and two portrait paintings by Liu Xiaodong (b 1963). I have asked myself since what drew me to them. Both artists have gone on to achieve major international recognition. This was the first time their works were seen by a general audience. Now, less than twenty years later, they command stellar prices and rank in the top tier of contemporary Chinese artists according to market valuation. What gives a work of art such power? What is discernible to an untutored viewer? What constitutes its subsequent significance?

Of the three drawings by Fang Lijun, let me focus on Pencil Drawing Number One (1988). It shows a line of eight country boys with shaven heads in front of brick walls that recede around them, not unlike the Great Wall. The boys stare blankly with a mix of humour and menace. The artist's virtuosity with the pencil has been acquired through painstaking application in life drawing class, but here life drawing takes on a whole new meaning and is filled with pathos. A skill that might have reached a dead-end in technical exercises, in futile retracing of past models, here twists in the artist's vision to register with compassion the distortions of the mundane and the futile prospects facing China's new generation of nameless individuals. 'A sense of desperation is conveyed by the bowed, clean-shaven heads of the young boys,' writes Claire Roberts, curator of New Art from China, in the catalogue for an exhibition which brought this work to Australia in 1992. 'People are lined up like offerings to the viewer. China's people are no longer depicted as glorious, they are just plain bored.' Li Xianting, the scholar and critic who co-curated China/Avantgarde and subsequentlyChina's New Art in Hong Kong in 1992 and Mao Goes Pop in Australia in 1993, mentored Fang Lijun among a group of young realist artists in Beijing. He comments that, for such artists, 'disinterestedness' is a way 'of freeing themselves from the shackles of significance and meaning'; 'facing their own hopelessness is far more solid and real' than 'confrontationalist tactics to create a new illusory reality' (quoted by Roberts).

Fang Lijun produced the drawings for his graduation assignment, intending to make prints from them. I approached him after the conclusion of China/Avantgarde to see whether he would part with one of the drawings, but he wanted to hang on to them. The demonstrations that began in April 1989, in which art students marched with their giant polystyrene 'Goddess of Democracy', disrupted classes at the Central Academy of Fine Arts where Fang Lijun was enrolled. Following the June 4 massacre, the final prints were never made and Fang Lijun never graduated.

By 1990 he was working on oil paintings which were seen in an introduction to new Chinese art at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 1993 and subsequently in many venues around the world. The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) bought an oil painting in 2000 for an estimated $80,000. Another of the artist's paintings sold last year for $575,000. Three drawings had come to Australia with a group of oil paintings for New Art from China in 1992. The artist agreed to the drawings staying in Australia if they could go to public collections. There was no market for his work then. Two were purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for a modest sum. Pencil Drawing Number One has recently entered the QAG collection. Both venues had taken the bold step of supporting a project that was without precedent at the time. Another drawing from the series sold at auction in London in June this year for $540,000.

Fang Lijun continues to live and work in Beijing. He is recognised as one of the defining artists of his generation. His work appealed to me back in 1989 for the almost ironic modesty of its means and scale, the loving care of its attention to the ordinary (the setting recalls his home town) and its cheeky spark of life. It was self-reflective and interested in personal identity. This was profound and new, a harbinger of the reaching for intimate and private space that has transformed a society.

Liu Xiaodong's portrait, Smoker 1988, shows similar things, though its subject is urban and even closer to the artist. The painting depicts two men in a student dormitory, one a young movie director and the other a 'slow' college worker. Seen in intimate, foreshortened close-up, they are physically close, but withdrawn into their own private worlds. The paint is thickly worked in a predominantly grey palette and the mood is ambiguous. The aspiring pale-faced director – a friend of the artist who has since gone on to international success – stares dreamily at the viewer, smoking, while the swarthy man on the bed gazes blankly from behind. Both men are products of the same society, bound by mutual ties and obligations, suggested by the sharing of cigarettes, but one – a member of the elite – is a winner; the other, perhaps also a loyal Party member, is a loser. The painting shows the gulf between them with understated empathy, focusing a more general sense of social contradiction.

 

CUT FROM HERE to the firlm Still Life (2006), directed by Jia Zhangke, which won the Venice film festival Golden Lion last year. The movie was coproduced by Liu Xiaodong as part of his Three Gorgesproject, a major artistic collaboration to document the drowning and dislocation of communities with the damming of the Yangtze River, the most symbolically laden of China's colossal development undertakings. Work by Liu Xiaodong from the project was included in the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Zones of Contact, curated by Charles Merewether. Still Life is a story of family breakdown, rupture of present from past, and isolated individual persistence. It demonstrates the same power of steady observation and unsettling juxtaposition that characterises Liu Xiaodong's art as early as Smoker. Still Life concludes with an image of a man smoking. The workers have decided to leave their dangerous demolition job and go together to an even more dangerous mining job where they can earn more money. They have a last meal together before they head off, one man lying on his side in the crowded dormitory, lost in cigarette smoke as he contemplates what is to come – or simply empties his mind.

I got to know Liu Xiaodong in the later months of 1989. The crackdown after Tiananmen was a difficult time for artists and, as a diplomat, I was under constant surveillance. But we managed to meet. He felt he needed to go abroad to develop artistically and was interested in Australia. Other artists from Beijing, including from the Central Academy, were already in Australia. In the end I think Liu Xiaodong went to Spain, attracted by the chance to see real Velazquez. I left Beijing in 1990 and he gave me Smoker as a farewell present. His work had not been seen outside China then, and again there was no market for it in China. I was embarrassed, but equally unwilling to refuse a gift that was offered in the spirit of the traditional exchange between fellow artists. We were friends and the painting meant a lot to me. I undertook to take it to Australia for safekeeping and to find a home for it. In due course QAG acquired it from the artist for a low five-figure sum, which seemed good at the time. Liu Xiaodong visited Australia on the proceeds with his wife, artist Yu Hong, to see the work in situ in Brisbane and for his show at Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney. That was in 2000. Last November in Hong Kong Liu Xiaodong's Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population (2004) sold for more than $3.4 million.

There can be few artists whose work has gone from virtually no market value – perhaps an exchange of a few hundred dollars – to a few million in less than twenty years, as has happened to a small group of the best contemporary Chinese artists, including a few who first appeared in China/Avantgarde. Other strong performers in the list include Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang, both in the QAG collection, as well as Yu Youhan, Wang Youshen and Li Jin, each shown in Australia more than once. I mention this because part of my argument is that Australia and Australians have played a role, especially in the early stage, in introducing contemporary Chinese artists to the non-Chinese world and thus contributing to the astonishing trajectory of their worth. That's because Australians, like myself, have been curious about their work and receptive to it from the beginning. Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), for example, sent Bernice Murphy and others to China in 1990 to explore the possibility that became Mao Goes Pop. Australian Brian Wallace started Beijing's first private gallery, Red Gate, in 1991. Claire Roberts' New Art from China toured in 1992-93. QAG appointed the world's first curator of contemporary Asian art, Suhanya Raffel, in 1996. (Alexandra Munroe, writing in Art AsiaPacific's 2007 Art Almanac, identifies her own appointment to New York's Guggenheim in 2006 as the first such position 'in the West'. And while correcting the record, let me add that I was erroneously described as advisor to QAG in the Australian Art Market Report last year; in fact I worked with MCA on Mao Goes Pop and later ArtTaiwan, while Claire Roberts advised QAG on Chinese acquisitions, including Xu Bing's landmark Book from the Sky.) Melissa Chiu was the founding director of the Asia Australia Arts Centre in Sydney in 1997. She has since moved on to run the Asia Society Museum in New York, a peak venue in the field. And now a new private museum has been announced for Sydney, called White Rabbit, dedicated to Chinese art post-2000.

Why were Australians able to overcome the resistance that slowed acceptance of new art from China elsewhere, notably in the USA? One reason is that its emergence coincided with the Hawke-Keating period's redefinition of Australia's engagement with Asia, especially China, and the hope of meeting as partners and contemporaries. There was an influx of young, educated Chinese into Australia post-Tiananmen who connected us directly to the changing situation in their homeland. The burgeoning trade between China and Australia has also fuelled the cultural flow. All this was framed by initiatives such as the Artists' Regional Exchange (ARX) in Perth from 1987-99, the exchanges facilitated by Asialink from 1990 and, most visibly, QAG's Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) which was launched in 1993 and included Yu Youhan in the first group of artists. A lot was going on.

 

APT BUILT ON possibilities for more diverse regional cultural engagement that had been around in Australia since the 1970s, evidenced in early Sydney Biennales that showcased Asia-Pacific and Indigenous art. By 1989 the Les magiciens de la terre exhibition in Paris in 1989 was confidently placing non-Western art practice, including avant-garde Chinese, in the high art arena as a challenge to 'international' norms. In Australia, the dialogue had been active since the 1970s, especially in relation to Indigenous art, which also featured in the Pompidou show. In some ways Indigenous art has had a comparable trajectory to new Chinese art. The main difference is that the greatest Aboriginal practitioners are elders while the Chinese started in their youth.

Aboriginal art has shifted visual expectations in Australia, asking us to see differently. Yet it poses complex questions about the situation from which it emerges and about who is seeing what. A rhetoric of hybridity, syncretism and cultural translation has been advanced to address the phenomenon. In his recent book,Another Country (Black Inc, 2007), for instance, Nicolas Roth-well suggests that Aboriginal art is 'born of the collision between tradition and modernity, and is best appreciated in a double register drawn from those two contending realms'. The same might be said of much Chinese art in the recent period.

Rothwell echoes the work of anthropologists such as Marcia Langton and the late Eric Michaels on contemporary Indigenous culture. Michaels, in particular, in his celebrated essay 'Bad Aboriginal Art' (first published in 1988), presses the point about how such work can be interpreted and judged, and by whom. What is its context? Who is it for? Where does it belong? He seems to suggest that the proper assessment of Aboriginal art would stop with fine description of its 'processes of production and circulation'. Beyond that 'judgments of the product must always – ultimately – be exposed as fraud'. Because of its quite specific originating circumstances, something similar may be true of contemporary Chinese art. It makes judging the good from the bad, let alone assigning monetary value, something of a try-on. Australians have been relaxed about that.

Through the 1990s and beyond, contemporary Chinese artists have turned to photography, video and digital media to secure their position on the international circuit, claiming attention by pushing the limits, through innovation and ingenuity, walking the line between Chinese reference and global appeal, adding value as they go. Some terrific artists have emerged, a few of them women, including Lin Tianmiao and Cao Fei, reflecting on new themes of consumerism, the environment and personal fantasy. Some older artists have returned in new guises, notably Ai Weiwei, an original member of the Stars in 1979, who is now advising BOCOG on the aesthetics of the Olympics. His boomerang-shaped chandelier at the latest APT was a dazzling marker of makeover for 'New China', the Maoist term for the society born from the revolution in 1949. Cai Guo-Qiang, who left China in 1986, has relocated from New York to work on the pyrotechnics for the opening and closing ceremonies. Let's hope it works better than his 'Dragon and Rainbow Serpent' project for APT, postponed in 1996 when the local fireworks factory exploded and abandoned in 1999 after an extra load of fuel, added to achieve a bluer flame, caused the artist's convoy of boats to sink one by one in the Brisbane River on opening night.

Around these great figures swarm a host of imitators, wannabes, experimenters and opportunistic bad art merchants. Where there were no private galleries in Beijing twenty years ago, there are now hundreds, including branches of some of the world's leading dealers. The 798 contemporary art compound, a former squatters' site in a clapped-out former East German factory, offers sleek accommodation to scores of curators, artists and clients. Perhaps the canniest move of the post-Tiananmen period was the switch of emphasis to the market as a way of developing commercially run, state-condoned infrastructure. This meant adapting Western models, such as the example of Red Gate, but with the right Chinese characteristics to bolt it on to the political economy. The key magazine was called Art and Market.

The sheer volume of activity in China leads to things being organised around groups and movements, squeezing the space for individual distinctiveness, which can be detrimental to artistic practice. The multiplication of contemporary Chinese artists has encouraged an almost industrial scale of production and the proliferation of highly derivative output, resulting in a lifestyle or even tourist art that offers little more than memories of yesterday's transforming creative anguish.

The entrepreneurialism of individual artists, a number of whom run restaurants as a sideline, has extended into new corporate real estate for contemporary art, such as private museums and foundations, sometimes with foreign partners, answering gaps in the system that the state has left void. The Songzhuang Art Museum opened on the outskirts of Beijing last October, under the directorship of Li Xianting. The Today Art Museum arrived in May this year. In November 2007 the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art will open in Beijing. In this setting the art can look like an extravagant, rarefied form of Mandarin play that would not exist without the life support of the new private palaces that command it. Ideas are shamelessly recycled and new horizons relentlessly sought in this overheated artistic economy. In an exhibition of New Art from Tibet, for instance, an artist from Lhasa offers work made in 2007 that closely resembles work shown by Sydney-based Chinese artist Ah Xian at Sherman Galleries in 1991. Coincidence – or an accelerating circulation of images? It only makes the source, the primary creative breakthrough, look all the more potent.

 

ORIGINALITY IS NOT always at a premium in Chinese tradition. The masters pay tribute to their influences by copying them. Yet the connection with Chinese tradition that the new art claimed to have severed in the 1980s continues to reveal its traces. While scholars work to understand the relationship of Chinese contemporary art with the larger, longer questions of tradition and modernity in twentieth century China, attention is turning to the immediate pre-history of this renewal in the hidden, lost or forgotten art of the 1970s and early 1980s. The Ullens Center is opening with a 1985-89 retrospective. Gao Minglu, now a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburg, has latterly returned to Beijing to organise a tribute to the obscure No Name art group, under the title A History of the Self-Exiled Avant-garde (2007). These were artists who turned their back on officialdom and professionalism at the height of the Cultural Revolution to paint small, beautiful, intimate responses to their immediate environs in Beijing, meeting in the park in their spare time with no motivation other than self-cultivation and mutual support. No public showings, no sales, no accord with Party line. Only what was possible between the cracks. Their work connects with prerevolutionary literati practice and also with the work of artists such as Fang Lijun and Liu Xiaodong who came along later to create a space for the personal.

In this timely act of recovery, Gao Minglu seeks to rewrite the recent history of Chinese art in a way that makes a lot of the present mass activity look like the end of a line. If I am right that the best contemporary Chinese art is inseparably related to a specific historical trajectory, bound up with the lead-up to and aftermath of a particular complex moment, then it might also be the case that its energies will wane and dissipate in time. It's noteworthy that most of the work that attracts high prices, with the exception of some academic masterworks, can trace a direct lineage to 1989.

The work comes out of an intense concentration of suffering, courage and hope. Yet that has been parlayed into a popular commodity for a global elite – another export product, like the blue and white porcelain with Arabic or European decoration made to order for foreign connoisseurs in the Ming dynasty. I'm reminded of the way Chinese speak of living off the achievements of their forebears: 'eat the old'. Only, in the case of China's avantgarde, the old have just turned forty. In the end replication is all that's left. The risk is hyperinflation and a bursting bubble, though there's no sign of it just yet. Maybe the better place to look for enduring value is in the disowned past, not the future.

The best part of this story is that it uncovers an unlikely role for Australians as mediators and compradors in an unexplored cultural field. It shows that we don't need to be simply on the receiving end of a bilateral relationship with China. We can play a more interesting role in a network of relations, or guanxi, moving through an in-between space that interprets China not only for ourselves and for others, but also back to China itself.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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