EX: 1/30/2012
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2013.02.07 Thu, by Translated by: Fei Wu
Refined, All Too Refined: A Trend of 2012

As we might have imagined, the Chinese art scene of 2012 was full of glitz and clamor. This was demonstrated most aggressively through the curation in the first large-scale solo show of the year — the He Sen exhibition at Today Art Museum. Thus the grand scene was set, and the curtains rose. One after another, artists ascended the stage, presenting their first contributions to the year’s spectacle of contemporary art in China. But it was precisely this grandeur that raised misgivings. Neither the lush lighting nor the involvement of well-known curators like Lu Peng could disguise one glaringly obvious problem — every exhibit looked familiar. Artists borrowed from famous works from China’s artistic past and through the use of oil paints and other media, meticulously recreated traditional Chinese paintings. Perhaps the artists found the sense of “self” they were searching for in these classical paintings. However, viewers were left with a sense of disappointment and loss amid the déjà-vu.

it was precisely this grandeur that raised misgivings

Quickly, wave after wave of discontent and faint familiarity crashed over us. Just one month later, also at Today Art Museum, we found an “aged” replica of an ancient Chinese chair. If we fast forward a few more weeks, the first objects leaping into view at Direction, the Soka Art Center group exhibition, were some classic peach trees. In the Li Mingzhu solo exhibition at Mizuma & One Gallery we saw ladies in traditional dress and cloisonné-style computer monitors. Heading south to Shanghai, we basked in the light of the Jing’An Temple Buddha radiating from the Tao Hongjing solo show at Studio Rouge. Drifting across the Pacific to Eli Klein Fine Art where Mou Xiaochun and Cui Xiuwen’s video works were exhibited, we found ourselves surrounded by familiar swaths of patterns taken from Chinese porcelain ware. Naturally there is value in vintage works, but when did contemporary art take a page out of fashion’s book and begin demanding nostalgia?

If nostalgia was merely a trend, then in 2012 artists took the trend and used it to tint all of the art exhibited. With their careful imitation of the “antique” through the use of new media, they have shown that the trend of the year was being refined, all too refined. Zhang Xiaogang, another known romancer of the past, augmented his once-desolate depictions of human subjects in his new exhibit at Pace Beijing. His new works bore the addition of furniture, and the glow of flashlights altered the atmosphere of his paintings, while delicate plum trees and bonsai pine trees symbolized the minute joys of everyday life. But compared to the intricacies of nostalgic artists, those of the contemporary artists who live immersed in our consumerist culture were even more meticulous in their refinement. Also at Pace Beijing, Li Zixun utilized machinery and electronics to piece together his images, seeking perfection and balance in the elaborate. Meanwhile, Guo Hongwei gingerly displayed his painstakingly collected birds, leaves, and butterflies at Chambers Fine Art. Hou Yong’s meticulously carvings of patterns on the surface of water were seen at Space Station. The details on view in Yang Hongwei’s solo exhibits — Carving at Today Art Museum and Low Tide at White Space — showed us even expressionistic works can display another type of refinement, that of dimension and display. Li Songsong’s solo exhibit at Pace Beijing demonstrated the fineness achievable through installations. In the show, the artist only allowed one person at a time to walk through his installation, perhaps to allow us to better appreciate the richly delicate patterns of the multicolored tunnel installation.

the trend of the year was being refined, all too refined

When speaking of modern art’s return to the primitive, Matisse said “When the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated, their power of expression wears thin, it is necessary to return to the essential principles which made human language.” Here, Matisse criticizes the refinement of technique and process in academic art and its power to wear away at one’s capacity for expression in life and in art. Now, we find contemporary art in China trudging its way down this well-worn path. Though it has yet to become a set formula, the refinement we are seeing in contemporary Chinese art resonates with changing interests in contemporary Chinese culture.

This appearance of refinement is meaningful in terms of aesthetic symbolism. It symbolizes the traditional Chinese aesthetic value placed on “feminine” or delicate beauty and the aesthetic importance placed on the Western values of the “sublime” and the “beautiful.” Female artists seem more likely to become immured in the increasing refinement of culture. Here, we will not make any value judgments about feminism, but female artists have been known to proudly wave this banner while marching through the halls of contemporary art. Strangely enough, in 2012 we discovered no lack of female artists in contemporary Chinese art; what we lacked was a truly feminist voice. At Gallery 27, Beijing artist Bu Hua styled herself cartoonishly and complained about the floods in Beijing. When faced with the realities of disasters and the “apocalypse,” the artist chose to narrate her opinion in the reedy whine of a little girl’s voice. At Beijing’s Dialogue Space, Ma Dan floated in the ether, far beyond reality, illustrating intricate but repetitive plants, clouds, and dolls in a cartoonish way. Tree Gallery curated an exhibition of contemporary female artists in 2012 entitled A Chorus of Phoenixes. One woman artist after another paraded herself across the stage at the opening ceremony, but their works were ubiquitously gentle and flowery, expressing delicate feminine sensibilities. Truth be told, the pieces on view were as unoriginal as the show’s name, and not one artist among them was unique. This is sure to be a disappointment as they were each of them dressed to the nines.

the pieces on view were as unoriginal as the show’s name

Truly, in the art we saw in 2012, it is hard to find any element of distinctiveness. Refinement became an “institution,” casting its shadow upon all of contemporary art in China. Following in the footsteps of a handful of famous artists, young artists cast aside their rebellion and their causes. One by one they joined this “system.” Together, they appeared in the group show at Iberia Center for Contemporary Art’s Symptoms: Becoming Peninsula I, Mizuma & One’s group exhibit, Anamnesis, Beijing EGG Gallery’s group show, Microcosmos, and so on and so forth. The distinction between the different modes of expression in art — painting, sculpture, installation, video, et cetera — no longer mattered, because each of these young artists were only after one thing: to catch our attention with the intricacy of their work.

The use of new media came after our attention to an even greater degree. At 18 Gallery’s group show Light Bending onto the Retina in Shanghai, we saw how new media curator Bao Dong led his young artists in manipulating the refinement of images through technology. Pioneers like Man Ray mocked the hollow refinement of traditional art while simultaneously struggling to plead the case for New Media’s legitimacy as a concept and art form. While in the preface to this exhibition, the curator boldly proclaims the “retina” and “light” as the themes of the show, without a doubt this is a sign of degeneration and devolution.

Young artists are supposed to have the most vitality, but even the most extreme young performance artists have given up their formerly “fringe” image and become actors begging the favor of their audience. In Guest: Standing on the Shoulders of Little Clowns a performance art exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art — carefully made-up clowns, acrobats, and well-dressed young men carrying toolkits covered with cosmetics and manicure tools work together to twist performance art into a night at the circus. It reminds me of the lyrics from “Hoodlum” (hunzi), an oldie from the 80s by Cui Jian  “A devil-may-care smile / the new generation dawns / no one left to riot / Time carries away our dreams.” There’s no one left to start a riot, performance art is no more, and refinement has replaced passion and savagery.

There’s no one left to start a riot

The refinement of young artists seems to hint ominously at the general direction of contemporary art in China. But nowhere is this pervasive refinement of contemporary Chinese art more obvious than at art fairs. We clearly saw the trend toward refinement at both Art Beijing and SH Contemporary. To put it bluntly, sometimes these art fairs seem more like a market filled with endless rows of delicate luxury items. Whether large scale or small, modern artworks are gradually starting to resemble craft — desperately posing and preening for the attention of customers. To illustrate, contemporary art in China isn’t the focus of society, or even the art market itself; it is essentially an expensive consumer item. Additionally, art has chosen to survive by rousing possessive desire through coquetry and flirtation. But when her patrons grow thoughtful or grave, she will never involve herself in any serious discourse, thus proving herself to be no more than a pretty but finicky piece of embroidered frivolity. Even though elegance and refinement can find itself a niche in the market, it can by no means carve a place in history.

Interestingly enough, the works selected for Manifesta 9 differed greatly from the overly refined works seen in 2012. The largest scale installation seen in this exhibit was a piece by Chinese artist Ni Haifeng, “Para-production”. In a sense, this clearly proves contemporary art in China is not bereft of bold and powerful works. But nearly all of the works appearing in China’s contempoary art galleries are exquisite in their refinement, indicating a problem with the planning and selection of the exhibits. Art exhibitions are only a part of the art world, and the hidden cause behind this symptom of “refinement” can be found within the structural shifts in the dynamics between art collection and the art market. In one way, contemporary art is being squeezed out of the Chinese art market. The works of big-name artists like Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun go unsold and lose value. Traditional art takes center stage due to its popularity with Chinese collectors and their capitalist clout, while contemporary art finds its territory in the market shrinking day by day. So contemporary art compromises itself to traditional art, and in the process of increasing refinement, loses its original power. At this point, one could say the law of the jungle prevails and only the fittest survive. The only path to survival leads toward the traditional; contemporary art can only exist in a narrow niche. But what, then, is the significance of contemporary art? Whether it is a privately held philosophy, or a publicly flaunted attitude, contemporary art is an expression of values.

it indicates a rift between contemporary art in China and contemporary art on a global scale

In the end, this trend toward refinement reveals the self-enclosed nature of contemporary Chinese art. Firstly, our self-involvement exposes our detachment from the realities of society. Secondly, it indicates a rift between contemporary art in China and contemporary art on a global scale. The contemporary art of 2012 is like the plum trees blooming in Zhang Xiaogang’s secret rooms, seemingly vital, but bloodless in actuality. It is also analogous to the ink gardens Ma Wen suspended in mid-air at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, seemingly lush, but thin and brittle to the touch. When I see these frivolous hothouse plants, I can’t help but think of Beuys planting 7,000 oak trees within the city for the 7th Documenta in Kassel. This environmental work embodied the German spirit and broke the barriers of time and space. Compared to Beuys’ work, our art continues to betray a petty childishness. Beuys once defined his works as a type of treatment, hoping to use the power of art as a “medicine” to “heal” post-war Germany. Then what about our art? It does not set its roots in the nurturing soil of social reality, nor is it moved by the revitalizing currents of the global contemporary art. Seemingly vital and lush, but actually pale and brittle, will our “seedlings” grow into a forest which can someday alter the cultural landscape of China?