PRINT September 2011


Gao Minglu’s Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art

Xiao Lu, Dialogue, 1989, color photograph, 31 7/8 x 47 1/8".

Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art, by Gao Minglu. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 421 pages. $40.

CONFUCIUS SAID: If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. . . . Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately.” In other words, it matters what you call things. The ancient Confucian doctrine of the “rectification of names,” a sort of raspberry blown in the face of the arbitrary nature of the signifier, might serve as an effective blessing on this book by the art historian Gao Minglu, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He wants to make sure that we understand the right names for things and use those names in the right way. Although beginning a review of a book about recent Chinese art by invoking the sage might look like an Orientalist flourishing of sinological credentials, it is actually offered in acknowledgment of Gao’s repeated insistence that we can only understand his subject in relation to the specifics of Chinese history and thought. This argument runs through the book’s chronology of the development of self-consciously avant-garde artistic activity in China, with a focus on the period from the death of Mao in 1976, which inaugurated an era of “opening and reform,” to the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition in 1989 in Beijing—a climactic event that was closed down by the police after a single day, in reaction to the artist Xiao Lu’s memorably firing a revolver at her own work, which violated the authorities’ blanket prohibition on any sort of “performance” art. Although many of the terms of the discourse—avant-garde, modernity, etc.—are familiar, and many of the artistic practices may look tried and tested, their meanings in this context are not the same. You have, Gao argues, to know specific things about China in order to get it.

Gao often presents himself as the first to give the correct title to what was going on: He is the man who rectified the names. Not least, he invented the terms “’85 Movement” and “’85 New Wave” to describe “the first nationwide avant-garde movement.” The notion that the vast upsurge in activity that followed the party-state’s withdrawal from the micromanagement of cultural production during the 1980s actually constituted a “movement” is perhaps belied by the diversity of responses this book chronicles. But Gao claims it was his coining of the names, in a talk given in Beijing in 1986, that made disparate artistic groupuscules aware of one another’s existence and so effectively brought about the “New Wave” itself. In a lengthy footnote, he expends a great deal of precision on making sure we know that he also invented the term “political pop” and was the first person to use it in English. Ditto “apartment art,” the name applied to an otherwise diverse range of small-scale “unsellable and unexhibitable site-specific installations.” I’m quite willing to believe Gao was the only begetter of these labels, but his claims give the whole book the air of a metahistory, in which what artists did is much less important than the words the author chose to describe them. Some of the labels have certainly stuck, but some, especially those the author claims to have coined after leaving China in 1991, have a much less extensive currency. “Maximalism” (which Gao employs to describe a range of “antimodernist,” “labor-intensive” forms of practice, though a simple googling suggests that the origin and definition of the word are far from uncontested) and the mystificatory yi pai (school of resonance/synthesis) seem less likely horses on which to bet the art-historical farm. What can be particularly uncomfortable is the sense that naming is ultimately the only thing that matters, as in this passage: “In fact, these kinds of avant-garde activities can be found in many cities in the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s, but thus far they have never been considered as a legitimate artistic movement, or a school with a true name. Therefore, I have given them the name ‘loose wanderers.” The naive sense of the historian’s job as one of sorting out groupings and trends, a task undertaken without a hint of irony, is what for me disconnects this account from all but the most journalistic contemporary art history.

But this is what happens when a new cultural field like “contemporary Chinese art” is suddenly created: a stampede, a landgrab, where the guns fire and the wagons roll. And it is in fact as an account of that landgrab from the driver’s seat of the wagon that Gao’s book has definite enduring value. He was a close spectator of, and then a key actor in, many of the events of the period, and his authority to speak seems to derive largely from his presence and precedence in these events. Even more than his importance as a coiner of names for artistic movements, Gao wants us to acknowledge the absolutely central part he played in the “China/Avant-Garde” show. He was its “organizer and principal curator,” “the only one who went through every stage from the beginning to the end.” The exhibition is presented as the stirring primal scene that gives meaning to everything that came before and after it, and it clearly and quite understandably remains the defining moment of the author’s life and career. (It was also central to Gao’s Harvard doctorate, which was awarded in 2000. His dissertation was titled “The ’85 Movement: Avant-Garde Art in the Post-Mao Era”—and parts of it appear again, almost word for word, in this much more lavishly packaged form.)

The twenty-first century rarely bursts to the surface of this account, so heavily invested is it in a heroic version of the 1980s, but one of the very few moments when it does so is in the juxtaposition of two photographs of the author. In the first, taken on February 5, 1989, Gao (looking very youthful for his forty years) addresses the public on the steps of the Meishuguan (now the National Art Museum of China) following the closure of “China/Avant-Garde.” In the second, taken twenty years later to the day, a silver-haired Gao reads a statement at a protest against the sudden cancellation by the Public Security Bureau of the exhibition designed to mark the anniversary of “China/Avant-Garde.” For the Chinese Communist Party, any attempt to commemorate an event of that taboo year hovers too close to recalling the brutal state violence in the face of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 3–4, 1989, in which a still unknown number of Beijing residents died at the hands of the army. The effect of seeing these two photographs side by side brings to mind a 2002 series of photographs by Hai Bo, titled “They,” in which group photos from the Cultural Revolution era are restaged with their original sitters, leaving gaps for those who have died or become untraceable. Marx quipped that when historical facts and personages appear twice they do so first as tragedy, the second time as farce, though there is genuine pathos in the juxtaposed images here, as well as risibility in the party’s po-faced paranoia.

The historicization of the Chinese avant-garde in the West has been under way at least since a 1993 traveling survey (likewise titled “China Avant-Garde”) organized by Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt and has been driven on by scholars such as Wu Hung, Marie Claire Huot, and Martina Köppel-Yang, not to mention Gao himself, whose personal witnessing of many key events of the era is among several reasons every library will have to buy this book. It also reproduces a great many documentary photographs and artworks that can’t be found elsewhere easily or at all, from Wang Luyan and Robert Rauschenberg’s meeting in a Beijing flat in 1985 to the provocative performances of the Xiamen Dada group orchestrated by Huang Yong Ping one year later, to the early sketches of Fang Lijun as he felt his way toward the “big head” paintings that were to make his name (though it gives no account of the sources of those illustrations, or where the depicted works are now). And it has the virtue of taking many Chinese artists of the ’80s, their polemics and their debates, at least as seriously as they took themselves, reproducing key if now heavy-going documents such as the manifesto of the Northern Art Group.

When André Gide was asked who the greatest French poet was, he replied, “Victor Hugo, alas!”; I could say something similar about this, the fullest account in English to date of the Chinese art scene of the ’80s. Is it really the best we can get? For a start, there are a number of ways in which this is a lazy piece of bookmaking, or rather a testimony to the unwillingness of even the most prestigious presses to put resources into quality control, editing, and proofreading. There are garbled Chinese names and phrases, and you won’t find the cities of Tiantsin or Shengyang on any map, ancient or modern. At one point, a great chunk of text is simply repeated, as if no one had bothered to read the book all the way through at any stage of production.

Gao Minglu (center) outside the Meishuguan after police closure of the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, Beijing, February 5, 1989. Photo: A. Zhen.

Several of Gao’s arguments for China’s irreducible difference, meanwhile, demand particular scrutiny (even if the charms and attractions of essentialism can be strategically justifiable in certain instances). One is Gao’s claim that “modernity” in China has, since the early twentieth century, been a “total” project that holistically links the spheres of culture and politics, whereas in the West modern artistic and political projects have historically been quite separate, with artistic modernity seen as essentially autonomous. Are we comfortable with the stark binary of that interpretation? I can think of plenty of statements from 1920s and ’30s China that assert the autonomous position of the arts, their disconnect from politics. But I can think of their opposite as well. I suspect most readers of this magazine could likewise summon examples of the Western avant-garde insistence that art and politics are inseparable, as well as claims that they are wholly distinct. Again, the difficulty lies in the unsubstantiated claim presented as self-evident: The West is like this; China is like that. There is no question that, rather than making such sweeping assertions, we must exert the effort to understand the nuances of the Chinese context. In fact, one could argue that we are now paying the price, in poorly grounded generalizations about the art of China’s present, for our ignorance of earlier Chinese art, for our unwillingness to do the work of looking or learning about its history. I accept that it can be illuminating, in contrasting the work of Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping, to draw attention to a long-standing critical distinction in Chinese painting (the theory known as that of the Northern and Southern Schools, which is itself based on contesting schools of Buddhism) between work that achieves its effects through labor and work that aims for a sudden disorienting blast of enlightenment. On the other hand, to claim that “many contemporary Chinese artists may have been unconsciously influenced by the philosophy of transmigration” (when in fact they may just have read a magazine or seen a TV show—or picked up a book by an art critic), or to argue that “it is a unique character trait of the Chinese to link worldly practice and metaphysics,” strikes me as no more or less than a slightly pernicious kind of auto-Orientalizing verbiage that the ethnicity of the speaker should not exempt from challenge and critique. We do need at all times an awareness of the specific conditions under which art was produced, and we do need to accept that the era when Western appropriations could be hailed as daring while Chinese ones were dismissed as derivative is over. That will, however, take some argument, not a simple assertion.

A second problematic position Gao stakes out has to do with the interpretability of Chinese art of the ’80s only in relation to cultural specifics. One of the biggest emerging difficulties of the “explicable only in Chinese terms” argument is the extent to which it has been appropriated by the Chinese state from the Chinese intellectuals who developed it. Let me be as clear as I can about this, because it matters. I do not think that Gao is acting either consciously or unconsciously as a mouthpiece for the repressive actions of the Chinese state. But one of the problems that flows from an insistence that we need separate criteria for reading Chinese modernity and avant-garde art, or from reaching into the Chinese past for some concept that appears to offer a magic key, such as yi pai or “the philosophy of transmigration,” seems to me to be that it cuts the ground out from under resistance—for example, resistance to the party’s use of a shibboleth such as “harmony” (hexie) as a distinctive and unassailably Chinese characteristic, essentially different from the purely European (and hence not locally applicable) nostrums of “fraternity,” “liberty,” “equality,” and “democracy.”

That said, one European notion Gao is happy to invoke is that of “enlightenment.” At one point he seems to equate a Western conception of enlightenment with the “total modernity” he seeks to establish as the master label for Chinese contemporary art. And in a paean of frank nostalgia to the days of 1989, he says, “Art is made not only for the art community itself, nor for the market and biennial exhibitions, but rather for a broader social purpose. . . . Above all it is a means of enlightenment.” Poignantly, the Chinese state clearly agrees. On April 1 of this year, the presidents of China and Germany jointly inaugurated a massive exhibition on “The Art of the Enlightenment” at the newly refurbished National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. The former nation promptly embarrassed the latter two days later by arresting Ai Weiwei, who had made some mordant remarks on the topic in relation to China’s present condition (claiming “enlightenment” was precisely the quality contemporary China lacked) and who has just been released on bail as I write. The Chinese party-state has given its choke chain a sharp yank, to remind everyone who might have missed the point (or perhaps misconstrued the implication of the exhibition title’s wording) that there are limits, and that they apply to everyone, no matter how well known. It’s clearly a test case, designed to see whether that yank on the chain can choke off not only Ai himself, as well as anyone in China who thought he or she was on to something, but everyone else, anywhere in the world, whose fear of displeasing the authorities needs to be more accurately gauged before the Chinese state’s own project of “total modernity” can move forward. Nations, corporations, museums, universities, individual scholars and curators, all those who might be nervous of falling out with China, who might fear contracts canceled, exhibition loans refused, sponsorship withdrawn, visas denied, now need to decide whether it is worth making a fuss, or whether it would be safer, in the current situation, for them to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Craig Clunas is a professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford.