View of “Gu Dexin,” 2016–17.

View of “Gu Dexin,” 2016–17.

Gu Dexin

Diplomatic Residence Compound

View of “Gu Dexin,” 2016–17.

The exhibition “Gu Dexin 1994-02-04” at Beijing’s Diplomatic Residence Compound excavated and assembled a more than twenty-year-old artwork by Gu Dexin, a radical, self-taught artist and founding member of Beijing’s New Measurement Group in 1988. An installation made of metal pipes, models of human body parts, and light fixtures, the work actually had never before been realized. When assembled, the apparatus condenses steam: Droplets of liquid drip from the pipes into a model of an open mouth placed on the floor. After thoroughly searching Gu’s archive for more information about this piece, the curators could find only a single sketch, published in the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper on February 4, 1994.

In China in the mid-’90s, it was general knowledge that if a work of contemporary art was not displayed in a public exhibition, in a sense it never existed; a piece that was not viewed officially could not be written into art history. This method of historiography is reaffirmed and reinforced by Wu Hung’s recent publication, An Exhibition about Exhibitions: Displaying Experimental Art in the 1990s (2016), which accompanied a show of the same name. In fact, by the late ’90s, contemporary Chinese art practice revolved around the right to organize and present exhibitions in public spaces, as well as the negotiations, conflicts, and challenges that attended these events. In turn, these exhibitions generated a kind of collective memory via their accompanying systems of published criticism and information dissemination.

However, this exhibition suggested an alternative, or even opposite, interpretation—one that offered a chance to reread contemporary Chinese art history. First, the site has a unique history. The Diplomatic Residence Compound at Jianguomen was one of the most important locations for gongyu yishu, or “apartment art,” a term forged by Gao Minglu to refer to certain self-organized art events practiced and viewed within an exclusive circle from the mid-’80s through the late ’90s. Due to the lack of exhibition spaces and the fact that the legitimacy of contemporary art was still called into question at that time, the public showcasing of contemporary artworks was highly selective and usually subject to government censorship. Therefore, many private locations, such as homes and offices, were appropriated by artists and critics as alternative venues for viewing contemporary art. More importantly, as the country began to experience a burgeoning economy and rapidly increasing importance in the global art market, Chinese art was suddenly immersed in the illusive ecstasy of its own public “visibility.” The promise of appearing on a broader, international stage and the accompanying market fever enticed the once avant-garde to descend into self-replication, branding, and the mass production of Political Pop and Gaudy Art (which enjoyed the most commercial success). Gu and other contemporary artists chose, once again, to retreat from the public exhibition scene to the privacy of “the apartment,” preferring to sacrifice public visibility rather than secure their place in history. The historical relevance of the Diplomatic Residence furthers the exhibition’s conceptual entanglement in questions of “visibility”: Can art only be “seen” and thereby “remembered” through public display, and who here is the witness? Gu’s practice provides an alternative footnote to this question.

A copy of the newspaper that published the first and only sketch is also on display in this exhibition. The caption described Gu’s installation as a plan for a family bar: A beer-dispensing device is fastened to brackets, the light carries water, and the surrounding beer bottles are the seats. The sketch was actually a proposal for an exhibition titled “1994 Interior Design Art Proposals Exhibition.” Saved from oblivion, this rare message delineates a different way in which contemporary art interacted with Chinese history. It is hard to imagine that Chinese contemporary art, characterized by its introspection and fixation on remaining autonomous from mass culture, had already begun to mimic popular interior design. Printed on the same newspaper page is a report on the art market, a feature on Marc Chagall, and exhibition reviews of Zhang Xiaogang and Ye Yongqing, with illustrations including a painting from Zhang’s “Bloodline––Big Family” series, an image of an installation by Xu Bing, a selection of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, and other works depicting flowers and birds. A column titled People Talk About Art seeks input from readers about which work they like the most. The significance of this query should not be overlooked; in 1994, the circulation of Beijing Youth Daily was about 400,000 each day. Considering this was a mass publication and not a specialized art magazine, how did this number of general readers perceive contemporary art? This dialogue should at least shatter the assumption that Chinese contemporary art in the ’90s belonged only to a small group and via traditional channels of public spaces. This broadsheet demonstrates that the art world was neither overly exclusive nor self-absorbed. The interpretations of collective memory found in this exhibition invite history into the present day, as an active system of continual circulation.

Li Jia

Translated from Chinese by Chelsea Liu.