One such artist was Guan Wei, whose work I first encountered in the flat of then-Australian Cultural Advisor Nick Jose.
Guan Wei was one of many artists who came to Australia as students in the 1980s and early 1990s, many of whom benefited from Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s courageous decision to let them stay as as permanent residents following the military crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. June 4, 1989.
In the Bendigo exhibition, the evolution of Guan Wei’s practice can be followed over a period of 30 years, including his work in sculpture. Significantly, his triptych Two days later (2007) Commentary on Refugees in Australia. In oil on canvas, it depicts pink spots, largely shapeless and disoriented, floating on a sea adorned with Chinese iconography, calmly observed from the shore by three Aboriginal people.
The early works of Ah Xian and Lin Chunyan, who also moved to Australia, draw attention to the financial constraints of contemporary Chinese artists in their early years. The materials were raw, the canvases coarse, and the framing crude and elementary.
Many of the artists from this era represented in the collection were also strongly influenced by their early exposure to Western art. The oil on canvas was cool and experimental.
A 1986 painting of Ah Xian might have been influenced by a combination of Edward Hopper and Jeffrey Smart, although he probably didn’t see either at the time. One of a series of political commentaries by the artist, its title Pay attention to safety is a play on words in which security means both surveillance and personal well-being. The painting shows an empty room except for a single sign in the center with the Chinese character ting, or “stop”. The angular perspective creates a strong feeling that the room is observed from above.
After arriving in Australia in the late 1980s, Ah Xian established an international reputation for her sculpture. The show includes one of his last plays, concrete forest (2008-2009), made of concrete and covered with chrysanthemum leaves and wax.
The juxtaposition of the hardness and weight of concrete with the softness and suppleness of the chrysanthemum leaf creates tension with the calm meditative expression of the figure.
The year 1989 started with a lot of promise. Finally, contemporary Chinese art is recognized by the authorities. The first official exhibition took place at the National Museum in Beijing. It was titled It’s not your turnrepresenting the wish, if not the conviction, that the liberalization underway in Chinese society would be irreversible.
Collectible performers who were part of this show included Guan Wei, Zhao Gang and, famously, Xiao Lu, who gained notoriety after sneaking a gun early on the first day and using live ammunition to shoot his own installation. In the ensuing uproar, the exhibition was closed.
Several weeks of public controversy raged before It’s not your turn reopened, but it was permanently closed a few days later. No one knew that an unimaginable U-turn in China policy was just months away, on June 4. Nor that Xiao Lu’s weapon, represented in the collection in a large black and white photograph, negative and positive, presaged the bloody repression.
After nearly three years of uncertainty and political repression following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, economic reforms have resumed. But the naïveté of the 1980s disappeared and cynical realism replaced it as the dominant theme of the art scene. With great originality, it combines the influence of Communist Party propaganda with a new vernacular critiquing the triumph of consumerism over Communist loyalty and traditional Confucian values.
Among the pioneers of this cynical realism are the Luo brothers of the Songzhuang Art Village in Beijing. The curly-haired boyfrom 100 family names series (1992-3) is a fine example of their work. Drawn in pencil on paper and borrowing heavily from Cultural Revolution imagery of military uniforms and red badges, it depicts a pensive young boy uncertain about the future.
Chinese, Qi Zhilong’s series begun in the mid-1990s about beautiful young women in Cultural Revolution military uniforms, seems similar, but on closer inspection, it’s not. One aspect of the Cultural Revolution that is not generally understood by outsiders is that while it was a time of terror for many, for many others it was a time of hope, of a sense of of purpose and belonging. Qi Zhilong’s work captures this spirit of naivety and innocence.
More typical of the cynical realism of the time is the work of Li Dapeng. In the big oil painting standard head (1997), a jolly pig in Cultural Revolution military garb smiles from the canvas, lit from behind by a huge sun rising over a golden future. The pig is instantly recognizable as a Chinese communist leader.
Another work from Li Dapeng’s show, the year of the pig (2007), sends the Chinese space program with a happy bright pink pig in a space suit. It was the year China launched its first astronaut into space, in a blizzard of domestic propaganda.
In the early 2000s, contemporary Chinese art established itself as a major force in the international art world. Foreigners could never get enough of it, prices exploded and the biggest galleries and collectors settled in China, mainly in Beijing. Much of the collection dates from this period.
Although contemporary art is becoming a highly professional enterprise, the works displayed in Bendigo’s exhibition retain a playful sense of humor and the artists’ desire to challenge and understand an extraordinary ever-changing society.
The massive cast resin glass brain of Guo Jian, One World One Dream aka Dirty Mind (2004), expropriates the slogan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics for a play covered in detailed erotic couplings. And Ling Jian badly riffs Botticelli with his 2008 work The birth of Venusan exquisitely executed piece showing a Chinese Venus, naked except for a Cultural Revolution cocked cap and red guard armband, standing on a lotus leaf with a fountain dripping from between her legs .
The exhibition also includes new talents such as Rose Wang and Wang Yafei, who work in a very different, more prosperous and diverse artistic world. Under the weight of President Xi Jinping’s heavy authoritarianism and accompanying propaganda and ideology, the excitement and enthusiasm have long since disappeared from the art scene.
The young artists in the exhibition, who are not yet established, deal with issues that concern young artists around the world: identity, power and conformity, but in a more repressive setting than their models of the last decades presented in the exhibition. .
Geoff Raby was Australia’s Ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011. He is the author of China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New World Orderpublished by Melbourne University Publishing.
“In Our Time: Four Decades of Art from China and Beyond – The Geoff Raby Collection” is on view at the Bendigo Art Gallery until February 19 next year.