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Oriental Fever

Although we in the Western world are often thrown by Chinese artists’ notoriously difficult names, we certainly don’t forget their works of art in a hurry. Who could fail to remember Zhu-Yu’s? In one of his performances, he ate a dead baby’s flesh, dubiously maintaining that, “we are all meat anyway.” A fierce debate erupted in the art world. Needless to say, the word ‘cannibalism’ came up on more than one occasion.

Zhu-Yu performance’ Eating a dead baby’
Documentation on Channel 4,2002

Cai Guo Qiang, another high profile Chinese performance artist, won a prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for presenting one of the Chinese regime’s terracotta sculptures, a piece far less well received by the current Chinese authorities than by the jury in Venice. It was, without a doubt, one of the strongest critiques of the Cultural Revolution ever made. Cai Guo Qiang is best known, however, for his gunpowder performances. His next performance is planned for the first week of the 26th São Paulo Biennale, when he will set fire to a nine-meter high tower covered in ancient Chinese gunpowder inside the Biennale’s pavilion. In 2003, he was awarded a second prize in Venice for a similar performance.
Chinese art has played a significant role on the global art scene for some time now. This eruption of artistic energy is a direct result of the process of speedy modernisation and economic growth that China has gone through during the last ten years. Today, there are countless Chinese art events going on around the world; a kind of intense oriental fever is spreading and taking hold. The Chinese year, taking place in France in 2004/2005, is a good example of this. The exhibition A l’est du sud de l’ouest, organised as part of the year, is, without a doubt, one of the highlights. Such a presence on the international scene is not only vital for the development of Chinese art itself. It also shows us the cultural exchange that is taking place between East and West, as the two worlds inspire, influence and change one another.

Huang Yong Ping - A History of Chinese Painting" and "A Concise History of Modern
Painting - Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1993 version
Paper pulp. Approx. 31 x 20 x 20 in. (80 x 50 x 50 cm). Collection of Cyrille Putman, Paris

Wang Du, Yang Fudong, Yang Pei Ming and Huang Yong Ping are among some of the artists participating in A l’est du sud de l’ouest. Huang Yong Ping is probably best remembered for his work at the exhibition Inside Out: New Chinese Art in New York in 1998, where he exhibited two seemingly decomposing textbooks on Chinese art. They had, in fact, been spun in the washing machine for a couple of minutes. It was a work that played with destruction and enlightenment, principles of both Buddhism and Dada. Six years later, he came back with an installation, A football match of June 14th, 2002- 2003. The match shows Americans playing against burka-wearing Muslims, while 160 upside-down bats look on from the terraces. The bat, which symbolises bad luck in the west but good luck in the east, can be interpreted here as a direct response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as an open criticism of American domination. The artist is a living example of Chinese contemporary art's evolution and shift in thought and expression.

On National Day, schoolchildren carrying red-tassled spears and wearing Red Guard armbands parade through the streets past a Russian-style department store. Harbin, 1 October 1966

An overview of Chinese art would not be complete without mentioning Mao Zedong. And Li Zhensheng’s art is proof of this. His exhibition Red-Colour News soldier is currently on tour. After showing at the Photographers’ Gallery (London, U.K.) until last May, it moved on to C/O Berlin (Berlin, Germany), where it can be seen until September 15th . The exhibition will then go to the Palazzo Magnani (Reggio Emilia, Italy) from December 7th to 15th. It is only thanks to the courage of the photographer (a member of a subversive group back in 1966), who risked his life firstly by taking, and then by hiding images of the harsh dictatorship of Mao, that we have the chance to witness the only existing photographic documentation on this cruel period in Chinese history. The images depict impressive mass demonstrations and shocking human executions as seen through the artist’s unique eye. Unlike many western artists and people who tend to idealise the dictatorship (think of Andy Warhol and his depiction of Mao as a hero in Great Helsman), Li Zhensheng reveals the tragic nature of the regime and gives us an insight into how difficult it still is for China to fully recover from this time.
History repeatedly tells the story of artists from repressive regimes. They are inspired by anything from newness, energy and irony to diversity, identity and extravagance. All these elements come together in Chinese art and here lies precisely the reason for our fascination.

Text: Marzia Belvisi
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