Stop the World

Tales from the fast-track, high-speed madness of the 1990s Chinese art scene

Text by Xiao Quan

The 1990s were Bei Dao, Wangjiang Park, Chengdu, 1986the decade of self-aggrandisement. Everything was so fast and unstable, and sentimentality was fading away. It was too hard to look back: people could only move on. It was the decade of steam. People rose quickly to the top on the strength of their ambition, and forgot about what was underneath. The artists in the following pictures – the artists Zhang Xiao-Gang, Fang Li-Jun, Zhou Chu-Nya and Wang Guang-Yi, and the poet Bei Dao, all shot by photographer Xiao Quan – had a great influ- ence on the era. The poet Baihua used to say: “If you made a poem at this time [the 1990s], it was like building a sinking boat. This is how memories stay in the eye of the photographer over time. Like a sunken boat, the film waits for someone to pass by and discover those faces again.”

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In 1986, the Star Poetry Monthly invited the most significant Chinese poets to Chengdu and presented awards to 10 of them. The poetry readings at night turned the city crazy; the poets, like pop stars, were eagerly embraced by the local youth. In those days, most young people were influenced by poetry in some way. Many a poem was hand-copied and passed along. Even now, some of our company directors might still remember his poem, “Answer”. 


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Left, Fang Li-Jun, Beijing, 1998
Fang Li-Jun was cutting open a watermelon in his yard to entertain his guests. At the time, Lao Fang’s studio was probably the biggest art space I had seen in China. I remember that he was creating a series of huge black and white paintings in the style of printmaking. In the evening, when he was treating us to dinner, a bald foreigner took him aside to have a chat. That was the first time that I heard of Uli Sigg, a man who was purchasing Chinese contemporary art. 

Right, Lu Peng, Zhang Xiao-gang, Zhou Chun-Ya and Wang Guang-Yi, Venice, June 2009Co-curated by Lu Peng and Achille Bonito Oliva, the exhibition A Gift to Marco Polo opened successfully. The artists had a hearty meal to celebrate the occasion. after 30 years of ups and downs, they had achieved almost everything, but at this moment, they seemed very calm. 

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Left, Zhang Xiao-gang and Zeng hao, Beijing, 1998
When Lu Peng and I went to Beijing that year, Xiao-Gang and Zeng Hao were renting a flat together near the Third Ring Road. Had the landlord been a fortuneteller, he would have said, “It is my greatest honour to have you two heroes choosing my humble abode in our vast capital! Please don’t bother paying me with silver, but if one day you paint a picture or two after plenty of wine, I would gladly accept them as your rent for the next three years.” I think such fortunetellers do not exist in China. Even van Gogh’s landlord at the time had failed to see the real value of his works. If it was indeed Xiao-Gang’s painting that Zeng Hao was carrying on that day, it would probably be worth more than the whole building in a few years. 

Right, Zhang Xiao-gang on Chunxi Road (near his flat on Zouma Street), Chengdu, 1991
This was the most bustling commercial street in Chengdu. Xiao-Gang was teaching at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing at the time. In some way, the photo was an honest reflection of what he felt at the time: he wanted to know which direction to take next. Not long afterwards, he went to Germany. He won third prize (10,000RMB/about $1,900) at the Guangzhou Biennale. At the end of 1993, we saw his Big Family series at the Chinese Experience exhibition in Chengdu. There is no need for further introduction.

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Wang Guang-Yi, Chengdu, 1997
Wang Guang-Yi arrived in Chengdu that summer. He was the cover person for the first issue of Lu Peng’s Art Market. In the magazine, Lu set up a column called “Art and Wealth”. It was rather obvious that he was obsessed with money even at the time. I remember on that day, I treated Guangyi to a meal at Hot Bonsai, the most famous hot pot restaurant in Chengdu. Nowadays, the view in the picture has been replaced by skyscrapers and overpasses. §