Image courtesy of Art World
Nine years ago, we produced an issue of Tank dedicated to the contemporary art of China. We were so excited by the new generation of voices that confounded our then-hazy notions of the culture of this great nation. China was seen then as a great market for Western cultural goods, even as it solidified its position as the greatest exporter of products. So there was something recherché about a landmark series of shows from the serpentine, starting in late 2006, that aimed to offer a comprehensive introduction to the country’s art, and that featured nearly all of the same artists. The idea that China can make art as well as gadgets has come late and stayed long. Ai Weiwei’s blockbuster-to-be at Tate Modern earlier this year was only the latest of such crowd-pullers, which have been featured at every major gallery and museum from Paris to New York. Chinese contemporary art has become the new Terracotta Army, or visiting pandas.
The Western-centric myopic views these events, which admit a confident Chinese presence into the Western cultural canon, with a sense of unease. Liberal-arts establishments seem to feel slightly guilty about celebrating the country that also gave us Tiananmen Square, and that is upsetting that lovely Tibetan guy who is friends with Richard Gere. Early explorers of the Chinese cultural scene, people like Rem Koolhaas who took on big commissions there, were often accused of collaborating with tyranny. No one stopped to ask if a Picasso show should have been subject to a cultural boycott because of the events in Paris in 1968.
At the same time, Chinese cultural exporters, ever resourceful, retuned their products to match that sensibility. Just as Chinese ceramicists sold Persian-patterned plates back to the Persians, at a superior quality and lower price, in the 14th century, and ornate Dutch beer mugs back to the dutch in the 18th, Chinese artists on the make in Western markets learned exactly which buttons to press to alleviate our anxieties. I soon lost count of the number of Chinese artists I interviewed, or read about, with what seemed to be identikit biographies. It seemed that each and every one had been subject to torture, physical abuse and/or exile (of self, or parents, according to age) during the Cultural Revolution. We felt it granted us permission to consume their art while still keeping our moral sense of ourselves intact. It was a foolish ambition. there is no doubt that a moral compass is needed when evaluating art from any society, but questions about the power balance between East and West can be applied a bit more evenly. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if loving Mad Men or Jeff Koons should stop us caring about Abu Ghraib or the hounding of Julian Assange. Or perhaps we should look at each phenomenon in its own context and try to understand the dynamics at work there.
Over dinner recently, an artist friend told guests that on his frequent visits to Africa, he had noticed an interesting change. Years ago, as the boat travelling on the Congo would pass settlements, children would run along the river shouting, “Hello mister!” Nowadays they shout, “Ni hao!”; this remarkable fact pointing to the prevalence of Chinese visitors to Africa. The story filled some dinner guests with horror. I choked on my dessert, asking what possible tragedy the Chinese could visit upon Africa that hasn’t been tried by European colonialists already. As recently as the 1970s, Portuguese would hunt Mozambican and Angolan civilians as if they were wildlife, and send home trophy pictures of themselves with piles of bodies. How can Europeans express concern about the fate of Africa in Chinese hands after that? The fact is, Western “concerns” about the expansion of China’s presence on the world stage, including its role in Africa, are as hypocritical as they are futile.
China has been the most culturally, industrially and scientifically advanced country in the world for 17 out of the last 20 centuries. Not only is there no need to fret about the fate of the world in a Chinese century, as some darker forces in the West would like us to do, but it makes every sense to partner with them, and to look forward to a more balanced system of world powers. For this issue, we had the pleasure of inviting Gong Yan, editor-in-chief of Art World, China’s oldest and most established art magazine, to edit her choice of content for each section across this new format of Tank. §