St. Petersburg and Tampa unveiled the first U.S. exhibition of work by an exciting new generation of Chinese artists this fall. In the first of two special issues of Tampa Review celebrating fifty years of literary publishing, art from My Generation: Young Chinese Artists adds a global scope and youthful perspective. In this exclusive online feature, transcribed from a live event, Curator Barbara Pollack, who assembled the show, speaks with Katherine Pill, of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, in a conversation that offers insights sure to increase your appreciation for the art on the printed pages of Tampa Review 49. The exhibition My Generation: Young Chinese Artists runs June 7-September 28, 2014, at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Museum of Art before traveling to Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where it will be on view October 25, 2014-January 18, 2015.
Chinese Art & the Aesthetics of Misinterpretation
A Conversation about Young Chinese Artists
with Katherine Pill and Barbara Pollack
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On June 8, 2014, in conjunction with the opening of My Generation: Young Chinese Artists at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Museum of Art, a public conversation at the Museum of Fine Arts took place between Katherine Pill, Assistant Curator of Art after 1950 at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the New York-based independent curator Barbara Pollack, author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventure in China and curator of My Generation. This transcription has been edited from a video recording of that event.
Pill: We just watched a video clip from an interview with Beijing-based multimedia artist Hu Xiaoyuan. Not only does this video give a sense of the expansive studio space many of these artists have, but she also addresses a very important concept in this exhibition. She wonders how her work will be received here, pointing to a shared concern of other artists in the show. How will an American audience understand it? She speaks about what her initial intent was in her work, but she does not think that’s the most important thing. She makes very personal work, but she doesn’t want to dictate how it should be understood. I think there are resonances of “relational aesthetics” there in what she says—the idea of the viewer’s interpretation being paramount, and a work not being so much about the artist’s intent.
How do you think these artists are transcending cultural and language barriers with the art they are making?
Pollack: Well, one thing is that I’m sure we live in a world where misinterpretation is a predominant way that we understand each other. I am sure that I am continually misinterpreting the Chinese artists’ work. And I encourage all of you to misinterpret the Chinese artists’ work! [Laughter] There are sometimes very specific cultural references in Chinese art, but less and less so with this group of artists. Their references are just as often apt to be Marcel Duchamp or Jeff Koons or Martin Kippenberger as they are references to a particular Chinese painter or Chinese history.
Pill: Certainly a lot of artists are using traditional ink techniques, particularly Hu Xiaoyuan, and you also find Chinese materials: ink and silk, for example.
Pollack: A few of the artists do feel like a bridge to traditional Chinese painting. Hu Xiaoyuan is one, and Sun Xun, who painted here on the walls at the Museum. He’s another who tries to wed the contemporary with the traditional. But a lot of the artists here are just as happy to leap into post-modernism, and to shake off the burden of some five thousand years of culture and just proceed forward.
Pill: Can you speak about the stereotypes of China and particularly Chinese art that you are trying to dispel with this exhibition?
Pollack: First of all, I’m definitely trying to dispel the notion that all Chinese art is related to ink painting. There was an exhibition this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Ink Art” that made the case that contemporary art in China is related to classical scroll painting. This has not been my experience. First of all, you see very little that looks like peonies and cranes and cloudy mountains in this exhibition.
But also, the first wave of Chinese contemporary artists that got shown in the States were very much influenced by the culture of the Imperial regimes and the Cultural Revolution. So you would get images of Mao in their work, or images of people in Mao suits. Or you would find them using particular images. One famous artist paints picture of peasants and the iconography of the Cultural Revolution in an Andy Warhol style, comparing the Chinese 1970s with our 1970s. I think that a lot of Americans liked that work, because the results were like souvenirs from China. You saw the work: you knew you were getting art from China from a football field away.
This art [in the Exhibition] is much more about what is really going on in China today, but it rarely looks like clichés of Chinese culture. It doesn’t look like these artists made this work in a Chinese restaurant!
Pill: It certainly doesn’t! [Laughter] There isn’t one primary medium [being used], and it seems like a lot of the artists have trained in multi-disciplinary departments. Is that true?
Pollack: Yes. In all of the leading art schools in China now, you begin your first two years with training in realist painting. There is still a tremendous emphasis on that. But after that, when you choose your specialty, you may turn to filmmaking or animation or new media or computer animation or sculpture or photography, so we have people working in virtually every medium in this exhibition.
Pill: I really want to talk with you about the art school system in China. I know that you placed a lot of importance on that—so much so that you have a video by Ma Qiusha at the entrance to the exhibition at the Tampa Museum that’s very powerful. There certainly is a difference between the art school training in China, and here in the United States. I wonder if you can tell us a little more about the pressures on these young artists even to get into the schools.
Pollack: Yes. There are about seven major art schools in China. They begin with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. The pressure to get into one of the leading art schools is tremendous. Tens of thousands apply to get into the Central Academy, and they take about two thousand candidates. So the line to take the entrance exam goes on for days. And people are in training to take that entrance exam from the time they are five years old. For children who are selected to be artists, it is almost the way you choose gymnasts to train for the Olympics.
Sun Xun, who made the installation here, I asked him how he decided to become an artist. He said that when he was five he could draw a perfect circle, so it was decided that he would get art training. Basically, by the time you are fourteen, you apply to get into one of the specialized art high schools. Usually you move away from your family and live in the dormitory there. Then from those specialized art high schools you apply to an academy. They are feeders to the major art academies.
Pill: And there is extra pressure on this particular generation of artists. Some of their fears, regardless of their talents, come through the one-child policy.
Pollack: Well, for everybody of their age group there is tremendous pressure to be successful. That would be true of young professionals going into banking, into investments, into real estate, into manufacturing—there is enormous, enormous pressure and enormous amount of alienation felt due to the one-child policy. It is expected that they will be able to support their parents, and their grandparents, This used to be a shared responsibility among, say, five children. But now it is up to a single child to do that. And also, due to the imbalance between male and female population coming up, young males are expected to be able to buy a house and car before they can marry. It’s tremendous pressure to be financially successful at a young age if they want to get married. A number of these artists are dealing with that pressure; you feel that pressure in their work.
Pill: A lot of these artists did grow up as only children, but we are seeing a few artists’ collectives in the exhibition. With artists living in very large cities, there can be a sense of alienation. Are the collaborations and collectives we see part of the effort to combat that?
Pollack: Yes, absolutely. Collectives are very prominent in China. Even artists in this exhibition who are working as individual artists now were first part of a collective when they got out of school. I have to say this about the Chinese artists: They are very different from American artists. They are very generous about sharing their friends with curators and critics, with people like me, as an example. One of the main ways that I put together this exhibition is that one artist would tell me about five artists—and would put me in the car and drive me to these other five artists’ studios. Or they would arrange a dinner, and I would be there with ten artists—everybody talking Chinese—me not understanding everything that was being said, but all of them showing me their work and getting my curiosity going.
Pill: I think that’s a pretty important thing to get at: that is, how do you navigate the Chinese art scene. I guess it amounts to being there, along with whatever research you can do, but this is the first time that many of these artists are being exhibited in the United States. I know you have assistants over there who were able to help you get around. But just how did you find most of these artists?
Pollack: I started with recommendations by galleries. The gallery system is getting stronger and stronger in China. In many cases I would see a show by an artist, and the dealer would arrange for me to go to visit the artist in the studio. Visiting artists in their studio is a tradition in China. It goes back to the 1990s, before there were galleries. You have to understand, the first gallery in Beijing opened in 1997, so galleries are still a pretty recent phenomenon in China. What would happen before that time is that you would go to China, you would hire a knowledgeable guide, and he would take you from studio to studio. Going to the studios is a whole experience! You don’t get in and out of the studio quickly, even if you don’t like the work. [Laughter] You have to sit down and they want to give you everything. They give you tea; they give you dried fruit. You have to see a fair amount of work, you get to ask a lot of questions. I’m told about the family . . . so when I say that I did over a hundred studio visits, that can give you an idea of how much time I spent in China researching this show.
Then, once the word got out that I was working on the issue of younger artists, then many, many, many younger artists started sending me links to their websites. All these artists have websites. They are very net-savvy. So I was inundated with emails in not very good English asking me to go look at their work. I was actually very lucky that I got access to these people and got to see so much.
Pill: I’ve never asked you this before, but how did you edit the possible selections down to the work of the twenty-seven artists that we are showing now?
Pollack: Well, first of all, I write a good deal about contemporary art. So I do have a filter for seeing some of the things that I’m looking at. For the artists in this exhibition, in every case I saw more than one exhibition by them. I was looking for artists that I thought were growing or getting better over the years. Some of these artists I saw for the first time ten years ago.
All of the artists I was considering, I did long interviews with—and for some of them, it turned out to be a mistake, because over the course of the interview I came to feel about them that they were not really interested in the work they were making. They were just very career-oriented and were trying to impress me, an American visiting China. Also, I assumed all of the artists would come from very privileged backgrounds. It’s not like anybody in China is three generations wealthy. You know, the first generation to get wealthy was in the last twenty years. But I started off believing that all of their parents would be privileged people. Instead, I found that they came from incredibly diverse backgrounds. There are a fair number of artists here whose parents were factory workers or agricultural workers. An extraordinary number of them had never seen an art museum until they got to art high school.
Another question I would often ask them was what was the first work of Western art that they saw. For Jin Shan, one of the artists, it was an Impressionist exhibition that he saw in Shanghai, and he said that the works were so colorful that he thought the French artists were faking it, because in China everything is gray, because of the pollution. Then, later, when he got to France he realized, no! They actually do have blue skies and colorful flowers! [Laughter.] But what was extraordinary is the number of artists whose first exposure to Western work was on the Internet. So they knew Joseph Beuys; they knew quite sophisticated Western work. But they had found it first in textbooks that had been translated into Chinese, and then on the Internet websites.
Pill: That might bring us to the Great Firewall [of China]: that is, censorship in China. Can you talk a little bit about what can and cannot be researched on the Internet?
Pollack: Before we talk about the Firewall, I think we need to talk about censorship. The funny thing is, when I talk about misunderstanding, that is something that goes both ways. I can’t tell you how many Chinese artists I know who cannot read English, who are learning about contemporary gallery art through the pictures in Artforum magazine. They cannot read the commentary, so they have their own interpretation about what these pictures mean, and it’s wildly different from our understanding of it. So we negotiate this level of misinterpreting one another’s cultures.
Now, the Great Firewall, which obviously doesn’t just affect artists, it affects every area of life in China, is a frustrating thing. As you may or may not know, Google is not allowed in China, because Google refused to put censorship programs in place on their search engine. But everybody that I know seems to have access to Google by getting what they call a VPN, a kind of software that lets you leap over Chinese controls and get access to international websites. You will find that, for instance, you cannot research Tiananmen Square. In fact, you may get into a lot of trouble if you start putting in words like “Tiananmen Square” or the name of a political leader – and there is a pretty wide range of political things that you could put into a search engine and get into trouble.
Pill: And that is something you will notice in the video interviews with some of the artists. They will not explicitly refer to events like Tiananmen by name.
Pollack: No. Zhao Zhao called it “the incident on Chang’an Avenue,” which everybody in China knows is a way to talk about Tiananmen Square. But the training from the Internet is so pervasive that even when they are speaking to me about it, they use metaphors or oblique allusions. The Cultural Revolution is often referred to “that unfortunate historic incident.” Very rarely would someone Chinese say to me “the Cultural Revolution.”
Pill: So we have works in the gallery by Zhao Zhao. He is making veiled references to Tiananmen Square, and a lot of artists do need to find ways to make subtle references to political action and really try to subvert government and surveillance.
Pollack: But also, what I find fascinating is that the vast majority of the artists in this exhibition had not heard of Tiananmen Square until they went abroad for the first time in their twenties. There is absolutely no education or information about it in China. Or their parents might open up about it. Something like that.
Pill: So a student might go to a regular school and never hear about it, but after dinner during a conversation a father might happen to tell stories about the cultural revolution—something like that, which was Sun Xun’s experience.
Pollack: Exactly. But what you find with the artists is that they are actually more attuned to finding out things than other non-artists in their age group. Others that I’ve talked with, even if they have a VPN and could research political issues, they just aren’t interested. They are not really interested in hearing anything negative about China. And by and large, even among the artists in this exhibition, if you bring up the subject of Tibet, they’ll tell you, “Tibet is part of China.” They have no understanding whatsoever about why the people in Tibet wouldn’t want to be part of China.
Pill: Did you come up against examples of political apathy?
Pollack: Again, the artists are more sensitive and have been thinking about politics a lot. I think the artists in this exhibition, whether they explicitly make work about politics or not, have been exposed to other cultures. And everybody in China complains about the one-party system because of the amount of corruption going on. It’s not that they view their government as a totalitarian government or oppressive. They don’t really see it that way. But they see it as rife with corruption and are sick of how many people you have to pay off to get anything done. So everybody complains about the government to some extent. But when I would go to rock concerts and talk to other Chinese youth, they don’t see what there is to complain about. I mean, this is the generation that has gotten enormously wealthy. They benefit from the economic expansion that this government has provided, so they are not really bent toward complaining about it.
Pill: There is a term you have used to talk this generation that is popular in China: “Little Emperors.” Can you explain that?
Pollack: Yes. The combination of being only-children and being the first generation to grow up with parents who are privileged has created a situation which some of the Chinese call “Little Emperors”—because they are “spoiled brats” by and large—as a stereotype. Here again, the artists have had to work almost too hard their whole lives, so they don’t ordinarily fall into that category. Or at least I would have to say that in terms of my choices for the show, I have already filtered out a number of artists like that who are already driving BMWs seemed much more materialistic—or more concerned with wealth than being actually concerned with artistic development.
Pill: You also have referred to something you call a “pressure-cooker” environment of making art in China. And you indicated that was something you were really drawn to, meaning that you never know what is going to trigger the authorities to come in and shut down a show. Or stop the shipment of an artwork.
Pollack: All of the artists in this exhibition are testing the boundaries. They may not be doing it explicitly, but they are all trying to figure out what you can get away with.
In a weird way, the government in China gives them something to rub up against that makes the work more creative and full of ingenuity.
Pill: But you did want these artworks to be leaving China and to be viewed by American and international audiences. That is a primary goal. So I wonder how that came into play.
Pollack: Well, the artists are in this interesting position. It’s a very complicated thing if you think about it. They do want their work to be understood in China, but not by the censors. (And censors are kind of stupid; they miss a lot of stuff.) But also they want it to be read internationally when it gets to the United States or Europe. I find it extremely fascinating how they negotiate those issues. The fact that it has to be read both within their home country and abroad means that they often build multiple layers of meaning into an individual artwork.
Pill: We have all heard a lot about the Chinese art market. Major auction houses are opening in China. Galleries are opening. Museums are increasing exponentially, but you mention also some of the alternative exhibition systems that artists have set up. Maybe some of them are trying to rebel against the typical gallery systems in China. Could you speak, for instance, about Xu Zhen and his history with alternative spaces and his company?
Pollack: Yes, I can try to explain this. Auction houses have been around in China for a long time. Before there were galleries and before there were many museums, the art got shown in the context of auctions. This set up a situation where there is a big imbalance in China. Most of the research being done about contemporary art in China is not going on in museums or universities. It’s going on at auction houses, and they are geared to selling as much work at as high a price as possible. The younger generation has been exposed to the West. They know that this situation is an imbalance. They don’t want everything to be so commercial. There is a down side to being so commercial, which is that you are not taken as seriously.
They look at the older generation, and they see that their work sells. It sells for a lot of money. Up to ten million dollars a painting. But they don’t get shown in the West, because the work is not analyzed in a scholarly way or written about in a critical way. They want something more than this. They definitely want something more out of their art experience. They are hungry for a critical dialog about their work.
So forming collectives is one thing that they do to set up a conversation that is a little different than the market. Xu Zhen, the artist who is responsible for the huge tapestry, has picked apart this market on a number of different levels. Early on in his career, in the year 1999, when he was 18 years old, he did an exhibition in a supermarket in Shanghai. The artists came in and saw their work on the shelves like cans of food, and one thing this was saying was that the art was being treated as so commercial that it might as well be stocked and viewed like this. He has also done things like empty galleries—he did this in New York—he emptied the entire gallery and installed a supermarket in the gallery. When he was about 23 he established the first alternative space in Shanghai to do experimental shows that were noncommercial. Nothing was for sale. But he ironically called it “Biz Art.” [Laughter] . . . to make fun of how much art is a business in China. He has since turned himself into a corporation called “Made In” to make fun of the label “Made in China” and the way that China is viewed as a huge manufacturing center but not an innovation center. And now when you visit him, he runs his studio very much like a business, again turning inside out the stereotype of China as a manufacturing center—a center of knock-offs and fakes.
Pill: And the tapestry work that is on display here in the Museum of Fine Arts does many of these things: it pretty much dissipates the stereotypes about China. This seems central to what you say about the whole show, about the need to throw out the stereotypes you hold about Chinese art and about China. Can you say a little about these elements as they can be seen in his work, “Fearless”?
Pollack: Well, in “Fearless,” you see many icons in that tapestry. A phoenix dominates the center, but you see the head of Medusa. Kent Lydecker [MFA Director] figured out that one of the heads is the head of Nietzsche. We see imagery from medieval manuscripts. We see something from an Islamic miniature painting. We see icons that come from all over the world, except China.
Pill: I believe you said that one of his points is that identity can be manufactured.
Pollack: He has said that anyone can be a Chinese artist. All you need to do is throw in a dragon or a Mao, drag it through some red and gold paint, and you have Chinese art. [Laughter] So he says I can be a Western artist. All I have to do is look around the internet, come up with some images, sling them together into a piece, and I can be a Western artist. It’s really funny when he says this, because, first of all, he absolutely does not speak English, so he often finds himself on sites that he himself can’t read. And he refuses to get on an airplane. He had a bad experience on an airplane about seven years ago, and he will not travel abroad. So he is the most Chinese of all the Chinese artists in the exhibition! [Laughter.] And yet he makes work that looks like it was made by Western artists. He is saying that culture at this point is manufactured. And nationalism is passé. Cultural nationalism is passé.
Pill: I think that’s a good note to end on: this global sense and the different perspectives we need to think about in how we approach these art works. That we will miss the point if we try to see them from any nationalistic point of view.
Do we have any questions from the audience?
Question: You spoke of the training these artists have—they have to go through about three years of training, and they would learn something about images, and have to learn brush technique . . .
Pollack: Not so much brush technique. Very few of these artists would have learned brush technique. They are learning realist painting from the Soviet system as a hold-over from the Cultural Revolution. So every artist in this exhibition can draw realistically unbelievably well. Just unbelievably well!
Question: I wonder who makes the decision for a five-year-old to start art lessons. If it isn’t the parents, do they have a right to say no?
Pollack: Well, that’s hard to explain. The family system is so strong in China that a family saying it [that a child should take art lessons] is harder to refuse than a teacher saying it. Often it’s the parents. And when it comes from family pressure, the child doesn’t feel it can refuse. If you read the book that came out recently, last year in the United States, about the Yale professor-mother and the way she trains her children [Battle of the Tiger Mother by Amy L. Chua], that’s what goes on in China.
Question: Often in the United States we hear about the tortured artist, or how the artist has to suffer in order to do good work. Is their something relatively similar to that in China? Or is that nonexistent there?
Pollack: No. It does not exist in China. And it’s very interesting. The tortured artist really comes out of a whole long, romantic Western tradition that doesn’t exist in China. In China the tradition is that the artist is an esteemed member of society and part of the literati tradition. So instead of feeling like you have to go through all this angst and trauma to be a good artist, there is much more the feeling that you have to go through a kind of training to be an artist. Also they don’t have Puritan notions about “making it.” In this U.S., we may fear success as a kind of “selling out.” But in Buddhism there isn’t the notion. In fact, in China for Buddhist holidays you give each other money in envelopes. The artist doesn’t feel he is doing anything wrong if he becomes successful and starts making a lot of money off their artwork. I think this is one of the reasons I like Chinese artists. They are much less neurotic to deal with than many American artists! [Laughter]
Question: I don’t know how long you were in China, but did you ever get the feeling that China itself was the largest art installation ever—the entire country?
Pollack: The reason I go to China five times a year and have been going since 2004 is that on that very first trip I realized that this is where the 21st century is going to take place. And I really do believe that the great art movement of the 21st century is going to happen in China—just the way the 1950s saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism and began putting American art on the map. And I believe it’s going to come from this generation of artists that I’m studying. But the whole country is post-modern. Every corner of Shanghai is post-modern. It’s just fascinating to be there.
Question: What percentage of the student artists trained in realism are staying with that style?
Pollack: I don’t know percentages. But Realist painting is still very strong in China. You see it in the auction houses there. It doesn’t get exported that much, because a lot of it is just not that innovative. But it is very, very much revered in China. And it’s very, very expensive. It’s far more popular than art like this [like works in the exhibition] in China.
Question: Can you tell me what the average person in China who has been exposed to Western culture, what do they think about this kind of art?
Pollack: I want to dispel the notion that there is the average Chinese person who has been exposed to Western culture. Our entire culture is being produced in China!
Apple machines are made in China. Many people in China have an iPhone or drink Starbucks coffee. So one of the things that I’m trying to convey here is that there once was this divide between “China” and “the West,” but that is disappearing rapidly.
Maybe this brings us back to misinterpretations. I mean, Chinese who admire realist painting are admiring Western culture. Realist painting is a part of Western culture. Let me put it this way. There are now eight contemporary art museums in Shanghai. They are visited by a lot of people—from older couples through school children. So they are getting exposed to this [kind of art]. They don’t love it. They would still prefer to see some ancient scroll painting. But then I don’t think Americans love seeing the Whitney Biennial. [Laughter] So I think it’s about the same there as here.
Katherine Pill is the Assistant Curator of Art after 1950 for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida
Barbara Pollack is a New York-based independent curator, writer, and journalist, and a leading expert on contemporary Chinese art. She is the author of the critically acclaimed survey The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventure in China (2010)