Does Abstract Art Exist in China?

With the Olympics in China, I thought I would include this piece that I found on Chinese abstract.

Zhao Wuji’s abstract painting

Abstraction is the Product of Western Modernism

bsent the birth of Western Modernism, there would have been no abstract art. For a brief period during the twentieth century, however, some scholars propounded the contrary theory that abstract art had existed in ancient China. In the Yang Shao culture of ancient China, people were accustomed to the use of simplified figurative forms on their painted pottery to represent realistic forms. The twentieth century scholars thought that these simplified figurative design patterns were the first step in a process leading from figurative art to abstract art. As an example they cited fish patterns on the Yang Shao pottery, which were depicted both with representational forms and with simplied, more abstract forms, suggesting that the representational forms had been employed originally and had over time been depicted in increasingly simplied, more “abstract” forms. However, it was later discovered by archaeologists that both the representational and simplified motifs had been employed during the same period and in the same area, which completely overturned theories about the evolution of abstract art as having begun in ancient Chinese cultures.

Zen Yin Yang Koi Fish Feng Shui

Clement Greenberg was another proponent of the theory that abstract art has its roots in pre-twentieth-century art, in his theory, the art and culture of the Enlightenment. He regarded abstract art as a symbol of the development of mankind’s ability to think conceptually. Greenberg asserted that abstract art is the highest form of art to develop out of Western culture since the Enlightenment. He sees abstract art as the quintessence of culture. Abstraction to Greenberg means freeing oneself from the limitations of figurative language and approaching a state of spiritual freedom that enables the artist to create art that is “just what it is”. A variety of theories concerning Western abstract art and spanning a period of more than a century find their culmination in the work of Greenberg, who thought that the representation of reality with the use of two dimensional forms was far closer to the essence of reality itself than representation in three-dimensional forms. For Greenberg, three-dimensional realism is just an illusion. Greenberg’s theories were derived from Plato. According to Plato, the reality we can see is just a shadow of the real world of “ideas”. Therefore, three dimensional art is just a shadow of yet other shadows. So from this perspective, two dimensional abstract art goes beyond and improves upon three-dimensional, representational forms of art. Abstract art depicts the whole world of ideas, as in the red and black squares of Malevich, and the patterns of Mondrian. Only two dimensional forms can go beyond the limits of visual illusions, thus representing real ideas. Greenberg’s revolutionary theory became the basis for Western abstract art. As Yve-Alain Bois, a professor at Columbia University and a student of Greenberg, said in his book about abstract art, Painting as a Model, the geometrical forms of modern art are its essence.

Changming Meng

Every model requires a code, and it is that code that endows abstract art with its meaning. Furthermore, the act of understanding abstract art is itself a decoding process. But the process of decoding abstract art is quite different from the analytic methods used for previous art forms. Decoding abstract art doesn’t rely on an understanding or interpretation of any representational forms. Theories of abstract art reject the idea that art should be merely representational, that it should be indebted to literature’s narratives or to the world’s visual appearance. The process of decoding abstract art doesn’t depend upon visual reality at all. It is a process moving from one idea to another, as represented, for example by dots, lines, and a color field. On the contrary, art theories have often stressed the role of reality as a medium to decode the meaning of an artwork. Let me offer an example. The decoding process employed by Iconology starts from the physical appearance of an icon, in order to enter its Iconological index, and to finally pierce the symbol itself. This process is based on the relationship between icon and visual reality and it is this relationship that makes the decoding process employed by Iconology possible. Since Iconology is related to theology, history and culture it is therefore the monopoly of art historians. On the contrary, the code of modern abstract art doesn’t need to rely on any icon as medium. Breaking free from the icon as a medium endows the artist with creative freedom. But it does not free the person doing the decoding. This is because defining the meaning of an artwork is the privilege of the abstract artist, who is free of the icon as symbol, not of the task of a passive decoder.

The individual code has become the essential characteristic of modern abstract art. Modernism has produced many masters and excellent artists who rely on personal code as a means of expession. Seeing the works of Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Newman, we need only listen reverently, listen attentively to the explanations of the artists themselves about how they reconstitute the external world in terms of geometrical forms. This kind of abstract art based on individual codes appeared only during the twentieth century. It is very different from the ancient, non-Western art forms similar to abstract art such as the Yang Shao pottery patterns or on the bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasty. The essential difference between those early works and modern Western abstract art is that both the codes employed and the decoding process from ancient works are collective, not individual, codes. At the time of the Yang Shao culture, people could easily understand the various decorative patterns employed probably because they were ritual symbols, used during rites to pay homage. These abstract forms were the symbols of the religious and cultural life of these ancient populations, not the symbols of the individual artist. Both the use of codes and the decoding processes were are collective processes. Therefore, I would argue that modern abstract art is the product of the individualism developed from the Enlightenment onwards and is essentially different from any “abstract” forms either from ancient China or from other non-Western cultures.

Individualism is at the heart of Western modern abstract art because that art form stresses the originality and personal artistic growth that great masters and influential artists are able to pursue. Consequently, new compositions employ totally new code systems, and these new code systems stand for a new meaning. This is what some Western modernists, such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, refer to as a “significant form”. So the pursuit of significant form resulted in the reverence for individualism and originality. Herein lies the quintessence of Modernism. In the 1950s, Minimalism, a representative style of late twentieth century Modernism, moved from the early modernist ideal toward an extreme formalism of what they called “objecthood” and “theatricality”. Various minimalist artists consider the colors of their images as pure matter . As Stella said, “What you see is what you see .” Minimalism strives for an objectified theatricality, which allows the public to step onto the stage with the artwork . At the same time, it possesses a fierce sense of spatial composition and of space conceived as a whole. Furthermore, Minimalism uses a completely objectified space to express a sense of the material that defies interpretation, thus completely discarding the need for codes and decoding processes. Even if Minimalism destroyed the mysterious and individual allure of the codes used by modern abstract masters, and thus precluded the need for their audience to decode their works, it still remains a quintessential modernist principle because it endows the artist with the absolute power to control the space of the artwork (generally through a series of arbitrary forms). In comparison with Greenberg’s concept of art as “just what it is” and Stella’s notion of “what you see is what you see,” pre-Minimalist abstract art focuses on thought, Minimalism on visual perception. But both consider art an autonomic realm.

Needlessly to say, all kinds of modernism (early and late) reject content (either as a picture of reality, an interpretation of the critic, or a statement of the artist). It is this dichotomy (content vs. form) that set up the foundation for modern abstract art throughout the 20th century. One may find, however, there is no such divide between content and form in the practice of the so-called Chinese “abstract” art.

The Chineseness in Chinese Contemporary Abstract Art

After the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), the earlier generation of social realist artists turned to individual styles and aesthetics. A debate over formalism took place in the early 1980s. In 1981, Wu Guangzhong, a French – trained painter of the earlier generation, in an essay published in Art Monthly argued against the dominant forms of realism in favor of abstraction, or “no subject, just form.” The article caused a sensation which inspired a number of younger artists to pursue a modern art style. In the second half of the 1980s, the avant-garde artists of the ’85 Movement continued this experimental art, and used a style similar to abstraction in combination with Surrealism and Expressionism to create what I labeled as “Rationalistic painting”. One may think of Rationalistic painting as an alternative form of Chinese Modernism, because it has an idealistic aspect similar to that of early European Modernism, and because its subjects always relate to traditional Oriental philosophical ideas, such as “squire (fang),” “sphere (yuan),””nothingness (wu)” and “being (you)”. For instance, in the 1980s, there was a group of artists in China, in Shanghai in particular, that was concerned with abstract art. In Shanghai, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Qin Yifeng, and Wang Zi were the first artists to create abstract works that employed dots and lines. This kind of Chinese “abstract” art, however, is crucially different from the Western modern abstract art rendered in geometric forms.

From the 1990s onwards, many traditional ink and wash painters such Li Huasheng, Zhang Yu, Zhang Jin and Wei Qingji devoted themselves to abstract ink and wash painting whose subjects were dots and lines. This so-called “abstract art” phenomenon took place simultaneously in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong during the last 20 years. In Hong Kong, Lui Chun Kwong, a professor at the Hong Kong Chinese University, and his students such as Man Fengyi, Kwok Ying, Qu Kailin, engaged in abstraction. In the 1980s in Taiwan, Chuang Pu after his return from Spain devoted himself to abstraction in the form of Minimalism and strongly influenced young artists such as those of the IT Part group.

Nevertheless, how can we define the Chinese “abstract art” phenomenon, or identify the essential characteristics of Chinese “abstract art,” in comparison with those of Euro-American?

First, this Chinese abstract art phenomenon is partly a result of the current urbanization trend and it expresses the responses of individual artists to the impact of globalization. Alternatively, since abstract art in general has been marginalized for at least a half of century, the Chinese “abstract art” of the last 20 years can be seen as a rebellion against conventional realism as well as against current urban mass culture, as both share a similar kitsch aspect.

All Chinese “abstract” artists share a common principle: the squares, the dots, and the lines they employ are neither a mere formal decoration (as “what you see is what you see”), nor are they the material expression of the Ideal (as “what it is”). They are engaged in a dialogue similar to the one carried on in everyday life between artists and objects. The squares, dots and lines symbolize the repetition and triviality of everyday life. They are the expression of self-development in an urbanized context that keeps its distance from the outside world. These abstract forms do not represent things. So, its minimalist appearance has nothing in common with the Minimalist style of 1950s USA. These forms are similar to forms found in the records of spiritual exercises of Buddhist meditation. Almost all these abstract artists stress repetition, continuity, and a simple, unaffected state of mind. They focus on creating an internally satisfying spiritual realm. This is why I labeled the abstract artists of the 1990s as “Maximalists”. “Maximalism” means being able to express freely without dichotomy between form and content, matter and spirit, art work and artist, or object and environment. It means being able to go beyond the formal appearance of an artwork, thus expressing the unique feelings of an artist in a unique context, and his personal process of daily growth. There are many artists concerned with these issues. For example, Li Huasheng’s ink and wash paintings are his personal diary; Zhu Xiaohe, with his short lines, copies ancient paintings and masterpieces everyday. Actually, Maximalism consists of using personal feelings to inform the process of abstraction. Zhang Yu leaves his fingerprints on his casual sketches on Xuanzhi (high quality paper from Anhui Province) in order to condense his own experiences in an abstract ink wash painting. We can cite many other artists, including those in the current exhibition visibleinvisible.

Each of them underscores the importance of individual aesthetic experience as opposed to any standard model to define the forms they choose to use. They never aim at pursuing a unique and revolutionary style. On the contrary they aim at a mutual but tacit dialogue between their personal feelings (spiritual realm) and the means of expression (material realm). All this is evident in their “piece by piece” art making process as well as in everyday life. This approach thus transcends the dichotomy of the abstract aesthetic developed in Western Modernism.

Therefore, the minimalist Chinese abstract art that emerged in the 1990s is not the Minimalism of Western Modernism, rather it is an art phenomenon I call Maximalism. First, the paintings using geometrical compositions in Chinese Maximalist art show no relationship with either the “pure matter” of Minimalism or with the abstract expression of the Ideal of earlier works. Second, they have no relationship with elite style, evolution or other modernist conceptions. On the contrary, these works are related strictly to the everyday life of Chinese people living under the assaults of urbanization. The physical form of the works is not to be seen as an independent entity since the essence of the art is not the works on the walls. Whereas Western Modernist art is derived from the relationship between frame and wall, Chinese abstract art focuses more on the relationship between the artwork and the artist’s affect on it as impacted by the artist’s environment, the process of which is an inseparable part of the artist’s everyday life. So, even if these artists don’t consciously attempt to employ coding, codes appear in the dialogue among the artists, their everyday lives and their artwork. Their codes are invisible and immaterial, therefore it is impossible to decode their works in the conventional manner in which art critics and audiences engage. Instead their codes have to be experienced, rather than read, by the public. Therefore, to decode these works, the audience must do more than read the physical form of a work (that is, it’s surface, or text). It must understand the entire process of making the art, the context underlying the work.

Secondly, concerning the spatial form of paintings, Maximalism is a search for the infinity of space. The Maximalists have no interest in the wholeness of their compositions, which emphasize the difference between center and edge. They do not create independent or self-sufficient paintings. On the contrary, they aim to express their spatial concepts through repetitive forms. Therefore, most of their works are repetitive series. Their “wholeness” is realized in a series of partially completed works. According to the Maximalists, there is not fixed, isolated or unchangeable space limited by a frame. Space is a kind of relationship, always moving and metamorphosing. Some use different “formal principles” to express this infinity. For instance, in his early works, Xu Hongming used the Chinese traditional perspective method — the use of multiple vanishing points in stead of the single point of the Western perspective — to create his own abstraction. He used the method as an aesthetic means to express infinite space. His latest works explore the ways to express spatial infinity by using infinitely subtle changes in color. To take another example, Zhou Yangming and Zhang Fan superimpose innumerable grid layers to create the visual illusions of infinite depth. By unceasingly changing the combinations of rounds (karyon), the latest works of Tan Ping are metaphors referring to the eternal uncertainty of spatial relationships and compositions. This idea of uncertainty, or ambiguity, in fact comes from traditional Buddhist and Taoist philosophy which consider the physical world as increasingly transmuting space.


Therefore, the “space” in Chinese abstract art is neither a composition portraying the spiritual idealism aimed at by the early Modernists, nor is it the closed, unchangeable, theatrical space of the Minimalists. On the contrary, Maximalism seeks to express the infinity of visual space, not its wholeness. It is anti-wholeness and anti-theatricality. Furthermore, the space of Chinese abstract art goes far beyond its physical presence; it consists both of its interior and exterior space. One cannot truly understand the “space” inside the painting without a thorough comprehension of the conceptual space of the artist.
By Gao Minglu


Contemporary art “to connect” to China

The new US embassy in Beijing, opening in August, will include art by Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, and others

Jason Edward Kaufman

Jeff Koons is lending his sculpture Tulips, an edition of which is shown here in the courtyard of the Nord/LB bank in Hanover, Germany, to the US embassy in Beijing for ten years

NEW YORK. When the new American embassy opens in Beijing just before the start of the summer Olympics in August, it will display work by at least 18 American and Chinese contemporary artists, including Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rausch-enberg, Betty Woodman, Martin Puryear, Maya Lin, Yun-Fei Ji, and Hai Bo. Many of the pieces are new commissions or site-specific works purchased by the State Department.

The collection has been overseen by Virginia Shore, chief curator of the Art in Embassies programme. The State Department calculates its art budgets based on a building’s square footage, and the $800,000 spent for art on the Beijing project is the largest sum ever for a US embassy.

Ms Shore says she strove to be “culturally sensitive and diplomatic” in selecting American and Chinese artists. She says that when she commissioned new work, she asked some artists “to connect” to China, “but without giving any specific parameters”. When she requested one of Cai Guo-Qiang’s exploded gunpowder drawings he responded with Eagle Landing on a Pine Branch, 2007, which his spokeswoman describes as “an American symbol about to land on a Chinese archetype”. Very few works allude to contemporary events, and those that do are subject to alternative interpretations. For example, a traditional Chinese-style landscape painting by Yun-Fei Ji, Last Days Before the Flood, 2006, portrays refugees from the Three Gorges dam project.

All of the works belong to the State Department with the exception of Jeff Koons’s steel sculpture Tulips, a ten-year loan from the artist that will be installed outdoors. Sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, Martin Puryear, Louise Bourgeois and Mark di Suvero have been donated by the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies, a non-profit organisation that helps acquire art for display in US diplomatic buildings.

The new $550m complex, designed by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is one of the two largest construction projects ever undertaken by the State Department on foreign soil. (The embassy currently under construction in Baghdad will be larger.)

The works will be installed shortly before the building is unveiled on 8 August in a ceremony to be attended by President Bush and the First Lady, who will be in the Chinese capital to attend the opening of the Olympics.

Ms Shore declines to reveal how much the State Department paid for individual works, but says that artists and dealers agreed to prices within the constraints of her budget.

Huang Yongping – Bat Project

Very interesting story of how art and politics can cross paths

In 1986, Huang Yongping formed the Xiamen Dada group, aiming to bring Dadaist principles to Chinese art. Following his participation in the 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou and the political upheavals in China of the same year, Huang moved to Paris, where he now lives and works.
In his work, Huang often deals with current events, history and reality by means of deconstruction and irony. In his installation ‘A History of Chinese Painting’ and ‘A Concise History of Modern Painting’ Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987 / 1993), the artist blended a Chinese and a Western art text into a messy pile of pulp. Other works raise the issue of illegal immigrants and post-colonial migration. Péril de moutons (1997) alluded to the mad cow disease epidemic and The Camels’ Back Project (1999) questioned the tense multicultural mix in Jerusalem.
Bat Project I–III (2001–2003) comprises replicas of the United States EP-3 spy plane, which is colloquially referred to as the ‘bat’. This type of aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter plane on 1 April 2001, before making an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The Chinese requested the spy plane to be disassembled and crated before being transported back to the United States in a freight carrier. What caught Huang’s interest in the incident was the disassembly of such a massive and sophisticated object. The artist felt that when one plane is dismantled and flown away inside another, it becomes a work of art in itself. According to Huang, it is also a rare instance of powerful technology ironically deployed against itself.
The first phase of this project (Shenzhen, 2001) comprised a replica of a portion of the plane from tail to fuselage, and was first produced for an exhibition jointly organised by China and France. In Bat Project II (Guangzhou, 2002), he recreated the middle and front portions, as well as the left wing. The final part, Bat Project III (Beijing, 2003), was a realisation of the remaining right wing.
The reconstitution of the EP-3 spy plane in each phase of the Bat Project was halted near completion, prior to the exhibition opening. As the artist explained, ‘whether or not it is due to pressure from government officials or from private patrons, and whether or not it is the practice of self-censorship or state censorship, the removal of the artwork from the three exhibitions has followed the same logic.’ Nevertheless, Huang’s construction of the EP-3 has unexpectedly evolved into a re-enactment of the original spy plane incident, as the disassembled plane is forcibly dismantled once again.

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project I, 2001
Bat Project I, 2001
Shenzuan, China.

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project II, 2002
Bat Project II, 2002
Guangzhou, China.

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project III, 2003
Bat Project III, 2003
Beijing, China.

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project I, 2001

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project I, 2001
Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project I, 2001
Bat Project I and II, 2003
Arsinale, Venice Biannual, Italy.

Huang Yong Ping, Bat Project II, 2002

Geng Jianyi

“I used to think that a completed artwork was like the completed act of taking a piss: when it’s finished it’s finished – you don’t go carrying the contents of the chamber pot around with you. But now things are different, you can’t just take a piss whenever you like anymore and be done with it. There are special bathrooms, like museums and art galleries, that want to expose you in your most basic acts. And doesn’t everybody now accept this situation as normal? The people going in for a look are all very interested, companing who is big and who is small. How is it that I was born in this age of organisation? and how is it that I want to be proclaimed the champ? It’s really a shame.”

“I am interested in our awareness of what has happened, what is taking place, what will unfold; and our part in the process.” Geng Jianyi

Face is washed away (black)

In 1994, after eight years of extremely active creativity in the southern city of Hangzhou – an acre of heaven on earth as it is known in China – Geng Jianyi moved to Beijing, a city he believed might offer greater opportunities to develop and show his art, and to enter into a more dynamic aesthetic dialogue with artists in, and western visitors to, the capital. Geng Jianyi left Hangzhou claiming it to be a quiet place, whence people have long since traveled to find peace, to contemplate life, and to rejuvenate their spirits; not a place of intense creative activity. Ironically, in the mid- to late-1980s, this is exactly what it was, and Geng Jianyi was part of an extremely active and influential group of artists linked to Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. In the mid-1980s, as avant-garde-ism broke out all over China, there was a tremendous general awareness of what had happened, and nothing but hope for what might unfold. The artists’ part in the process was to make things take place.

Visible Face
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

Geng Jianyi entered Zhejiang Academy in 1981, graduating from the oil painting department in 1985. Group activities under the name The Pond Association began in 1986 but were over by 1987. They might have continued, but the late-1980s saw other group members depart abroad. Geng Jianyi remained in Hangzhou. The different physical paths taken by the various group members effected diverging aesthetic paths, too; aesthetic styles that were to become as influential – if not more so – than hat of The Pond Association. Through the fifteen years since he began pursuing a serious artistic career, Geng Jianyi has participated in all the major showing of Chinese art in China and abroad, although in the last several years he has sidled towards the sidelines to engage in more concentrated creative endeavor. At the same time, in the sudden rush to find the most avant-garde of the new Chinese avant-garde in the mid- to late-nineties, Geng Jianyi was often over-looked – early works were no longer available and the new ones lacked obvious Chinese characteristics, even as they became more Chinese in origin and inspiration, or an easy format which might make them saleable or facilitate presentation. Within China, few of his works were published, so few knew what he was engaged in. This must neither be taken as a negative comment upon Geng Jianyi’s work nor as an indication of falling standards; it was more that during the years of largely conceptual works – 1993-96 – his approaches were extremely diverse – too diverse according to the artist – and with the majority of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art being abroad, his work was not easy for a foreign audience to experience or appreciate.

Visible Face
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

However, in 1999, what makes Geng Jianyi special is that he has produced one of the most consistent and profound bodies of works to have come out of the avant-garde movement; in retrospect, the diversity of approaches only made for a more integral whole. Consistency does not lie in an obvious visual stamp, a “trade mark” placed on the work, as has happened in the case of some contemporary artists, rather it is found in the questing after answers to largely rhetorical questions on the human condition, yet questions that are aimed at invoking in the audience their own “awareness of what has happened, what is taking place, and (their) part in the process”. Therein lies the profoundness of Geng Jianyi’s work, for in provoking such awareness, he often uses the most discrete and humble of approaches to do so that are more in line with the revelations embedded in Buddhist fables.

Face is washed away
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

This brings us back to Hangzhou, or rather from Beijing back to Hangzhou for it took a period of nine months – an appropriate term of incubation for a new life – for Geng Jianyi to admit that the climate in Beijing was not conducive to creativity in terms of his approach to art. More important perhaps that the velocity at which life was being lived in the capital – including the art stars rapidly rocketing skyward – was at odds with a personality which thrived on the quiet, contemplative backwater of Hangzhou, and a certain inclination to the thinking man’s meditation on life: as Geng Jianyi says “Like sunflowers, artists will always orientate themselves towards the light that nourishes them”.

In nine months in Beijing, Geng Jianyi completed only one major piece entitled ‘No Matter from which Side, It’s Still Possible to See’. This piece was created for the Beijing-Berlin artists’ exchange project at Capital Normal University’s Art Museum in autumn of 1995, and illustrates much about the confusing polemic of the transparent density of relations and individual natures, and the complexity of societal structures in the capital. ‘No Matter from which Side…’ was formed of a vertical layering of glass panels with black and gray satin sandwiched in between. The opacity effected by the “silvering” of glass with satin effected a mirrored outer face on the back and the front sides of the piece, sending back a vague reflection of the viewer, framed in the panel. Thus, exactly as indicated in the title, no matter on which side the viewer stood, it was still possible to see, but nothing was terribly clear, nothing on the surface was defined absolutely; viewers thought they were seeing a reflection of the themselves, but it was impossible to be absolutely certain. Here, Geng Jianyi was exercising one of his favorite conundrums: what are those characteristics by which we recognize the world, and identify the signifiers without which we could not navigate ourselves through a day?

2001 n. 4
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

The element of blurred, questionable or anonymous identity was a theme visible in early works like tap ‘Water Factory’ (1987, an installation work in which the symmetrical arrangement of passageways leading to the central space blurred the lines between viewer and what-who-was actually on show) and ‘Summer 1985,One More Shaved Head’ (oil on canvas, 1992-93) and ‘Decorative Edges’ (oil on c canvas, 1991-92). The question continued to be posed in ‘Heads in Chiaroscuro/Interchanging of Light’ (oil on canvas, 1995-96, a series of nine large heads. comprising the overlaying of two dramatically lit silhouettes), through to the group of paintings that comprise this exhibition. The style of layering faces and bodies is almost a Cubist approach to creating a “portrait”, not of a physiognomy but of a whole personality. In early works, the color was cool and the composition a simplified arrangement of planes and form, the surface was always smooth. Through time, interest in the ability of oil paint and mixed media to lend texture and a richness of color themselves. Geng Jianyi has produced a beautiful series of paper-cuts using sheets of Origami paper – deepened the palette and the surface considerable. Process has become as important as concept. But it is not just in those works that incorporate concrete human images that point to the nature of identity – in order to have an identity, one must first be acknowledged as existing, have an awareness of the mind and body as self, in order to undertake any role in “the process” – it is found in the conceptual works too.

Conceptually, his posturing is evidenced in ‘Who is He’? (documentation work, 1994), ‘Proving the Existence of’ (1994, a documentary piece looking at existence in a populous socialist society where individuals actually became lost or displaced as people moved around following the call to the new society. But the problem is universally pertinent when we try to identify exactly what it is that proves we exist. House deeds? Voting registers? National security/Insurance numbers? Or is it membership and credit cards? Perhaps it is only in statements of presence and sightings by people we encounter along the road of life, as Geng Jianyi demonstrated in his unrealized project ‘Visible Landscape’ (1995, an installation, in which viewers were to be faced with an array of imposing, minimalist monoliths much like the carved stone tablets of traditional Chinese tomb and clan temple architecture. Eyes would immediately be drawn to a small cube of lit-up glass placed at head height. Instinct would be to draw near for a close look, to see what secret lay in this small transparent casket. As the viewer studies the illuminated image of the slide framed therein, it would slowly dawned upon them that what they were seeing – an image of footprints in powder – was simultaneously being recreated by their own feet in the pigment/powder that would be scattered on the floor before the panel. Thus the viewer would become a participant in a work delicately altered with each successive tread, each new pair of feet and ‘This Person’ (action/documentary piece, 1997, based on the Chinese penchant for fortune telling). Obvious pieces like ‘Identity Cards’ (b/w photographic work, 1998) need no explanation. In each and every one of these works there is an overlaying of identities, and audi8ence awareness is tested in terms of what cords are struck with their own perceptions of “truth”, and the blending of realities Geng Jianyi presents to them.

2001 n.1
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

In the earlier canvases, where figures were portrayed engaged in the most mundane of activities, there exists a series of large wood panel works presented as explanations on “how to put on a jacket”, “how to take off a jumper”, “how to clap hands”, and his most well-known work about how to smile, ‘The Second State’ (oil on canvas, 1986-87). These pieces amongst others (up to 1993) became categorized as Political Pop, which may well have been true if one looked only at the initial impact of the images, but with hindsight it is possible to read these works as components of a bigger picture; first, and perhaps more obvious explorations of what are now far more mature musings. It is fair to say that his was the original malaise and cynicism.

And so we come to Geng Jinyi’s most recent series of paintings. His output has never been high for there is much reworking, and even discarding, of his compositions along the way. Work on the present series began in 1996. The result is twelve paintings with which we must believe the artist is satisfied, which therefore deserve close contemplation. Initially, they may appear to contain a great deal of similarity and yet each contains its own district mood. The several separate images superimposed on one another effect a more rounded impression of the subject.

Capturing the vaporous aura that is a state of mind as much as it is an evocation of motion of a “maobi” across rice paper in classical Chinese ink painting, against an impostor and textured background like weathered daubing on a much painted wall. Furthermore, these works stand as the most simple rendering of all that is proposed in Geng Jianyi’s paintings to date. Identity, anonymity, and sense of “how to”, and a rich and painterly surface. And as it was in the beginning, his paintings derive not from an emotive response to the world, but from a thought process that seeks to analyze before it responds; responding is for the audience alone.

Geng Jianyi is one of a broadening handful of artists that are of tremendous significance to the course of contemporary art since the mid-1980s for they were exploring, and continue to explore, specific avenues along which individual work is a reference to, and the result of, their own personal experience. Their work has a value and an impact that goes far beyond the surface. As is evident in all Geng Jianyi’s works, the concern is for looking, looking closely at something small, a fragment, a detail of what is in essence quite ordinary, and through it, becoming aware of ourselves, our existence and the potential of this awareness to shape what is taking place.

Xu Bing

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, China in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. In 1975 he was relocated to the countryside for two years during the Cultural Revolution. In 1977 he enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing where he studied printmaking. He received an MFA from the Central Academy in 1987. In 1990 he moved to the United States and he still lives there today, making his home in Brooklyn, New York.

Magic Carpet

His work as been shown in the 45th Venice Biennial; MOMA, New York; Museum Ludwig, Koln; The Reina Sofia Museum (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia), Madrid; V&A, London; Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki; Sydney Biennial; Kwangju Biennial, Korea; Johannesburg Biennial, South Africa; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA); National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; ICC – International Communications Center, Tokyo; P.S. 1, New York. He has had solo exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary art, New York; Joan Miro Foundation (Fundacio Pilari Joan Miro a Mallorca), Spain; ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), London; National Gallery of Prague; National Gallery of Beijing; the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C..

Over the years, Xu Bing’s work has appeared in high-school and college text-books around the world including Abram’s Art Past – Art Present, and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. In July of 1999, Xu Bing was awarded the MacArthur Award for Genius by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of his “…originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy.” In September 2003 Xu Bing was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize for his work in Asian Art and Culture.

In 2004, Xu Bing was awarded the first Wales International Visual Art Prize, Artes Mundi, one of the largest international prizes in the world. He also became a Coca-Cola Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.

Chinese version

徐 堆

徐堆出生在重庆, 1955 年中国和长大在北京。1975 年他被调迁了对乡下二年在文化大革命期间。1977 年他注册了在艺术的中央学院在他学习printmaking 的北京。1987 年他接受了MFA 从中央学院。1990 年他那里搬走了向美国和他静物画今天, 做他的家在布鲁克林, 纽约。


他的运作象被显示在第45 威尼斯每两年; MOMA, 纽约; 博物馆Ludwig, Koln; 女王索非亚博物馆(Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina 索非亚), 马德里; V&A, 伦敦; 当代艺术Kiasma 博物馆, 赫尔辛基; 悉尼每两年; Kwangju 每两年, 韩国; 约翰内斯堡每两年, 南非; 加拿大, 渥太华全国画廊; 当代艺术旧金山博物馆(MOCA); 澳洲, 堪培拉全国画廊; ICC – 国际通讯中心, 东京; P.S. 1, 纽约。他有独奏陈列在当代艺术新博物馆, 纽约; Joan Miro 基础(Fundacio Pilari Joan Miro Mallorca), 西班牙; ICA (当代艺术学院), 伦敦; 布拉格全国画廊; 北京全国画廊; 北卡罗来纳艺术馆和亚瑟・M. Sackler Gallery 在史密松宁机关在华盛顿特区, 。

多年来, 徐堆的工作出现在高中和学院课本在世界包括Abram 的 艺术通过- 艺术当前, 和 Gardner 的艺术通过年龄。 在7月1999 年, 徐堆由约翰D. 授予了MacArthur 褒奖为天才和Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation 按照他的”… 独创性、创造性、自已方向, 和容量重要贡献对社会, 特别在printmaking 和书法。” 在2003 年9月徐堆被授予了福冈亚洲文化奖为他的工作在亚洲艺术和文化。

2004 年, 徐堆被授予了第一威尔士国际视觉艺术奖, Artes Mundi, 最大的国际奖的当中一个在世界上。他并且成为了美国学院的可口可乐家伙在柏林。

2007 年11月7 日
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