Considered the first avant-garde Chinese art movement, the Stars Art Group (a.k.a. Xing Xing) emerged in Beijing during the late 1970s. Founded by
in opposition to the state-promoted
art, the group grew to include like-minded artists such as
. These artists were mostly untrained and didn’t work in a particular style; rather, they created expressive works that commented on censorship and isolation in China. Primary examples include Wang’s bronze sculptures that satirized Mao Zedong, or Ai’s early Suzhou River in Shanghai
in which the 22-year-old prodigy brought
aesthetics to a traditional Chinese landscape.
As for its colorful name, Ma once explained that they called themselves the Stars “to emphasize our individuality. This was directed at the drab uniformity of the Cultural Revolution.” Indeed, the group’s first exhibition in September 1979—in which they hung their own artworks on railings outside of the state-controlled China Art Gallery (known today as the National Art Museum) in Beijing—was a protest against the Mao-instated rule mandating that public displays of art be approved by the government.
Authorities were quick to react, shutting the exhibition down after two days; in response, the Stars organized a march calling for democracy and artistic freedom. Their efforts proved successful: The group was allowed to re-stage the show in a different location, and it was said to have attracted over 80,000 viewers over 18 days. Despite this initial win, the government’s criticism and censorship of the Stars continued, and the group decided to split under political pressure in the early 1980s.
Afterwards, many of its members emigrated from China in search for greater freedoms, most notably Ai, who lived in the U.S. from 1981 to 1993 and is now based in Berlin, where he continues to use art as something of a political weapon—much in the spirit of the Stars.