How Marcel Duchamp Impacted Contemporary Chinese Art

Sarah Forman
Apr 27, 2018 9:24PM

Installation view of Huang Yong Ping, Tower Snake, at Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2009. Photography by David Regen. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Few influenced the trajectory of western art in the past 100 years as much as Marcel Duchamp. Lesser known, however, is Duchamp’s role in shaping art in China, an aspect of the Dada artist’s reach that Hong Kong’s M+ museum will explore when it opens in 2019 by displaying a recently acquired collection of the artist’s works, as well as related objects and archival materials.

Spanning works made between 1917 and 1968, the collection of 101 items previously belonged to art critic and Duchampian scholar, Francis Naumann. M+ deputy director and chief curator Doryun Chong said that when he heard the collection became available, he knew it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

“It would have been practically impossible for anyone, including us, to put together this collection one by one,” Chong said.


The M+ museum will place Duchamp’s works in conversation with a wide range of artists from across China. It will further a narrative begun in 2013 at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) with the show “DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA,” which included works by Huang Yong Ping, Song Dong, Lee Kit, and 12 other Chinese artists.

One particular focus of both UCCA’s show and M+’s forthcoming effort was the development of the Xiamen Dada group in 1986. Co-founded by Huang, Xiamen Dada was one of the more radical avant-garde groups that emerged in China in the 1980s. Its creation marked an important chapter in the development of Chinese contemporary art, highlighting the great wave of creativity and intellectual engagement, plus a range of philosophies and practices, that arose as the country opened up.

Huang graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1982. Uninspired by the curriculum being taught at the time, he spent his free time studying the works of Duchamp, as well as Fluxus-affiliated artists John Cage and Joseph Beuys. It’s these Western artists that inspired the critical practice he developed upon moving back to Xiamen, working alongside the other founding members of Xiamen Dada: Cha Lixiong, Liu Yiling, Lin Chun, and Jiao Yaoming.

Detail of Huang Yong Ping, Pentagon, at Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2007. Photography by David Regen. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

They were quick to pull from Duchamp’s playbook with early works including found objects, and shows that eschewed traditional galleries in favor of installing pieces outdoors. Duchamp’s rejection of the art historical canon and engagement in institutional critique was especially appealing to these young Chinese artists as they tried to develop their own identity. The Xiamen Dada artists also saw parallels between core tenets of Dada and those of Chan Buddhism, such as the idea that the perfection is unattainable, and that one should separate oneself from material objects.

“It was compelling for them to think about Duchamp because they were trying to figure out the larger context in which a contemporary artist could exist,” Chong explained. “There was such a hunger for information and for opportunities to understand where their desire to create art at present fit into the larger picture.”

Xiamen Dada’s interest in Duchamp also extended to his work’s influence on later Western art movements—in particular, Fluxus. In an era when China was opening up to the West and its economy was being reformed, Xiamen Dada saw an opportunity to deconstruct the canon and institutions by looking to foreign ideas that had themselves appropriated Eastern philosophy. For example, the scores for many Fluxus happenings were heavily influenced by the composer John Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism. The members of Xiamen Dada believed that their work could destroy the previous narratives so that  new ones could be written in their place.

The group’s first formal show, “Xiamen ’86 New Dada Modern Art Exhibition,” took place in 1986. At its conclusion, the artists brought the 60 oil paintings that had been on view inside the museum out onto its lawn, then set them on fire. It was an act of self-liberation, according to Huang, who famously stated, “Artworks are for the artist what opium is for men. Until art is destroyed, life is never peaceful.”

At least in part due to this act of destruction, the group was barred from staging further exhibitions, but remained active until 1989, creating works that questioned notions of authorship—including taking up the use of Duchampian ready-mades. Huang immigrated to France, where he has continued his practice. His fellow members of Xiamen Dada also dispersed and have continued to work solo, some later going on to teach within the Chinese art school system. But the group—arguably the most radical of China’s ’80s avant-garde movements—continues to influence art today, both in China and internationally. It marked an important chapter in developing the artistic voice of an open China, and one which warrants further study.

Detail of Huang Yong Ping, Circus, at Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2012-2013. Photography by David Regen. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Chong believes there’s work to be done to better understand Duchamp’s reach throughout China. He said M+ plans to put his work in dialogue with contemporary Chinese artists, and is translating Duchamp’s text-based artworks into traditional Chinese, a process he said is “going to take some years, given the quantity as well as the complexity of ideas.”

The M+ is in a unique position to help further develop this story. And Chong said that the collection itself reflects a non-linear understanding of art history that he hopes will pervade across the museum as a whole.

“The ideas of creative adaptation and creative misinterpretation are much more interesting to me in developing the history of modern and contemporary art,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to think about a lot in developing and curating the M+ collections.”

Sarah Forman