MADE IN CHINA?: ROCI and the New Avant-Garde

Grant Johnson
Oct 19, 2014 3:50AM

As the internet incorporates art into an apparent collapse of space and time, how can exhibitions embrace this apparent disruption of art history’s geographic and temporal categorizations? “Made in China?” explores global aesthetic exchange by mixing works exhibited in Robert Rauschenberg’s “ROCI: China” exhibition (funded and organized by the artist in Beijing in 1985) with the work of the Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s, such as Ai WeiweiCai Guo-QiangXu BingLiu XiaodongZhang HuanZhang XiaogangZeng FanzhiGu DexinHuang Yong PingWang Guangyi and others; themselves canonized fours years later in “China Avant-Garde” (1989), also in Beijing. “Made in China?” does not set Rauschenberg up as some specter of Western influence, but rather introduces his work to reanimate ROCI as a kind of cultural interruption of ongoing aesthetic activity.

“ROCI: China” was the first exhibition of western contemporary art held in China since the end of the cultural revolution in 1976. Drawing over 300,000 visitors during its only three-week run, it offered a significant opportunity. Artists who attended, including Xu Bing, Zhang Wei and others, witnessed works that clashed with local aesthetic conventions and suggested new techniques. Works from the Kabal American Zephyr series demonstrated assemblage, the readymade, photo transfer, as well as experiments with light and movement.

Rather than flatten to make falsely similar, “Made in China?” places Rauschenberg’s work in the company of Chinese art of the 1980s to celebrate both the assonance and dissonance one finds in such moments of aesthetic embassy. “Made in China?” embraces the distinctions between these works, not just between ‘east’ and ‘west’ but also between such objects as Ai Weiwei’s Untitled, 1988, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky, 1987-91 or Wenda Gu’s Mythos of Lost Dynasties, 1985. Critical trends emerge, like the adaptation of the readymade or the appropriation of the popular image or style. Like Rauschenberg’s high profile ROCI excursions, these practices responded to globalizing pressures. Works like Rauschenberg’s 7 Characters, 1982 or Great Criticism – Art and Faith, 2006 explore what it means to make art for the whole world, not just for a local -ism. Self-portraits, from Postcard Self-Portrait, Black Mountain (II), 1952 to Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters, 1994 and Ai Weiwei’s Second panel of the triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 perform a self that addresses a global audience.

When everything and anything can be reduced into an endless scroll, a virtual architecture that bends chaos into continuity—why not let the gallery reflect the temporal collapse of the internet? Rather than limit Rauschenberg’s Monogram, 1955-59 to the critical frameworks to which it has grown accustomed, what happens when Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage, 2013 keeps it company? Exploring such a curatorial proposition is urgent as we historicize and participate in an increasingly global art world. Such juxtaposition challenges the conceptual boundaries of nationalist and chronological art histories. Taking its cue from the experimental work it assembles, “Made in China?” models a more global space of aesthetic exchange.

Grant Johnson