China Before Avant-Garde

Jun 20, 2013 9:03PM

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

If you, like me, love the thrill of collecting works by emerging artists – relying on your own personal taste, intuition and awareness of art/cultural history without much guidance from critical discourses and market forces, haven’t you often wondered how these artists would develop and be recognized or forgotten by history? Here is a rare opportunity to look at China’s art scene before the birth of the so-called avant-garde movements and see what the artists from that era turned out to be. Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985, on view at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, makes a powerful statement about China at the cusp of major experimental artistic movements, with young artists struggling to find their footing in an environ that still prioritized political dictates over artistic independence.

Emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), these artists stood up against the prevalent ideology that art must serve the state. For them, non-political art was in itself a strong political statement.  Many of these artists forged their varying degrees of allegiance after making each other’s acquaintance in the propaganda classes at Workers Cultural Palaces. The Asia Society show focuses on three groups: Wuming (No Name)Xingxing (Stars), and Caocao (Grass Society).  

The members of the Wuming Group, mostly born into families considered the “enemies of the Chinese Communist projects,” started clandestinely painting together in and around Beijing in 1972 when such group identity and gatherings were illegal during the repressive late years of the Cultural Revolution. They were mainly interested in, as represented by works by Ma Kelu (b. 1954) and Wang Aihe (b. 1953), representations of nature because trees and landscape offered an alternative, non-dogmatic motif away from the revolutionary grandeur of figure paintings and helped “fashion an alternative subjectivity for the artist, outside the processes of institutional subject formation.”  

The Xingxing Group broke out in 1979 with an exhibition that has become one of the seminal events in the history of contemporary Chinese art. Associated with a larger literary and cultural movement in the post-Cultural Revolution transition, the group’s prominent members such as Wang Keping (b. 1949), Huang Rui (b. 1952) and Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) explored historically Western modes of Modernism, Surrealism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Wang Keping, for instance, used found wood blocks to carve out grotesque-looking, often deformed, figureheads, such as the mouth-gagged, one-eyed man in Silence (1980) and a cartoonistic critique of idolatry in the Mao-turned-Buddha Idol (1979).
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Chiu-Ti Jansen is the founder of 
China Happeningsa multimedia and advisory platform that focuses on the lifestyle and cultural industries of contemporary China. Follow her on Twitter at @chiutijansen.

1. Qiu Deshu’s Empty No. 1, 1982.
2. Ma Kelu’s Snow at Wumen Gate, 1974.
3. Wang Aihe’s Moonlight Night, 1974.