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The Alternative Route

Twenty-one years after the fact, my efforts to reconstruct my first trip to China produce a confusion of impressions in which multiple images are fused together and refuse to be unraveled or separated. Having lived in China for nineteen of those twenty-one years—I moved up from Hong Kong less than a year after these “first” visits—witness to much change and, in particular, the dramatic redevelopment of the urban center of the nation’s capital, the hard facts of the moment have been reduced to a series of impressions and uncertain sensations. China’s will to modernize has a tendency to co-opt the experience of those dwelling in its midst; today, details of the past are disputed by everything the present throws at the mind’s eye. And yet, it was only twenty years ago; can so much have changed? The answer is yes and no: cosmetically, without a doubt, but under the skin is less certain. This is emphatically clear today as I try to reconstruct a history of art in the 1990s. Sites have disappeared and with them the cornerstones of history, for cities today provide little in way of proof that art events, exhibitions and performances actually took place or existed. Where China has joined the world, so artists and critics have learned to match seamlessly the advance of avant-garde practice to the terms of international art-speak. And yet, twenty years ago there was so much creativity to be excited about, which promised a distinctively different artistic future.

My first trip took place in the autumn of 1990. It was followed by a second trip in the spring of 1991, and a third in the autumn of 1991. All three trips were made possible by my dual role then as culture editor of a lifestyle magazine and freelance arts writer for a sister art magazine. Three different points of entry, but with a single purpose in common: to seek out China’s “new” artists in their native habitat and to carry out some “pioneering” research. The trips followed on the back of events that could not have had less in common: one, the opening of a lingerie boutique in the Palace Hotel in Beijing—which put me on site to see the hotel under siege to crowds of enthusiastic locals with less interest in the lingerie than the fact of western models rumored to be modeling the range as part of opening festivities: two, in Shanghai as part of a film crew making a documentary about the first shipment of Hennessey cognac from France to the Paris of the East 250 years before, hosted by British wine expert Hugh Johnson, which put all of us on top of the customs building along the Bund, deep in a curious huddle of dock workers, wearing the smartest of bamboo hard hats, and looking aghast at the Huangpu below us as its turgid brown waters smeared a stubborn sludge up the sides of the elegant remake of the original double-mast schooner: and three, in the Palace Hotel again and the Beijing Concert Hall, and the Portman and its American Centre theatre in Shanghai for one-night only performances of a best-of gathering of American operas divas. I watched diligently, observed and reported back in articles now lost to time. But, then, I had come in search of art, and through each of these trips that proved surprisingly elusive.

Looking back it was surprising to me at the time that China’s new art was so invisible. Surprising because two years after June Fourth, there were no visible scars anywhere to be seen. The fact of lingerie, fine cognacs and opera making an entrée into urban culture suggested a resurgent opening to the outside. To my point in particular, in Hong Kong, galleries had begun to show an astonishing range of modern artistic works from artists who were variously described as avant-garde and “new”. It was the variety of these works, from paper to canvas, ink to oil to industrial paint and no two modes of expression apparently owning a common visual link, which demanded further investigation at source. Subsisting on meager means in high-flying Hong Kong’s decadent dance towards 1997, and having not then made the acquaintance of Hong Kong’s leading gallerist Johnson Chang—who gave me the China new art grounding I so keenly desired in 1992 as he prepared for China’s New Art, Post-1989, a major survey of artistic endeavour from the nation’s leading and then lesser known artists—the PR trips to the mainland were a necessary means to my end.

Juggling duties with all too brief interludes of organized rest during these trips, I made excursions around the two cities in search of the nation’s art galleries—the China Art Gallery as it was then in Beijing: closed for refurbishment, Shanghai Art Museum, then housed in an unlikely building on Nanjing Road. No hint of new art there. In truth, between autumn 1990 and 1991, there were few options for artists seeking to show their work. But the scene was less consciously underground than waiting in the wings until such time as a place or space was identified as able and willing. If there was which, with hindsight and for those in the know, was surprisingly often, then exhibitions went ahead, and they did so in a manner that continues even today in spite of the emergence of designated art zones and State mandated institutions and museums; meaning for all of a five-day week, or double that at best. It was possible to blink and miss new art in China completely.

Despite the art that was on display in Hong Kong, I only managed to meet the first important artists Xu Bing and Gu Wenda in 1992 on the occasion of a joint exhibition Desire for Words at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Without essential introductions to art circles in the mainland, I managed to miss the dawning of the Yuanming Yuan artists’ village, which was gaining momentum at this time. Through 1990 to 1991, the community swelled significantly, welcoming a number of its leading lights including Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. At the end of March, Fang Lijun together with Liu Wei, his comrade in “Cynical Realism”—a painterly style to which the pair were just beginning to give first visual form—held a joint exhibition in the Diplomatic Residences. The display included some of Fang’s most iconic works depicting the bald-headed figures that expressed all he needed to convey of the mood and experience of his generation, narrated through a succession of scenes in which the figures lumber through vague, undefined spaces, directionless and without purpose, yet almost without a care in the world: for a world that they had distanced themselves from, as it had forsaken them. The event drew quite a crowd and some memorable first sales: how enviable that insight seems today in light of China’s ebullient new-found art market. Yet more astonishing it was to have encountered these works, with their pure pastel shades so brilliant against the grey environs, as indeed was the powerful impression I had just two years later on my first visit to Fang Lijun’s humble studio-home in the Yuanming Yuan. 

In the early spring of 1991, Wang Jianwei, then a painter, today China’s revered multimedia artist, exhibited a haunting group of paintings in the capital, deploying the metaphor of the teahouse to speak of the isolation intellectuals and artists were experiencing at this time. A modest fee bought time in the Cultural Palace of Nationalities for five brief days, before these works were shipped to Hong Kong for his first solo exhibition in the territory. More narrowly missed was an exhibition in the grandly named Beijing Contemporary Art Museum, by Central Academy of Fine Arts professor Lü Shengzhong, who presented an unusual installation of his figurative paper-cuts titled Calling the Soul.

Arriving in September 1991 for the opera tour, I found I had missed by miles New Generation, the first large group exhibition to take place in an institution since the first attempt at a survey show, which took place haltingly at the China Art Gallery in February 1989 [this was the seminal China / Avant Garde exhibition forever associated with the “no U-turn” traffic sign it adopted as its emblem]. New Generation, organised by the artist Wang Youshen with art history professor Yin Jinan and sponsored by “Beijing Youth Daily”, was held in the Museum of Chinese History on the east of Tiananmen Square and included amongst its rather dry selection of paintings, very contemporary compositions from Yu Hong and Wang Jinsong. Of note were “curtains” hung at the windows by Wang Youshen, where each curtain was patterned with a dense layer of silk-screened reproductions of pages from “Beijing Youth Daily”, described by critic Lü Peng as being “of young technicians and scientists and a genuflection to the Communist Party full of intentional cliché and propaganda.”

Arriving then in Shanghai, I was two months too early to see the Garage Exhibition, an early artist-organized event held in a car park and along similar lines to Damien Hirst’s seminal Freeze exhibition, which ran riot in a London docklands warehouse. The time was not yet ripe for running artistic riot in China. That would happen in the middle of the decade, by which time I was only a casual knock on the door and a bicycle ride away from Yuanming Yuan, from Beijing’s East Village and from the events that took place in spaces both temporal and alternative, which have since been buried beneath a multitude of foundations and roadways. But during those first trips, in terms of art, Beijing and Shanghai were entirely blank canvases, and it was impossible to imagine the type of world of art in China that exists today.

The big change came in 1992—a year that for me saw lots of art in Hong Kong courtesy of Johnson Chang ahead of my relocation to Beijing in November—with Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to speed up the modernization process. That was the signal for the ministry of culture to launch a China Art Fair in Guangzhou, upon which the enterprising critic Lü Peng piggy-backed an “Art Fair Biennial.” Had the reform not been pushed forward, China’s art scene may well have floundered, or flourished in other better ways, depending on your perspective. Certainly in 1990-91, there was little on the surface of the capital to suggest much to inspire the avant-garde or post-modern artist. The outward face of the city was dominated by its grayness, or its blinding whiteness, either way a uniform flatness, punctuated only by the sudden dazzling brilliance of autumnal blue skies and very little in the way of distractions from the six-and-a-half-day working week. There were distinctive aromas that hung over the streets: cooking oils, roasting sunflower seeds, street-side sewers and stale clothing, meaty vapors of steaming dumplings and of the dust that pervaded the air, even when countered with the heavily perfumed soaps and carbolic shampoos in the hotels, and the bite of air fresheners in the lobbies. Perhaps most, of the sounds; the veritable silence of these great cities as compared to Hong Kong, against which the chirping of birds carried an eerie resonance and the sudden sound of a car engine was unusual enough to provide a moment’s distraction.

“China” was certainly rather different from the received impressions that prevailed abroad. It was certainly enticing enough to invite the return visits, and then to demand the relocation from Hong Kong to Beijing. So, yes, those first trips were momentous occasions, although they didn’t feel like it at the time. I had wanted to come to China in 1987, not for art exactly but for paper. There were no romantic pretensions. I was no Sinologist. I had no Chinese language to assist me—that was acquired the hard way when I arrived in Beijing—and no knowledge of Chinese history or of the nation’s ancient arts to suggest a cultural map. I had seen pots in the British Museum and an array of porcelain and silken gowns in the V&A, but it was the Diamond Sutra, if any single object could be pinpointed as arousing an initial fascination, which suggested a first route along which a stab behind the bamboo curtain could avail itself. I wanted to learn how to make paper. In my perfect state of beguiling naivety, I had not the first inkling of Chinese politics—although living in China soon plugged that lacuna. Overall, I was a perfect blank canvas upon which China could etch impressions at will. Almost. In 1988, I had seen by chance invitation of an impresario friend from New York who was investigating theatre in London, and knew of my interest in visiting China, a musical play entitled Poppy; as might be deduced from the title, on the subject of the Opium Wars. I found it morally disquieting, but then lacked the history to grasp its mix of prejudice and irony—the Opium Wars were not taught in specific on the syllabus followed at my school. I ended up pursuing my fascination with paper in Japan.

The desire to visit China was dormant but not diminished. I finally arrived in a China that was gray, dusty and surprisingly quiet for the size of the population I knew to reside in Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai in particular felt abandoned. It was shady, silent and so very hushed like a backwater, displaying not the least semblance of the gay Paris of the East that dazzled in its heyday. It was also a rabbit warren of meandering streets in which it was impossible not to get lost. I got lost each time I set out in those meandering streets which by force of the oncoming darkness lost all romance and acquired the shadowy fear of a no-go zone, with not another soul or sound save the occasional squeak of a creaky bicycle for company. As with Beijing and the Palace Hotel, the Portman in Shanghai where I was privileged to stay was a calm oasis of comfort and pristine marble glamour, which made the fact of the sober streets and the very urbane reality to which they were backdrop, more dramatic a contrast. As something of a socially-conscious idealistic young woman at the time, I righteously recoiled from that glamour. It was a guilty emotion to swan into such lobbies, the décor charged to opulence by the simple lot of the local populace, who seemed to look down upon the hotels guests as they drowned in the turgid bourgeois air.

It is the cake that creates most confusion about which trip came first. They were moon-cakes, as I later learned. Big, weighty, and slightly meaty as well, one of these local delicacies would serve the stomach almost an entire day. They seemed to be available everywhere, and all for the price of 2 yuan. In Shanghai they were served all seasons, not just that of the mid-autumn moon. Willfully concerned about my personal mission, despite the groups I was inevitably travelling with—PR people; divas; wine experts and film crews—I devoted every spare hour to the search for those elusive modern artists. Food could wait…but when hunger beckoned, I was thus usually alone. Held without behind a great wall of language, it was impossible to find anything to eat. I couldn’t adjust my European dining hours to those of China. I always seemed to arrive at closing time. Not that I felt able to enter restaurants: I was terrified of ordering some unknown [to me] beast that was right off the vegetarian diet I followed in those days. That I dispensed with when I moved to Beijing and became quite fully aware of the highly strung nature of the privileged eating habits I had acquired: no oil, no MSG, no sugar; hold the salt, the starch, the innards, the feet, the tongue and tail, stomach too, of course, no meat. Time spent in the company of impoverished artists whose finances placed all too few culinary choices at their disposal soon changed that. But back then moon-cakes it was, for days on end. Since my move to China I have maintained an uneasy relationship with those mid-autumn delicacies.

It was not just that my efforts to seek out artists then was more difficult than had been assumed, but that dipping into China allowed only for the most superficial of insights into the culture and the people producing it: like arriving on a film set and mistaking directed action for real life events. One has to get into the dressing room, out the back door and off the set before the masks come off and the true artistry is revealed. In time it was to me, and I am happy to say that it continues to be the focus of my life and endeavour. But that process of becoming integrated into China’s contemporary art world has been quite another type of trip altogether.

Karen Smith is a Beijing-based British art historian. She graduated from Wimbledon Art School in 1987 and moved to Asia a year later. Smith settled in China in 1992 with the aim of engaging with an...
My First Trip to China

Hong Kong Economic Journal logoThis essay first appeared as part of the Hong Kong Economic Journal's "My First Trip To China" Series.

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