Last Saturday the museum I direct in Beijing opened a show by China’s most important contemporary artist you’ve never heard of, Gu Dexin. The opening however had one major difference from the star-studded affairs that have become commonplace in the Beijing art scene over the last five years: the artist was not present.
It was not be because Gu is far away. Indeed, he lives in the same apartment where he grew up, in Hepingli, one of a few basically unchanged pockets of post-1949 early industrial Beijing just outside the North Second Ring Road. With his wife, a painter who left art long ago, he inhabits a forty-square-meter apartment in a Soviet-style brick-and-concrete residential compound originally built to house people like his parents—the eager workers who flooded the capital from regions north upon the Communist victory. Gu was born in this neighborhood in 1962 and is in every way a product of its head-down, hard-working ethos. That’s why, in 2009, after thirty years of making strikingly original work, he decided to leave art for good.
Gu started painting as an amateur in the late 1970s, inspired by the newly open atmosphere of the capital, where many impromptu “painting societies” (the best known of which remains the “Stars”) suddenly came into existence. Like many newly minted artists of the time, he was pulled in different directions—an anguished Munch-like portrait here, a vibrant Mondrian homage there, and a lot of plein air landscapes everywhere else. The standard path for most of the artists who swam in these heady waters was either into art academies like the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), or onward to Western metropoles like New York or Paris; Gu, resistant not only to authority but to trend, decided to keep on working alone.
By 1982 or 1983, he had come up with some less orthodox ways of representing the world around him, in sculptures made from blowtorched industrial plastics that vaguely resembled human entrails, and paintings that depicted swarming masses of tiny humanoid figures with extra heads, arms, and mainly breasts. He explored this figure world across every medium available to him, first on canvas, then watercolor, wooden panel, modeling clay, and primitive computer animation. And he showed his output to much acclaim at a solo show at the International House, kunsthalled in former church by Chaoyangmen, diagonally across from and under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (They let Gu show the oversexed figures, but nixed the plastics, which they claimed not to understand.)
He went on to debut the plastics in two landmark exhibitions during the fraught spring of 1989—first at the China/Avant-Garde show at the museum now known as NAMOC, then at the Pompidou in a show called “Magiciens de la Terre.” Lots of people these days are interested in what happened to the (art) world in 1989, and this pair of exhibitions is maybe the cleanest example of the overlapping orders then in play. China/Avant-Garde, an exhibition best remembered for the gunshot performance by Xiao Lu and Tang Song which led to the its temporary shutdown, was a day-late-dollar-short recap of trends that had played out earlier in the decade, a bonfire of the art-critical vanities even already then vying for popular and market supremacy. Maybe the most interesting thing about it was how the show gave material form to the national network that then underlay advanced art in China, a rag-tag federation of provincial experimental collectives who read the same few magazines and sent their slides to the same few Beijing-based critics.
The second exhibit, “Magiciens de la Terre,” which opened in Paris on the same May day that Hu Yaobang’s funeral sent the student demonstrations on Tiananmen Square into another phase, was the opposite moment: a Pompidou survey of mystical, perhaps primitive impulses in art from beyond the Euro-American center, it included work by Gu, Huang Yong Ping, and Yang Jiechang alongside contemporary anthropological artifacts from Africa and the Pacific, an attempt at globalism beset by the distinctly French subspecies of romantic cultural imperialism one still sees in places like the permanent collection of the Musée du Quai Branly. Gu’s plastic installation for this show was destroyed after the exhibition. The other two artists stuck around in France and made lives and careers there; Gu got back on a plane, refueled in Dubai, and arrived home in mid-June, just days after the eighties had come to a screeching halt.
The nineties brought a string of invitations to participate in a wave of shows looking to pinpoint, in the title of the most famous of these, “China’s New Art, Post-89.” Gu was as upset as anyone by what had happened, but already even more skeptical of the gaze being cast on the “packaged dissent” (Geremie Barmé’s still useful coinage) his peers were churning out. And so he started doing things like filling the lawns in front the museums that held such shows with apples and bananas, or their exhibition halls with animal intestines. He never gave these pieces titles beyond the date on which they were completed.
I met Gu on the same day I met Ai Weiwei. It was November 2002 and the first Guangzhou Triennial was about to open. Gu was working on a piece we have recreated in the exhibition here—a pair of gaudy gilded columns framing the words “In God We Trust” on one of the green tiled museum’s many faces. Directly below it sat the first of Ai’s chandeliers hanging inside a temporary scaffold erected specifically for the purpose of displaying it. The juxtaposition of these two artists was, and remains, a productive exercise—the outspoken public critic who also enjoys worldwide renown, and the monastic Bartleby who would prefer not to engage with a society about which both feel similarly critical.
Even as people began to collect Gu’s distinct breed of installation art, he still refused to do anything so materialist as drive a car or carry a cell phone. In 2003 he stopped drinking, less as a physical corrective than a way to avoid the increasingly pragmatic social milieu of the art world. As the market exploded in the mid-2000s, he was nowhere to be found—or rather, he was exactly where he had always been, back in that apartment in Hepingli. He announced that he would not show his work in Beijing in 2008, and everyone knew why.
Gu Dexin left art in June of 2009. His farewell show—a manifesto, really—opened at Galleria Continua in Beijing’s 798 Art District, a warren of galleries and trinket shops and cafes that embodied exactly the anesthetized subjectivity that he was so ready to bid farewell. In the clerestory high above, he installed television screens that played constant loops of perfect white clouds floating across clarion blue skies—the sort of skies basically never seen in Beijing, save on the jet printed backdrops that were blocking the renovation site at the Xinhuamen entrance to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in those few months before the 60th anniversary of the PRC. Around the room, he arrayed a room’s worth of panels bearing eleven repeating sentences, set in the same font as the vertical signs that mark every official building in the nation:
We have eaten people
We have eaten human hearts
We have eaten human brains
We have beaten people
We have beaten eyes blind
We have beaten faces bloody
We have killed people
We have killed men
We have killed women
We have killed elders
We have killed children
In the two weeks since the show opened, we’ve had some brushes with the authorities. The figurines, in particular, were deemed not quite family fare, and signs cautioning viewers of material inappropriate for children were promptly installed, as likely would have happened in any number of other contexts. But pieces like these wooden panels—or the red diving board in the lobby which hangs out over a hard red surface in a gilded frame, or the steamroller threatening implicitly to crush a field of rotting apples—manage to lie just far enough beyond the bounds of conventional interpretation that they slide into public acceptability, even if everyone knows exactly what is at stake.