Impact’s Roberta Cucchiaro describes her experience of Chinese avant-garde art.
In 2003 I moved to Beijing, around the same time that Chinese artists began moving to the Dashanzi Art District in Beijing, also known as the 798 Art Zone. Having been frowned upon by the government, here these artists could get inspired, create and expose. A former military factory, the 798 is cathedral-like with swooping arcs, soaring chimneys and Maoist slogans left intact. It has a strong post-industrial taste to it.
At that time the 798 was not a place for tourism. Going there was an overwhelming experience; artists would let you in their private studios, show you their works and ask you how it is “out there”, in the West, the home of freedom. It is this very freedom we have in our society which makes our art so different from Chinese avant-garde.
Chinese avant-garde is characterized by a strikingly strong need for expression. Censored words mingle with the slow motion image of a powerful brushstroke on canvas. Chinese avant-garde is a call for freedom of everything, freedom for anything. A need to express everything they have not been allowed to say, to write, to sing or sometimes even think. It is at the extreme, an art which is difficult to appreciate, even difficult to look at, but powerfully beautiful. For this reason Chinese avant-garde has been growing at an exponential rate and is highly regarded worldwide.
Avant-garde includes artists like Ma Liuming, famous for his overstretched self-portraits and ability to break the taboo of nudity. It includes Feng Zhengjie’s astonishing colours of bright green and hot pink; which mix into a beautiful but cross-eyed woman, lacking the vision to see what is there right in front of her. It includes artists like Zhang Xiaotao and Hu Zhipeng who show us rotten strawberries and deformed people on canvas. They bluntly and bravely express the reality we live in, a society which has abandoned ethics, spoilt by too much desire.
The Gao Brothers are especially provocative. Their recent sculpture “Miss Mao” deconsecrates the highly praised Mao. This bust of Mao with breasts and a long Pinocchio nose pokes his tongue out at whoever is brave enough to look at him. But my very favourite is Ling Jian, whose recent artwork “Hero N° 5” captures a man on canvas with a cold-blooded look.
When you’ve experienced Chinese avant-garde and there is no turning back; they reveal to us all what our minds involuntarily censor. These artists seem to be living in a parallel universe where the future is present and the present is already past. If you observe these canvases you will want to stop and contemplate what we can do to make this world turn once again in the right direction.