Winters in Beijing are fiercely dry and bitterly cold. In February 1989, Beijing remained in a stage of development that required all but Politburo members and well-heeled diplomats and businessmen to wear coats, hats and gloves at all times, outdoors and in, except if one were fortunate enough to be staying in a cozy joint-venture hotel, where only Foreign Exchange Certificates were accepted, not renminbi, the coin of the dictatorship of the proletariat.Local residents relied on grain coupons to purchase subsidized rice, wheat and millet; private cars and privately owned homes were scarce. The danwei, or work unit, was only beginning to loosen its stranglehold on every detail of citizens’ lives, from bathing to education and cremation. Bicycles were big, newly minted merchants had just begun to shout “Hello!” at people who didn’t look like them, and televisions and refrigerators buzzed in most urban homes.
While the government maintained an iron, if not steel, grip on the expanding media, the oversight of art and culture was erratic. Comparatively liberal months were followed quickly by a season of crackdowns, arrests, sloganeering and ideological fire drills. It was in this spring-time atmosphere that the first large-scale public exhibition of avant-garde art took place at the China Art Gallery (today known as the National Art Museum of China), an institution responsible for displaying art from the “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” period in Chinese history, which runs from the Opium Wars (roughly 1840–60) to 1949, and thereafter up to the present.
The details of the two-week-long show are well documented as the coming-out party for postmodern Chinese art. Of the nearly 200 participants, many are the leading Chinese contemporary artists today, including Xu Bing, Wenda Gu, Huang Yong Ping, Wu Shanzhuan and Fang Lijun. The exhibition was controversial from its outset, beginning with the tedious vetting process involving officials of the Ministry of Culture, who had spent much of 1989 mounting a campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” and were thus naturally concerned about the use of condoms as a medium by several artists. Wu Shanzhuan sold shrimp to museum visitors on the premises in an attempt to reduce theoretical speculation in art down to the level of a basic commercial transaction. Outside the museum, the huge banners and ground-carpets with the “No U-Turn” symbol were an endorsement of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening and reform. There were two temporary closures of the show, the first arising from an intervention by artist Xiao Lu who fired two bullets at her telephone booth installation and the second from a still-unexplained bomb scare.
The atmosphere of the exhibition is harder to describe. The early spring air was filled with soot and the men wore their hair at shoulder-length, giving the scene a distinctly bohemian feel. While the exhibition of nearly 300 art works was set in a museum designed and still managed in Stalinist fashion, it gave Chinese visitors—especially those 40 and older whose lives were traumatically altered and their minds shell-shocked by the Cultural Revolution—the impression that they were treading on forbidden, even foreign territory. One could sense their trepidation as they entered the great hall on the ground floor, and read the incomprehension in their eyes as they stood before works of art that nothing in their lives had prepared them for. They blushed, for example, at the sight of the hanging sculpture of inflated balloons and medical gloves explicitly resembling human genitals, the Gao Brothers’ Mass in the Midnight (1989), and craned their necks in wonder at Xu Bing’s huge ceiling installation Book From the Sky (1987–91), with its thousands of playfully sabotaged Chinese characters printed with hand-carved woodblocks.
Open for just two weeks until February 19, the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition is perhaps best remembered for the way the hopes that it raised about another Chinese renaissance were dashed and scattered, like many of the artists, by the draconian events that occurred in Tiananmen Square precisely four months later at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “China/Avant-Garde” summed up Chinese art in the 1980s—a decade that saw a remarkable outpouring of creativity, experimentation and imitation as artists groped with new freedoms, while coming to grips with the limitations of their own culture. The two post-1989 decades saw the great lurch forward of the Chinese economy and China’s engagement with the rest of the world, the pragmatic lowering of commercial and travel restrictions, the ominous rise of Chinese nationalism and PLA firepower, men in space, cellphone and internet proliferation and the Olympics of 2008.
Having ascended onto the world stage in business, technology and culture, China retains a defensive, hard-line stance on its pre-lurch history. On eve of February 5, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the “China/Avant-Garde” show, Beijing police shut down an event at the National Agricultural Museum organized to commemorate that milestone exhibition. Considering that this was only the first of several memorial events to be celebrated in 2009—including the 60th anniversary of the birth of New China and the “Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang” in 1949, and a half-century since a similar PLA-led “liberation” of Tibet in 1959—it is possible to understand official paranoia about any public gathering that might start the year off on the wrong foot. Yet it is sad that having benefited economically from domestic art auctions and touristic art-mall developments like the 798 Arts District—thus gaining face for demonstrating a degree of tolerance for sometimes disorderly artworks—the government should flex its muscles as if in a dry run for the more critical commemorations later in the year.
But while the police shutdown in February, like the annual embargo on public remembrance of June in the Square, is regrettable and insulting, this particular bang hardly broke the calm of the greater trajectory of Chinese history. It is unreasonable to compare the 2009 closure of a commemoration with the lockdowns in the China Art Gallery in 1989. The masses who viewed the initial exhibition at the China Art Gallery and later gathered in vastly greater numbers in Tiananmen Square to protest were fueled by a deep cynicism nurtured by the gradual reappearance of serious social and economic inequality and widespread corruption in the 1980s. But by the standards of China during the first nine decades of the 20th century, they were extremely fortunate. The material comforts they had come to expect as a right led them to raise further demands in the square—the kind that define a developed nation but that their leaders were both unwilling and unable to deliver.
The failure of the 2009 commemoration to ignite a spark points to another leap of progress. Now no one cares about the past. Sweep inconvenient history into a dark corner and paint the future in seductively bright colors, and naturally all eyes turn towards the show of light. As it turns out, the “No U-Turn” theme of the 1989 show concealed a prediction of the future. In addition to renouncing the tragically failed policies of the era of Mao Zedong, many in China have permanently turned their backs on the past, thus denying themselves and their compatriots both the catharsis of commemoration and the lessons of history.