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Installation view of HUANG YONG PING’s Theater of the World, 1993, wood and metal structure with warming lamps, electric cable, insects, and reptiles, 2017, presented devoid of living animals, 150 × 170 × 265 cm; and The Bridge, 1995, painted steel structure with wire mesh, wood, warming lamps, electric cable, found faux-bronze figurines (platinized and painted), snakes, and turtles, 2017, presented devoid of figurines and living animals, 320 × 1,200 × 180 cm, at “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017–18. Courtesy the artist.

Tangled Trajectories

Also available in:  Chinese

The year 2019 was one of revolutions, with a growing number of conflicts that cannot be easily resolved. Violence is escalating and ongoing, from the Yellow Vests protests in France to those on the streets of Hong Kong. The global economy is slowing and international communication has stalled over the last few years. If things do not move forward, surely they will regress. 

Art and its relationship to the public became an important topic in 2019, even while it became detached from ideas of institutional critique and the state of new media. As art can help nuture urban growth, more countries and cities are initiating outdoor sculpture exhibitions, festivals, and other public art projects, with an increase in funding and content. The urban-revitalization project model—arising from rapid developments and society’s cultural needs—originated with Germany’s Skulptur Projekte Münster. Now in Asia, it has spread from the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale to the Setouchi Triennale and the Shanghai Urban Space Art Season (SUSAS), all curated by Fram Kitagawa, to the Okayama Art Summit, curated by Pierre Huyghe in 2019. In this context, the revitalization of cities and villages constitutes a way to demystify art, bringing it to the masses. Under a city’s patronage, art, celebrity artists, and diverse discussions can exist outside of biennials, more conveniently intermixing with the city’s public art needs.

Photography and new media, or mixed media, still remain the main focus of emerging artistic activities, but the production of art that examines blockchains has cooled, compared to its popularity in 2018. More events are now limiting new media to merely theoretical discussions. Meanwhile, pan-media art, community debates, and expressions of political tendencies—such as artist Hito Steyerl’s public rejection of German state-funded exhibitions as a protest against its complicity with the Turkish invasion of Kurdish areas in Syria—is forming a large undercurrent of social critique. 

At the same time, more art events are emerging to appease different needs, supported by both governments and new commercial models. In China, for example, there is the state-funded Pingshan Art Museum, newly opened in Shenzhen, as well as the government-supported SUSAS in Shanghai. The commercial side is changing too, with more art fairs, including Shanghai’s West Bund Art and Design and Art021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, Art Shenzhen, Art Chengdu, and the quasi-commercial Art Changsha, in addition to other state-supported expos. There is also an influx of new private museums, as art collectors are becoming increasingly ambitious, such as Qiao Zhibing’s recently opened Tank Shanghai and the upcoming Frank Gehry-designed art center, Luma Arles, commissioned by Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann. 

At the same time, art continues to move farther along the path of commercialization and popularization. For instance, KAWS and Yoshitomo Nara both set new auction records in 2019. The narrative of so-called traditional or Chinese modern art, however, resides with Sanyu and Zao Wou-ki, who, solely as auction benchmarks in recent seasons, remain dominant. I am particularly interested in the work and life of these artists, and the impact of economically driven forces on their values. Chinese contemporary art has its own history and significance, which needs to be discussed within a larger historical context. For example, Sanyu’s intersection with French modern art history, as well his association with the likes of Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian—who also studied and lived in Europe—all need to be considered together. Art history is thus also a history of individuals, and as such should include their art, tastes, artistic abilities, and collections. I would prefer that Chinese modern and contemporary art be viewed as part of the global art history, within the same timeline. 

Also, given the current auction-induced price hikes, how does the previous auction hype around artists such as Liu Xiaodong and Zeng Fanzhi compare with the new highs of KAWS and Nara? And are the former still worthy subjects of historical research? I do not object to the operation of economic activities, manipulations, and the influence of popular culture; but between the value created through those operations and the value of artistic creations, which one is actually more meaningful? Is the commercial system greater, or is the artist’s work greater? I am worried about the danger of losing one over the other, so for me this is a comparison of systematic thinking versus value judgment, rather than which artist’s work is more salable or meaningful. This, then, is the purpose of attempting to understand the changing systems in our times. 

What saddened me most this year was the passing of Huang Yong Ping, a reminder that the overseas Chinese art communities of the ’85 New Wave are gradually disappearing. Yet, have these artists and collectives entered the collections of more international museums and galleries? Have they become a part of the Chinese educational curriculum?

Members of RUANGRUPA (left to right): Ajeng Nurul Aini, Farid Rakun, Iswanto Hartono, Mirwan Andan, Indra Ameng, Ade Darmawan, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Julia Sarisetiati, Reza Afisina. Photo by Gudskul / Jin Panji. Courtesy Documenta, Kassel.

Looking ahead, the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa will curate Documenta 15 in Kassel, scheduled for 2022. What this will bring, in terms of discussions and the exhibition itself, remains to be seen, with many questions awaiting an answer. Will the collective invite more Asian artists to participate, and what attributes will these artists bring? Is the world really abandoning elitism, and moving toward meritocracy? Are activities that appear seemingly democratic and populist, and from the people, really not distorted and guided by big data? In the future, who will be in charge? Or, possibly, will no one be held accountable? If the principle body responsible is undefined, then perhaps this will not only make it easier for those behind the scenes to maintain control, by reducing their risks, but also will satisfy the public’s desire for an indistinguishable leader induced by their preference for homogenization, even if only at surface-level. 

Post-colonialism, post-anthropocene, post-new media, post-social intervention, post-institutional critique; among all these “post-isms,” what kind of community relations will we construct, and how will art expand and coexist? Will 2020 be as uncertain as 2019? Will the economy rebuild itself within a new order, and will art continue to propel forth new curiosities? This era is in dire need of new heroes— whether commercial stars or otherwise—to fulfill the needs of the current system. But of course, anything that flows through the media is ephemeral.

Li Zhenhua is a Beijing- and Zurich-based artist, curator, and producer. He is a founder and director of Laboratory Art Beijing, co-founder of Shanghai’s Chronus Art Center, and curator for Art Basel Hong Kong’s Film program.

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