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09:43, September 17, 2009

An archive of Chinese avant-garde 80s art

Performance work The Witch by artist Zhang Mingjuan in 1988. (Global Times Photo)

As many Chinese modern artworks with a diverse range of subjects are highly acclaimed in the international art world nowadays, even those depicting controversial topics such as politics and sex, it is hard to imagine how avant-garde art once struggled to survive only 20 years ago.

The exhibition In the 1980s: Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-garde Art, currently being held at the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, provides a rare chance for people to take a glimpse into such a significant period of Chinese modern art history.

Organized by independent intellectual Wen Pulin, the exhibition features 27 videos and more than 100 original documents and photographs which combine to present a complete picture of Chinese avant-garde art in the 1980s.

All of the materials on display were recorded or collected by Wen who has been dubbed as the "faithful recorder of Chinese avant-garde art in the 1980s."

Wen himself was initially a painter who also directed modern drama in the early 1980s. He then began to record and document large cultural events, especially those in the fine art field.

Several significant events occurred within Wen's documenting period including groundbreaking exhibitions by Star Painting Group and the Chinese Modern Art Exhibition in 1989 at the National Art Museum of China.

Star Painting Group was founded in 1979 and involved several artists who began to reflect their personal inner feelings in their work instead of the usual stereotype of depicting the "collective consciousness." It was the first artist group after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that devoted itself to introducing new Western painting concepts into domestic creations.

"With the implementation of the Reform and Opening-up policy, many artists suddenly had the chance to see Western artworks and tried to introduce something new in their works, which ignited their passion," Wen told the Global Times.

Aside from introducing Western styles and techniques, as well as new materials and art forms, a more significant innovation was the actual subjects that artists chose to depict, Wen explained.

He added that although at the time many people were enthusiastic and curious about the new genre, widely regarding it as fresh and interesting, the first several small-scale exhibitions held by members of Star Painting were stopped by the government.

"During the Cultural Revolution, artists were required to reflect the political line. The officials were so accustomed to an art-for-politics era that they were scared of these new paintings reflecting artists' personal feelings," Wen explained.

"We look at the world with our own eyes and interpret it with our own paintbrushes," read the declaration of the first Star Painting Group exhibition. Along with other pieces of documents about the group, this old piece of paper is on display at the exhibition.

"It is hard to imagine what these enlightening words meant to the whole art world at that time, after a long period of ‘imprisonment of thought'," Wen commented. "Avant-garde artists emerged then one after another and it marked the beginning of a time of reforming art."

Since then, there have been several artists and collectives seeking freedom of thought and this trend continued throughout the decade.

The development of Yuanmingyuan Artists' Village, the first artist community in China, fell within this time. Initiated in the mid 1980s when several artists searching for freedom settled at a small village near Yuanmingyuan, the community has since become a model for various artistic districts across the country.

Yuanminyuan was once home to many popular contemporary artists of today such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. These days their works command extraordinarily high prices on the international market. In videos and photos on display in the avant-garde retrospective, you can spot Fang and Yue in simple clothing, going about their everyday lives.

According to Wen, many artists and art graduates gave up their positions at government agencies to gather in the village and pursue their dream of art. While this may seem idyllic to many today, at the time is was very dangerous, not only in terms of lack of money, but also the absence of hukou, a residence registration certificate that everyone must have according to the government.

"What moved me most was the spirit to pursue their dream as well as freedom," Wen recalled. Things are going to another extreme now, he added. In a market-oriented world, everything is now capitalized, including art.

"It was a time of idealism and romanticism and artists in every field, including fine art, dance and poetry, were racking their brains to innovate," Wen said, adding that these days art has gained freedom, but surrendered to the capital market.

"I hope I can offer something useful for today's artists. Freedom is not easy to get and we should never go to another extreme."

Source: Global Times

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