Sun, Jan 30, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Getting to the source

Editor Wu Hung’s collection of primary documents related to contemporary Chinese art is an almost serenely astute, clear-headed and sane exploration of the subject

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

But soon China’s artists were doing their equivalent of many of the things their Western peers were doing — taking photographs with the kind of old rotating cameras used to capture outdoor school assemblies, and then using color ink-jet printing technology to print them large for gallery display, riding up and down in a construction-site lift in the interests of art, and having some of your own skin surgically removed to be incorporated into an artwork.

It’s curiously instructive to be able to see the 2001 demand by Beijing’s Ministry of Culture that local authorities put an end to the behavior of “a small minority of people [who] have — in public places — been self-mutilating and abusing animals, exhibiting human and animal remains … in performances or displaying bloody, brutal and obscene spectacles under the pretense of ‘art,’” and to read it alongside the account of artist Zhu Yu (朱昱) getting a butcher to bring a side of pork into a gallery so that he could attach a bag of blood above it for an attempted infusion.

We read of Gaudy Art, a parody of the ubiquitous Chinese kitsch and “a desperate comedy for the end of the century.” Feminist art also makes a predictable appearance — “Modern art, without sober and self-knowledgeable feminist art, can only be a half-baked modern art” wrote the critic Xu Hong (徐虹). Cynical Realism and Political Pop also lead to some fascinating items.

Wu Hung is an American curator, scholar and art historian who began life specializing in traditional Chinese art but has now become an acknowledged international authority on contemporary Chinese art. Peggy Wang was, when the book was being prepared, a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Chicago, the institution where Hung is also based.

This book is refreshing primarily because of its subject matter, but also because it’s organized and written in a lucid and markedly open-minded manner. Sadly it suffers from the “smelly book” phenomenon unfortunately common to so many high-gloss-paper publications these days.

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