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Why China? A personal revolution
Interface writer Lucinda Holmes has recently re-located to China and become involved with an emerging arts centre called [the studio] that is working towards developing an artists community in Shanghai. In this article she records her impressions of the galleries she has encountered in the city, and discusses how experiencing a different culture has effected her work as an artist.
Why China? Before relocating to Shanghai, I wandered around the V&A’s China Now exhibition, one of many cultural events in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, I imagined myself in this different world, with a rich culture and amazing architecture. What I find here is amazing but not what I imagined.
Walking into a Shanghai gallery gives you a different experience to an East London gallery. Here the galleries are much more overtly commercial with discrete works either hanging on walls or on pedestals - more of a show room, not an activated space like in an installation. Works are often too densely hung with a general lack of sensitivity.
As the many UK based surveys of Chinese art attest, it isn’t just painting and sculpture here; video and performance works are highly visible, as well as galleries dedicated to photography, such as M97. Non-Chinese artists who live in Shanghai are also increasingly being exhibited. Art fairs, festivals and biennales occur here with international and Chinese artists. A large number of galleries are congregated on Moghanshan Lu, with some artist’s studios. It is fascinating to wander around checking out various spaces. In the middle of the park in People’s Square is MOCA. This funded gallery puts on slightly more adventurous shows, with multi-media and interactive pieces with additional cultural activities running alongside. I was impressed by Shanghai Gallery of Art which, when I last visited, had a fascinating photography exhibition of photographs of China by two Chinese artists Jin Jiangbo and Zheng Li. It was an expertly, but conventionally, curated show.
Shanghai is extremely commercial. On arriving in the city I was overwhelmed with all the Western brands, shops pretending to be American or British. In a country that has huge amounts of fakes and forgery the red “chop” or seal of authenticity, which is needed to validate practically anything from a Starbuck’s receipt to an original Chinese ink painting dating back to 1050BC, has a fascinating value and power in itself. Go along some streets in Shanghai and you will find people busy painting fakes of other Chinese painters such as Yue Minjun or Zhang Xiaogang.
In my own art practice I often use found or discarded objects. But, in Shanghai there are no skips, there are already teams of collectors finding rubbish and unwanted goods. This cultural difference has made me question: was roaming around East London collecting things actually part of my own working process?
Another question I’ve been asking myself is why is there so much painting in China? It is mostly oil or acrylics on canvas, and often figurative. Who is buying these paintings? What are they buying into? Western attitudes appear to want to maintain China as an unindustrialised country with traditional skills. It is my feeling that the large amounts of painting here is in part due to the West. Is it actually Western dealers and collectors who are artificially perpetuating and promoting this kind of practice over others? The title of Saatchi’s exhibition ‘New Chinese Art: The Revolution Continues” harks back to China’s past with its various revolutions, and simultaneously cloaking these paintings with apparent ‘political activity’ and driving force - using the vocabulary of the avant garde, but still being very sellable paintings on walls.
I use everyday objects and materials in my work, often paper based things. In China, removed from my own familiar culture, everyday objects have a surreal fascinating quality. In using the things I find here, I am attracted by their formal qualities but miss their different interpretations or meanings through not knowing their purpose or not understanding the Chinese characters. This ‘unknowing’, gives me a form of freedom to interact more directly with the object’s or materials formal qualities.
It may seem strange to talk about freedom in the context of China where issues of censorship have been so widely discussed, however being on the edges of this very different ‘art-world’ means that I don’t feel obliged to fit in, or feel a need to place my work within a context of other makers. The isolation allows you an unmediated response to your own work and how you should progress. One of the things I find frustrating about the Western art scene is the necessity or pressure to brand or have a fixed style or perhaps one method of making work. Though, many artists use a variety of media in their work, it is easier to gain success be supported by a gallery if you have a consistent way of working, where your work is clearly identifiable by collectors. The gallery system here in China is similar, but I do feel that I have more freedom to think about what being an artist is, and how I define my practice.
Shanghai based artist/writer 陆欣达 also runs http://contemporaryartshanghai.com
First published: a-n.co.uk December 2008
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