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Traditions and Histories within the practice of Contemporary Chinese artists

Written by Aurea Palmer

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge that I am writing this discussion paper as a White English/Australian woman and recognise that I come from a place of privilege. I am writing this essay through an educational lens with the aim to learn the importance of Chinese history, culture, experience and connection within the past and in present.


China’s pains and disasters

Widespread and lengthy as this snowy night!

Ai Qing

Ai Weiwei 艾未未 (b.1957) and Xu Bing 徐冰 (b.1955) are both prolific Chinese contemporary artists working towards educating wider society on their own experiences as well as collective shared hardships and injustices across the world however, predominantly within China. In this paper, Chinese histories and traditions will be explored through both Ai Weiwei’s and Xu Bing’s artworks and art practices. To begin, the profound impact and influence of events in their early lives will be explored in recognition of its significance to their later artistic subjects and focus. Furthermore, Xu Bing’s installation, Book from the Sky (1987-1991) will be analysed through its criticism of the Chinese government whilst also echoing his own past techniques and processes as a young adult. Lastly, Ai’s Furniture Series (1997) will be explored in relation to the history and tradition of material, process and its ability to be deconstructed and reassembled both in its physical sense and its purpose.

The early life of both artists drastically defined and influenced their artistic practice and consequently their creative lens and focus. Both artists grew up under The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1977); a time of great social injustice and the crippling of the economy in an effort to “clear away the evil habits of the old society” (Phillips 2016).

Ai’s experience of mistreatment by those in power shaped his understanding of injustice very early in his life. Ai’s father, Ai Qing艾青 (1910-1996) was denounced a traitor to China’s ideology during the regime and was exiled to live remotely. Ai was consequently raised in these provinces; Manchuria and Xinjiang. In 1967, to avoid further persecution from Chinese government, Ai—only nine years old, helped his father burn all of his poetry books in an effort to avoid any further persecution. Through this process, it was confirmed to Ai “how powerful those words printed on paper, and the images in between, could be” (New York Times 2020). This event with his father alludes to his later activism and art practice in which he creates media that impacts and influences people to not only to see a new perspective but to fight for their own equity. Ai explained in an interview with CNN correspondent Christian Amanpour that, “from being very young it was clear in my mind that this (Chinese) society has no humanity for people who disagree with it and that it cracks down hard on them” (CNN 2010). Ai having experienced this lack of humanity from those in power, continued to criticise, challenge, condemn and reject leadership, tradition, and political practices.

Xu similarly grew up during the regime and experienced challenging times and restriction on his artistic freedom. Xu’s formal education was disrupted when he was sent to the country for “re-education” due to political unrest. His father, a professor at Beijing University was later fired and arrested. During the Cultural Revolution, art was severely limited to propaganda, used as a tool to educate the masses (Yang and Suchan 2009: 25). Despite this, Xu was able to have creative output through drawing and calligraphy for a local paper however, his artistic direction was extremely limited to Maoist propaganda.

Xu Bing’s installation Book from the Sky (1987-91) will be examined through its use of traditional techniques whilst transforming them to engage a new meaning and perspective. The work is widely regarded as one of the most important artworks of contemporary art through its varied interpretations, process and technique. Laid across a low plinth, stretched across the ceiling and walls are four thousand characters each hand-carved into wooden blocks. These characters were then transcribed onto rice paper books and scrolls over a four-year long period. The characters, however, are all invented by Xu and are thus completely unreadable to the viewer. Through his use of text, Xu explores the complexities of Hanzi after the Cultural Revolution in which the intricacies of the Chinese character were seen as a restriction to the education of the masses and was pushed to be simplified (Yang and Suchan 2009:27). The convincing yet unreadable, characters in Bing’s installation were “a critique of the ideological contradictions of post-reform China” (Wenny 2018:10). American scholar of Chinese art history, Jerome Silbergeld similarly agrees in that Xu Bing’s “writing” (or non-writing) might be considered an “abuse of language” in which it is reflecting on how language has been abused within Chinese history by those in power (Silbergeld in Princeton University 2002). Through his exploration of text, Xu investigates the history of Hanzi through its evolution and modification.

In Xu’s installation, he also explores the importance of traditional Chinese technique and process to communicate its value in modern day society. Whilst he followed traditional techniques and processes of stitching the rice paper scrolls to wooden storage boxes, he also used the Hanzi language itself as a material. Through the illegible script, he invites viewers to their own interpretation of its meanings allowing its materiality to be flexible and undefined. The four-year long making of this work, repeating the same technique over and over can be interpreted as a ‘representation of oppressive human toil in China-forced labour…and cheap workers’ in its accumulation of lengthy effort (Abe 1998: 183). He utilises the experience of the Cultural Revolution as a material itself whilst also employing traditional Chinese processes and mediums. His incorporation of calligraphy alludes to his younger years during the regime, drawing and writing for the local newspaper. In contrast to those days, this artwork was made within more creative and political freedom. Through Xu’s use of calligraphy in Book from the Sky, he not only explores this technique in a contemporary art context but he also reflects his own personal history of his experience under the regime.

Ai Weiwei’s practice “maintain[s] strong political commentary” through his activist and artistic practice through drawing, performance, installation, cinema, photography and social media to highlight and challenge issues of human rights and freedom of speech (Barry 2019: 210). Through Ai’s persistent courage and truth telling, he is “constantly interrupted or disturbed by political pressure’ for his effort to ‘bring out the consciousness of…society” (Ai 2016). Not being deterred when intimidated by those in power, Ai is further provoked and given more cause to talk about and express these issues widely. Ai’s strong passion of activism for the international refugee crisis and China’s social freedom is implicit from his own personal experiences and witnessing of injustice in China. In Ai’s practice, politics and art cannot be divided as he is being influenced by everything around him and everything that he consumes, forming his identity and being. Ai’s resistance and criticism of Chinese government displays his breaking of the countries tradition, collective culture and identity.

Ai’s Furniture Series (1997) is an example of how he “deconstructs tradition, estranges or defamiliarises it, re-interprets it and, finally, reassembles it” (Becker 2011:119). Focusing on his first piece in the series, Stool (1997) it is a representation of his Western and Chinese experience colliding and combining. It is the merging of his “New York experience with the Chinese conditions, its history, and [his] understanding of [it] all” (Duffy 2018:81). Stool is a readymade sculptural work of two nearly identical three-legged stools from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) anchored together. Ai worked alongside craftsmen to learn woodworking used in the sixteenth century to join the stools together through hidden mortise-and-tenon joints, seamlessly blending the stools together. In its creation, there is an “overtly distinct iconoclasm, involving an overturning of Chinese tradition, history and culture through Ai’s destruction and transformation of 300-year-old antiques” (Duffy 2018: 82). The installation presents viewers with an insight into Ai’s identity and sense of belonging both in the Western world and in Chinese culture. Additionally, it is also literally deconstructing and reassembling ancient Chinese artefacts into modern day art pieces. Symbolic of deconstructing tradition, Ai through “this critical process, discovers a deep-rooted bond with tradition, both in his work and within himself” (Becker 2011: 119).

In a wider lens, Ai’s Furniture Series (1997) is an ironic response to the Western world’s demand for Chinese art and furniture and is his satirical standpoint in catering to ‘the western collector’s perceptions’ (Duffy 2018:84-85). In the late 1970s as Chinese government begun social, political and economic reforms, art trading such as painting and porcelain were still severely limited, however, furniture was unconcerned in its exportation. Furniture was rapidly sold to westerners in respond to the high demand however, by the late 1990s, the availability was scarce. Ai, aware of the market, targeted western audience through using Qing Dynasty furniture and rare “yellow flowering pear” wood to produce his sculptures as it was highly valued by collectors.  Ai knew the value of Chinese artifacts and their common materials of jade, silk, bronze and wood and was “deeply impressed with the objects that had been made in the past five thousand years” (Duffy 2018:85). Through this orchestrated series, “western collectors become the victim or target of Ai’s critique when they acquire his sculptures because the artist deliberately perpetuates market trends, playing into the western expectations of ‘Chinese-ness’” (Duffy 2018:85). The history of Qing Dynasty furniture transformed from household items in Chinese homes then sold off by the population at low cost to be later revolutionised in the western world as well-sought-after art items; some selling for millions upwards caused Ai to “re-consider contemporary arts relationship to tradition” (Marche 2013). Ai utilised his knowledge of the importance and history of Chinese artifacts to his advantage in not only physically reshaping their original states into sculptural works knowing they would sell but furthermore, engaging in transforming a new purpose of Qing dynasty furniture.

Through the exploration of Book in the Sky and Stools, both Xu’s and Ai’s art practice has been examined in relation to redefining the balance between the Western and Chinese world through breaking of traditions as well as through materiality, process and technique. Insight to their early lives provides an understanding of their current practice largely determined to the resistance and criticism of Chinese government.