Pieces of China, Curator Philip Tinari, 7.2.20
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.
In our fifth episode, we discover how a single black and white photograph of a cluster of Mao-suited Beijingers crowding around a fence outside China’s National Gallery, encapsulates one of the most electric moments in contemporary Chinese history.
Curator Philip Tinari, Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, is uniquely qualified to talk about how that moment in time – a crowd viewing the avant garde STARS exhibit of 1979 – signaled a dramatic break with the Cultural Revolution’s Maoist ideology and launched an equally revolutionary new movement in Chinese art.
Selected Quotes from the Program:
PT: The STARS exhibition happens in September of 1979, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, alongside a lot of agitations towards democracy…and it is really a moment when the artists, who are coming straight out of the cultural revolution…who had been working in factories…came together. The manifesto they wrote was all about individualism and self expression.
The local police didn’t like what they saw so this exhibition only went on for a few days before it was called off. But a year later the STARS were showing it from the other side of the fence on the inside of the National Gallery.
I love that it is a photo of Chinese people looking at art…it is a beautiful bridge between then and now.
DE: It is a beautiful snapshot in time…you can’t believe that the China of today is connected to that moment.
PT: The artistic revolutionaries, which the STARS were…their work is formally quite unresolved…you can see figurative painting to ink landscapes, to sculptures…this is the moment of unadulterated, highly-experimental…It is certainly raw.
One of the more important things that happened in the early 2000s was that contemporary art stopped being contraband. …We are in this very interesting moment right now where…you see a political tightening of course…but you also have in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also Chengdu and wherever else, in the last 3-5 years, the explosion of the public (interest) for contemporary art. That offsets this tension in an interesting way.
DE: Talk a little bit about the commercialism in the art world and how Chinese artists are wrestling with that.
PT: People weren’t thinking commercially in the photo we are looking at. It was really in the 90s you started to have a market, mediated by Taiwan and Hong Kong and America, and the next wave was in 2000s, and really in 2008 when the scene began putting itself back together…commercialism is one piece of it but it is really the maturation of the scene at a much larger level.
DE: Is the rise of private museums dicey?
PT: It is like what Deng Xiaoping said, “you cross the river by feeling the stones.” There is a lot of learning by doing. …A new model is emerging and most importantly a new audience is emerging and coming to the table all the time.
DE: How do artists come to terms with the pressures of the market?
PT: In the early 2000s it was this really transitional moment. Artists who cut their teeth in basement exhibitions were facing this whole thing. There was an inevitable amount of awkwardness. …That is well in the past now, instead what you have is this younger generation who probably did their MFA in London or NY, or if they haven’t left, they have read everything relevant on the Internet, so there is a breadth of the conversation and the…ways in which people can keep informed…even in this moment of anti-globalization…it is hard to foresee that being undone.
DE: Why was the Guggenheim show “Art in China After 1989: Theater of the World,” which you co-curated, so important?
PT: We were really trying to tell the story between 1989-2008. For people who follow China, those years do not need explanation of their significance. One of the points we were trying to make is this idea of global contemporary art which comes to the floor in the 90s and 2000s, that needs China to be truly global. So it isn’t just that Chinese artists were trying to show their work in the West, it is more that as the art world globalized in the post-Cold War moment, China also came into the fold. …Those things happened in parallel and now we are in a very different place.
Full Video of Pieces of China with Philip Tinari
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