Art tales from the underground (1995 to 2000)

This column will examine the contemporary art scene in Shanghai over the past three decades, giving an insight into its development.

Editor’s Note

This column will examine the contemporary art scene in Shanghai over the past three decades, giving an insight into its development via interviews with the country’s top artists, curators and collectors.

Chinese contemporary art started much later than in the West, due to historical reasons and different cultural backgrounds. Although it has a fairly short history, China’s contemporary art is no less inferior in its intensity and the controversy it evoked from the public.

The column will be divided into 5-year periods looking at various aspects such as the background of China’s contemporary art, the M50 art hub, the beginning of biennales and international art fairs in Shanghai, and the emergence of private museums at the West Bund.

From the underground to the present, the road that China’s contemporary art has covered not only reflects changes in art itself, but also in public taste and the acceptance of new ideas.

The series begins with the contemporary art scene in Shanghai from 1995 to 2000.

"Bloodline: Big Family No.3, 1995," oil on canvas, by Zhang Xiaogang

TODAY, when contemporary art is understood by many and coveted especially by the young, it is hard to imagine that scenario several decades ago.

Before entering the mainstream, China’s contemporary art was underground. At that time, there was not a single gallery dealing with contemporary art, no foundations or even exhibition space for the artists involved. Many could only dream of what they might gain in the future. For them, it was more a self-entertaining activity. Who they pleased, perhaps, were themselves rather than others via art.

However, a small group began to realize that their opportunity lay in the hands of Westerners, because in China, the public’s taste paused at realism on canvas. Even for the Chinese elite and intellectuals, art education might end with impressionists such as Monet and Van Gogh. Installations, performance art, videos and photography were not in their art dictionary.

Lorenz Helbling

But the Western art world was different; it had already witnessed various contemporary art concepts and forms since the beginning of the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp produced “Fountain” in 1917, a work considered a major landmark in 20th-century art.

Compared to the Chinese public, Westerners obviously found it easier to accept China’s contemporary art at that time.

In 1996, foreign art dealer Lorenz Helbling opened ShanghART, the city’s first contemporary art gallery, in a corridor at the Portman, a five-star hotel in the city’s downtown area.

At that time, Helbling was not to know that his ShanghART would become one of China’s top contemporary art galleries and his name part of China’s contemporary art history.

Raymond Ye, a 45-year-old office worker, recalls his first encounter with the paintings of Zeng Fanzhi at ShanghART about 17 years ago.

“I was just astonished that art could be produced in that way,” he said. “What I had been educated about art since childhood was pleasing and beautiful, and Zeng’s work for me, at that moment, was totally unbearable. By the way, I remembered that his painting was sold for US$4,000. But today, one of his works would sell for several million yuan at least.”

At the time, the contemporary art scene in the city was small and largely ignored. Hardly any Chinese collectors were buying the works, and public interest in anything avant-garde was almost nil. Chinese contemporary artists had virtually no visibility abroad.

Helbling and his ShanghART emerged at just the right time in Shanghai.

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Uli Sigg

While the mainstream shied away from avant-garde art, at least there was one place where the genre could be exposed to the public and the world.

ShanghART provided a rare group of Chinese avant-garde artists with a launching pad to international stardom, as Helbling knew how to promote his artists and expose them to a wider audience. Major contemporary art world figures, such as the Ullens couple and Uli Sigg, all started their collections from ShanghART.

One of the big challenges for Helbling at the time was how to target Chinese artists in the area.

“When I first started out, finding local avant-garde artists was extremely difficult,” Helbling recalled. “It was all word of mouth and personal connections; I was introduced by friend’s friends in their homes. Things are getting much better now.”

Lu Peng, one of China’s top art critics, said that China’s contemporary art functions as a special role in communication with the West.

“In my eyes, ‘Will We Must’ a video work created by artist Zhou Tiehai, today one of the big shots of China’s contemporary artists list, is a best summary for China’s contemporary art from 1995-2000,” said Zhang Qin, vice director at the National Art Museum in Beijing and also screenwriter for the video.

Filmed during 1996-97, “Will/We Must” is a 35mm black-and-white silent video. It contains nine acts and lasts nine minutes and 17 seconds, reflecting Zhou’s true feelings and thoughts on Chinese contemporary art as an insider and observer. It is also a significant document in Chinese contemporary art history.

For over 20 years, plots and dialogues in “Will/We Must” still have a unique vitality, and Zhou’s work serves as an important research value for the perceptions and communication between Chinese and Western culture.

Ti Gong

“Abstract 1990-4, 1990,” acrylic on canvas, by Yu Youhan 

This single piece formed an exhibition that showcased at Yuz Museum last year, and it is said that the work was collected by Budi Tek, the founder of the Yuz Museum and one of the important collectors of China’s contemporary art.

“The core issue among artists at that time was to seek international opportunity and to establish the art market,” Zhang said. “Those art museums, foundation and curators from the West, one after another, came to China to look for artworks fused with Chinese elements to be put in their exhibitions.”

The idealism that once had prevailed in contemporary art was soon replaced by a ranking list of the Chinese artists, according to Zhang.

“Galleries and auctions decided the game rule in the art market, and the ‘artist stars’ in the spotlight became popular in public media,” Zhang added.

“Since then, art critics lost their words and remained silent in front of the capital put in art. The art concepts and practice switched at the cross-road.”

It seemed a must for Chinese contemporary artists to step onto the Western art stage to “open a new chapter in their career.”

The Venice Biennale and Kassel Document were shining labels for them.

In 1995, Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Wei were chosen by the Venice Biennale.

Two years later, it was the turn of Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong. In 1999, Yue Minjun was on the biennale’s list.

It was in 1999 that Cai Guoqiang won the “Golden Lion Award” at the Venice Biennale.

Some of their visual images render a fabled agony without direct reference to the root of the pain and agony.

“But at least, China’s contemporary art was ‘taking off’ toward an unknown direction,” concluded Zhang Qin.

Ti Gong

"Will We Must" by Zhou Tiehai that was filmed during 1996-97

See related stories: 

Art tales from the underground (1995 to 2000)

Uli Sigg, one of the first generation of Western collectors

Lorenz Helbling: ShanghART's strength is to find good talents

"Barbecue collage" artist Xue Song dares to try

Ink-wash artist Wu Yiming: Every experimental practice leads to a lonely path

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