Jane DeBevoise and Anthony Yung discuss AAA’s China projects in relation to performance art and performative exhibitions, regionalism and regional academies, the lack of women in AAA’s Collection, and exhibition histories in China.
At Asia Art Archive, there are seven areas of research and programming interest called content priorities: art writing, complex geographies, exhibition history, innovation through tradition, pedagogy, performance art, and women in art history.
Anthony Yung and Jane DeBevoise illuminate these content priorities by discussing their research. This builds on an earlier discussion between Claire Hsu and Chantal Wong, and a conversation between AAA Researchers Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan on their work in India.
Jane DeBevoise: For me, content priorities are guidelines. They help AAA to communicate how we make decisions regarding research and collection initiatives and how we continue to reflect on the research and collecting decisions that we’ve made.
Anthony Yung: Content priorities offer explanations, or ways to clarify our archiving work.
JD: How do we make decisions about what we collect? This is a question we often get asked. And this is the critical question for all collecting institutions, including museums and also archives.
Performance Art and Performative Exhibitions
AY: While I think it’s important to articulate our content priorities, and I agree that they help guide our thinking, I also think it is important to challenge and interpret them. For example, what do we mean when we say we prioritise performance art? Does it mean that we collect everything about performance art? Of course not, right? We can’t. So what we have to do is consider why, when, and what aspect of performance art is important. And to start doing that, we think about historical context. For example, in the context of contemporary Chinese art, performance takes on importance as a way to display art when resources and space were limited, when artists lacked support, and when censorship was imminent. For this reason, in the context of China, we are particularly intrigued by the do-it-yourself pop-up exhibitions and short-term interventions that emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. We interpret these ephemeral events as performative. Today, exhibitions last for three months; you can visit any time. And occasionally public festivals are organised. In the 1990s that was not true. That’s why we focus on these events that we will discuss later, both because of the lack of institutional infrastructure and thus institutional history, but also because of their ephemeral performance-like character.
Regionalism and Regional Academies in China
AY: In the context of China, regionalism is also important and often overlooked. This was particularly true in the 1980s when the means of communication and travel was limited. But there was a kind of beauty in these limitations because they created the conditions for a diversity of regional cultures. And this diversity was evident in the art schools. Because pedagogy is one of our content priorities, the role of regional art schools in China in the 1980s is interesting to us.
In addition to the role of the academy in China, we have studied the role of books, especially newly translated books, and libraries in the 1980s. During our research, we asked lots of questions about what the artists and art practitioners were reading, what they found in the libraries or book stores, what books their professors recommended, and how these readings (books and magazines) influenced their thinking and their work.
JD: In China, different schools of artistic practice emanate from different regional academies. While China’s education system is centralised, each academy has its own tradition and heritage, its own “founding myth,” as well as influential teachers. So when you compare academies like the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, versus the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, versus The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which were three of the most important academies in the 1980s and even today, you can detect relatively distinct styles and concerns, perspectives and approaches, due to regional traditions that have been passed on. For example, in my mind The China Academy of Art in Hangzhou has inherited the ethos of its founding members, the internationalism of Cai Yuanpei who had studied in Europe, and the interest in modernism that characterised Lin Fengmian’s work. The Central Academy in Beijing likewise continues the beaux-art academicism of Xu Beihong and the socialist realist spirit of Soviet educators like Konstantin Maksimov who taught at the Central Academy in the 1950s.
AY: In 2006 we began a research project focusing on the 1980s in China called Materials of the Future: Chinese Contemporary Art in the 1980s. A lot has changed since we began that project, but at that time Chinese contemporary art was framed almost exclusively as a Beijing- or Shanghai-centric project. And outside China, the situation was even more simplified. Most writers outside China imagined Chinese contemporary art as uniform, monolithic, which of course was not true.
JD: Yes, contrary to the predominantly monolithic view of China adopted by many foreign writers and curators, China is regional. However, it is also true that even inside China many influential writers in the 1980s and early 1990s were based in Beijing or Shanghai, so it is natural that they focused on the art scene that surrounded them. This is not different from the United States where many, if not most, art writers are based in major cities like New York, and therefore the art scene that gets the most media attention is the New York art scene. In China, it is also true that in the 1980s many, if not most of the few influential exhibitions took place in the National Gallery in Beijing. Similarly, the few widely circulated art magazines and newspapers, such as Meishu and Zhongguo Meishu Bao (Fine Arts in China), were published in Beijing. This may have added to the impression that China was a monolithic culture with Beijing as the unifying centre. Later in the 1990s, an energetic albeit do-it-yourself art scene developed in Beijing that caught the attention of foreigners who congregated there. Amplifying this impression of “China as one” was the growing number of overseas shows that rarely, if ever, addressed the regional issue. Therefore, one of the things—and you can speak on this—that we hoped to do was to disturb, decentre, and ultimately complicate the mainstream narrative, this idea of China as a unified or centralised culture. Our documentary film From Jean Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng about contemporary art in Southern China, in particular Guangdong and the Pearl River Delta, was part of this effort.
AY: Yes, reflecting our interest in regionalism we decided to make that film, which is subtitled Cantonese Contemporary Art in the 1980s. This film was great fun to make and I think it has been pretty well received, triggering a lot of discussion about Cantonese art, a project that carries on in its own way today.
The city of Canton, now known as Guangzhou, was one of the earliest ports in China open to foreign trade during the Qing dynasty. Important for international trade and cultural exchange, this region was prosperous not only during the Qing, but it also became economically more developed than other regions in China in the 1980s, due to early state-sanctioned experiments in market reform. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, Shanghai and other east coast cities developed as well, but Canton (Guangzhou) was one of the earliest.
Proximity to Hong Kong has also played an important role in the development of Guangzhou, both from a business and a cultural perspective, but especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Hong Kong offered a gateway to trade with South East Asia and the rest of the world. For the Mainland Chinese who had been effectively closed off from the outside world for many years during the most strident Maoist period, Hong Kong was also a source of contemporary culture, especially popular culture, as people from Hong Kong crossed the border, bringing information and gifts, including clothes, radios, TVs, videotapes, and other novelties to their relatives. A similar pattern developed between Taiwan and Xiamen, although the situation there was more politically complicated, and cross-straits communication more sensitive. In the 1980s, it was relatively easy for Hong Kong people to travel back and forth to Guangzhou and China.
Another Cantonese characteristic is that throughout history, Canton has been remote from the political capital which has always been in the North, in Beijing since the Ming dynasty, but before that in Hangzhou and Nanjing, and even earlier in Luoyang, Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). This allowed Canton to develop a culture that diverged politically. Sometimes Canton has been considered apolitical, focused primarily on commerce, but at other times, particularly in the modern period, the Guangdong region (the province of which Guangzhou is the capital city) has harboured subversives. For example, from the end of the Qing dynasty, numerous political revolutionaries came from the South, including Sun Yat-sen and members of Tongmenghui that was headquartered in Canton at that time.
Distinguishing the Guangdong region is also the Cantonese language. Another of AAA’s strategic priorities is something we call “complex geographies,” which acknowledges how culture is rarely confined by borders but rather traverses them, due to migration, language, technology, trade, and other reasons. Cantonese culture is a case and point, as it is not only regional, but has flowed across borders since the Ming dynasty to South East Asia and to the West, in particular to US coastal cities and Canada where there are large Cantonese-speaking communities. The Cantonese language instils great pride in the people who speak it, different from Shanghainese, which is just the language of a city. Most importantly, Canton is close to Hong Kong where Cantonese is also the mother tongue.
JD: Yes, From Jean Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng was a really interesting experiment. We tried to show the vibrancy of Guangzhou in the 1980s and make visible the important connections between Hong Kong and Guangdong Province—again, destabilising the view that China is a unified, entirely Mandarin-speaking and politicised culture, centred in the North. In the film, we also highlighted certain art activities that had at that time dropped out of the then-circulating history books, such as performances organised by the Southern Salon. These events and others were not adequately reflected in the mainstream reports about avant-garde art in the 1980s—at least that’s how we felt.
AY: And the Cantonese artists in the film were quite conscious about the difference between themselves and the Northern artists. They were aware that they were marginal even within the country itself.
On the Lack of Women in AAA’s Collection
JD: Staying alert to the gaps in the historical record is important. Likewise we try to stay alert to the gaps in our archive. Questions we often ask ourselves are what kind of material is lacking in our collection? What histories have we ignored, overlooked, or missed, because they have been erased, suppressed, or otherwise disappeared? What are our own blind spots?
For this reason we were excited to identify and to have the opportunity to digitise the archive of Joan Lebold Cohen. This archive includes approximately 16,500 colour slides that provide evidence of some of our more glaring gaps.
Joan is an American photographer and art historian who lived in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s (before the much mythologised 1985 avant-garde movement), and who had the opportunity and foresight to travel all over the country at a time when few foreigners did. Travel in those days was difficult not only because the trains were poor, slow, and uncomfortable; but in the early days after the re-opening of China, foreigners were required to obtain official written permission to visit many sites and cities. Because Joan and her husband Jerome Cohen had been invited to China by the Beijing City government, travel permissions, while not simple, were ultimately forthcoming.
Curious about Chinese culture generally, but in particular contemporary practice, Joan took advantage of this unusual opportunity to meet hundreds of artists and visit numerous art academies, and she tirelessly documented what she saw. The resulting slide collection offers a unique window into art practices by both established academic artists and independent experimental artists, working in coastal cities like Shanghai and Beijing, as well as regional centres such as Xi’an, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Wuhan, thus helping to fill in some of the gaps in our regional art collection. And let’s not forget that few Chinese at the time owned cameras, and good quality film was extremely hard to find and expensive to develop. That Joan had a good camera, brought Kodak and Fuji film from overseas and sent it back overseas for processing, means that this collection of images is not only rare, but it is also high quality.
The artists and artwork in Joan’s archive range widely and include independent, self-organised art groups, such as the Stars Group (XingXing), Grass Society (Cao Cao), as well as the Contemporaries (Tongdai Ren) and No Name Painting Society (Wuming). Images of artwork and activities by these early independents provide an important supplement to information in art history books that have privileged the better-known story of the 1985 Art Movement.
Joan’s slides also include more conservative, establishment artists. As conservative as these artists may appear now, I think their inclusion is important. We foreigners run the risk of only valorising the experimental and neglecting other kinds of narratives, particularly establishment narratives that remain intact and influential in China, even today. Ignoring them risks missing the context in which more independent-minded artists were working. I think that’s something we should remain attentive to, because it’s hard to fully understand one without the other.
Another gap in the history books is women, and we acknowledge that we are part of the problem because women are embarrassingly under-represented in our archive as well. This is something we must address. However, the fact is, women were in the minority in the art schools in the 1980s. This began to change in the nineties, when more women started applying, but the situation still lacks balance. Even today, only a limited number of talented women art school graduates gain prominence. This is not just true in China; it is also true in other countries, including the United States, where it is my experience that even women who continue to persevere in their careers are still under-represented in mainstream art histories, in museum exhibitions and collections, and in commercial galleries and art fairs.
Why is that? Is it because women change course, either leaving the field entirely or end up in supporting roles? Or is there some systemic reason for their under-exposure? We need to think critically about this issue, and to see what we can do to make visible the contribution of these many talented women. But when it comes to women in China who trained in the 1980s and 1990s, we may have to look outside of the narrow category of professional artist and into other occupations such as teacher, editor, and designer. And we may have to look outside China, because some have emigrated. In any case, I think it’s essential to try to fill these gaps, which is another reason that Joan’s slide archive excites us, for in it we found slides of artwork by 157 women, many of whom were unknown to us. We have begun to research these women, to ensure that their contribution will be recorded for further research. There are an increasing number of women artists working in China now, but I am concerned that endurance is still an issue, because the support networks are still lacking.
Exhibition Histories in China
JD: The focus on exhibition histories responds to the lack of institutional support, such as art history departments, independent museums, libraries, scholarly journals, and archives focusing on contemporary art in the 1980s and 1990s. Exhibitions, however, can serve as mini archives. By putting together multiple exhibition archives, we can begin to piece together larger narratives, and ultimately an art history.
In the early 1980s, the singular venues for displaying art by living artists were state-run museums, such as the National Gallery (now called the National Art Museum of China or NAMOC). NAMOC hosted some important early exhibitions such as the All China exhibitions of 1979, 1980, and 1984. Researchers interested in studying these conservative but none-the-less important events will find information in the complete set of Meishu magazines that we have in our library, as well as exhibition catalogues, reference books, and other magazines published at that time. In 1989, NAMOC hosted the infamous China/Avant-Garde Exhibition. But after the Tiananmen Square incident, these state-run platforms closed their doors to experimental art, and inside China we saw the rise of short-term, often performative events. In addition to the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, it is information about these DIY, self-organised events that we have been collecting. As we turn the corner to the 2000s, these ephemeral exhibitions lose their urgency somewhat. State-run museums become more receptive to a range of experimental art, and commercial galleries and art districts, like 798, emerge to display it. And in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, China witnesses a museum-building boom. Today the art market provides contemporary art with a more or less sustained source of support that did not exist previously. That is why we have committed our scarce resources to researching and gathering archives of exhibitions in the 1980s and 1990s. We also feel that the experimental art activities in these two decades were not only under-resourced, lacking infrastructural support, but they also performed a certain criticality that is often missing today.
AY: Following on what you said, we have an extensive archive of material about the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, including the personal collection of one of the organisers of the exhibition and extensive material from a participating artist and photographer who took photographs at this landmark show. We have also conducted many interviews with people who participated in or attended this show that has come to represent the culmination of an unusually protean moment in Chinese art, as well as the beginning of the end of an unprecedented period of free expression. As is well known, four months later, the June 4th incident brought free expression to a grinding halt, and avant-garde activity went underground, to spring up intermittently in these DIY venues that Jane just mentioned.
Parallel to but different from what was happening inside China in the 1990s were the exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art that were being organised overseas. Particularly important was the year 1993, when a number of key exhibitions took place in Hong Kong, Berlin, and Venice. AAA has a strong collection of material about these key exhibitions. For example, we have extensive materials about the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition that opened at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and travelled to other European cities, including Oslo and Rotterdam. We also have a comprehensive collection of material about China's New Art, Post-1989, organised by Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong.
These overseas exhibitions took place after June 4th, when cultural development inside China took a very conservative turn. Ideological control became very strict, and opportunities to exhibit were severely limited. Exhibitions outside China, therefore, provided a way out for certain artists and curators. For foreign curators, such as Bonito Oliva who organised the 45th Venice Biennale, exhibiting art from China also offered an opportunity to break away from prevailing “Eurocentrism” and show art from so-called “marginal regions,” signalling the arrival of the global present that we continue to operate in today.
AAA has collected the archives of Cities on the Move, which is an important exhibition, not only about China, but also about Asia. It was curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru in 1997 for the Secession Museum in Vienna. Focusing on Asian cities, rather than the more usual framework of national cultures or politics, the show brought together artists and architects to highlight the phenomena of Asian ultra-urbanism. So it was not about art defined by China, Indonesia, or any other nation or territory. Nor was it about high art—normally associated with painting or sculpture or polished installations. Rather it was about migration and flow, about dislocation and chaos, about how artists managed to grow up in emerging mega-cities such as Guangzhou or Beijing, migrate abroad, and then return. This was a new kind of existence in the nineties, and this exhibition and archive captured that energy. It’s an important case in contemporary curatorial studies.
Jane DeBevoise is an independent art historian and Chair of the Board of Directors of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and New York.
Anthony Yung is AAA's Researcher specialising in Greater China.