Growing from the Barren Ground: Part 2

Xie Congyang looks at three art exhibitions in northwest China from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century

Part 2 of a three-part essay series based on Xie's fieldwork in the region, drawing on oral histories and interviews with local artists, editors, and educators. Her research examines ten unofficial experimental art exhibitions organised by artists based in three major cities of northwest China—Lanzhou, Xining, and Urumqi—which had an enduring impact on local art scenes, and were milestones that marked different stages of the development of contemporary art.


Image: Artists parading along the streets of Lanzhou during <i>Funeral</i>, 1993. Courtesy of Yang Zhichao.
Image: Artists parading along the streets of Lanzhou during Funeral, 1993. Courtesy of Yang Zhichao.


Dialogues and Anxieties: Three Exhibitions in Northwest China


In the mid-1980s, through nationwide publishing platforms, artists in northwestern cities grew more connected to a larger community of avant-garde artists scattered across China. From this period onwards, their art practices were informed not only by local contexts, but also by concerns shared by experimental artists across the country. During the 1990s, however, the distribution of resources for artists and art infrastructure grew more and more uneven, and artists in “remote” northwestern cities began organising unofficial exhibitions in response—for some, out of an anxious drive to engage “mainstream” exhibitions for broader recognition; for others, in protest of what they believed was mismanagement, corruption, or their marginalisation within the larger China art scene; and for still others, it was a chance to rekindle a new artistic movement responsive to global urgencies of the time.

The focus of this chapter is on three experimental art exhibitions held in northwest China from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century: Exploration, Discovery, Expression: Works from Five Young Artists held in Lanzhou in 1984; Funeral, an art event initiated by the Lanzhou Art Troop in 1993; and Re-Start, a contemporary art exhibition held in Urumqi in 2002. Through these exhibitions, I examine how changes in conditions—including artists’ educational backgrounds, financial support, public reception, as well as forms and channels of communication (especially art periodicals and art critics)—influenced these artistic responses in the northwest.

What were the urgencies addressed by these art events? Who were the audiences for experimental art during this period? What have been local artists’ attitudes towards regionalism,  and why?


Exploration, Discovery, Expression

In Lanzhou, the practice of self-organising exhibitions dates back to the late 1970s, when a group of amateur artists took inspiration from the Star Art Exhibition in Beijing and organised exhibitions of their own, presenting their artwork in informal venues.1 Participants included figures like Cao Yong, who studied art in Tianshui Teachers College and worked in Lanzhou Children’s Palace after graduation, and Cheng Li, a self-taught artist working at the Lanzhou Refinery Factory.2 In December 1984, they—along with Liu Zhenggang, Wang Xiangping, and Wang Jian—organised the exhibition Exploration, Discovery, Expression: Works from Five Young Artists in Lanzhou Workers’ Cultural Palace, which featured over sixty pieces of paintings, installations, and experimental calligraphies.

Unlike previous self-organised exhibitions held in quiet locations without media exposure (and mostly visited by other artists), Exploration, Discovery, Expression took place in Lanzhou’s busy downtown area and aimed to engage a wider public. The artists invited local mainstream media to report on their exhibition, and asked Zheng Tielin, a renowned writer then working for Gansu Daily newspaper, to draft the exhibition foreword.

But perhaps their most significant connection was with the weekly newspaper Fine Arts in China, an influential publication of experimental art discourse founded in 1985 and distributed nationwide. The artists sent photographs of artworks and textual materials from Exploration, Discovery, Expression to Gao Minglu, an editor at Fine Arts in China, and the exhibition ended up featured on the front page of its May 1986 edition, along with an exhibition organised by a group of young artists from Shandong Province.3 By juxtaposing art activities from disparate places, Fine Arts in China not only bridged and enabled dialogue amongst artists across regions, but also instilled in them an interest in expressing regional identities.

Interestingly enough, while Exploration, Discovery, Expression contained multiple artistic orientations—for example, the exhibition featured Wang Jian’s experimental calligraphy pieces, while a minimalistic painting by Cheng Li embodied his views towards the precarious political status of China—the articles published in Fine Arts in China emphasised the exhibition’s surrealistic characteristics almost exclusively.4 Cao Yong’s short review, for example, noted:

Recently, avant-garde painters in Lanzhou have been discussing how to reinvent Chinese modern art, as well as how to make use of the unique characteristics of western China, such as its religious traditions, its ancient history, its mysterious atmosphere, and the tendency of artists from the region to create work with deep and rich meanings.5

His statement hinted at how characteristics typically associated with Surrealism—e.g., illogical images and oneiric sceneries; treatment of subjects like desire, fantasy, and dreams—corresponded to Lanzhou artists’ imagination of western China.6

Central to this imagination was the idea of “primitiveness.” On one hand, the vast wastelands and deserts in the northwest evoked imagery of a realm untouched by civilization. On the other hand, a significant population of diverse, religious ethnicities also resided in the region. In the eyes of artists who lived in a Han-dominated society that was basically secularised after 1949, coupled with China’s push for modernisation in the 1980s, the region’s association with “primitiveness” was only heightened.


Image: Cao Yong, <i>Venus and Arthats</i>, 1985, as displayed in an exhibition catalogue from Today Art Museum, Beijing.
Image: Cao Yong, Venus and Arthats, 1985, as displayed in an exhibition catalogue from Today Art Museum, Beijing.


Venus and Arthats, an oil painting by Cao Yong in 1985, is perhaps the best illustration of this convergence of Surrealism and regional imaginations of the northwest. In the background, deserts and bare mountains—typical landscapes of the northwest—are juxtaposed with symbols of sex (the “curtain” of female breasts on top, and the red pillar in the middle) and those of cults and religions (the dancing human figures that evoke imagery of primitive cults in the upper half, and the image of Buddhist shrines built by ancient civilizations in the lower half). Even the title of the work is also a juxtaposition of two remote worlds—a typical strategy of surrealism.

Cao Yong’s statement also revealed that, in the mid-1980s context, regionalism of the northwest was considered within the framework of nationalist discourse. For in keeping with the prevailing desire to trace and restore the cultural roots of China and of the self (both desires had been repressed during the Cultural Revolution), there was a general tendency among Chinese artists and writers to base their work upon the history and culture of their own regions. In other words, artistic authenticity was guaranteed through the expression of regional identity. Moreover, as foreign artistic influences flooded into China, Cao proposed that only by developing a visual repertoire with specific regional characteristics could emerging art experiments in China avoid becoming superficial imitations of Eurocentric, Western art. Here, articulating regional identity was conceived as a mechanism for artists to resist external influences.

The artists’ connection with Fine Arts in China also brought them more exhibition opportunities. Cao Yong and other Lanzhou-based artists, for example, were invited to important meetings of Chinese avant-garde artists—including the 85 Youth Art Movement Large-Scale Slide Show and Academic Symposium in Zhuhai and the 88 Symposium on Creation of Chinese Modern Art in Huangshan—and were asked to participate in the Joint Exhibition of Youth Art Communities from All Regions, which was originally scheduled to take place in July 1987 at Beijing Agriculture Exposition Hall, before it was cancelled by the launch of the “Campaign against Bourgeois Liberalisation."7 In 1989, Cao was also included in the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in National Art Museum of China.8



China’s political crackdown at the end of the 1980s severely restricted the space for experimental art, and led to the cancellation and re-structuring of nationwide publications, including Fine Arts in China. It not surprisingly became more difficult for artists in the northwest to be published in official art periodicals.9 Throughout the 1990s, the few periodicals that covered experimental art prioritised art trends in the area they were based. While cities in east and south China—especially Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Wuhan—were home to such periodicals, no such publication was established in northwestern cities. That said, artists in the northwest were still able to follow art trends across the country by subscribing to art periodicals published in other regions.10

If publications and correspondences used to be the main channels of communication in the 1980s, the 1990s saw the increase of face-to-face contacts between artists across regions. During this time, as China was transitioning into a market economy, there were more alternative sources of income beyond regular jobs. Many artists in the northwest resigned or took unpaid leave from their work units, as they would rather live off part-time jobs or starting small business ventures, so as to afford themselves more time for their art practices and traveling to meet artists beyond the region. Several survey exhibitions of experimental art at a national scale also provided occasions for artists to meet and communicate: the serial Art Document exhibitions organised by Chongqing-based art critic Wang Lin; the 1992 Guangzhou · The First 1990s' Biennial Art Fair (referred to as Guangzhou Biennial below); and The First Hanmo Exhibition of New Art Plans in 1994, to name just a few. All featured artists from a wide geographic scope.

It’s important to note, however, that due to the lack of public spaces for dialogue, the impressions generated from the trips were inevitably biased, random, and usually peppered with speculations. Zhuang Hui, an artist who travelled extensively in China in the early to mid-1990s, incisively described the status of artists at that time as “sticking to their own views and fighting individual battles.” Indeed, art circles became more and more divided in this period, with artists in different regions having more divergent opinions about art.

In this sense, Funeral, an art event organised in 1993 by a group of artists known as Lanzhou Art Troop, is an intriguing case that deserves examination. The event was a response to the controversial Guangzhou Biennial organised by art critic Lu Peng in October 1992.11 The biennial’s organisers issued an open call for submission of artworks from Chinese artists, and a group of leading art critics formed the jury committee and selected awards at three levels.12 It was announced that the Xishu Art Company, which funded the event, would purchase all the awarded works, so that the artists could gain cash prizes according to the level of award they won. Jiangsu Pictorial, an art magazine widely read by experimental artists, actively published reports and discussions on the event.13

A group of artists from Lanzhou submitted their work and travelled to Guangzhou to attend the exhibition opening.14 According to Cheng Li, the trip was extremely frustrating. Lanzhou artists were upset to find themselves ignored by artists from other regions, and none of them received any awards. They grew even angrier when they heard rumors claiming that some artworks went missing due to the organisers’ mismanagement.15 They concluded that the biennial was a scam, that the awards were selected not based on the works’ quality, but on personal relationships and backdoor financial exchanges. They accused the art critics and periodicals of being accomplices in dishonorable transactions, which they took as a sign of the degradation and corruption of the art circle.


Image: A collage of posters, photos, manifestos, and other materials produced during <i>Funeral</i>. Courtesy of Cheng Li.
Image: A collage of posters, photos, manifestos, and other materials produced during Funeral. Courtesy of Cheng Li.


Depressed, Cheng Li made his way back to Lanzhou, where he began mobilising local artists to protest what they considered a corrupted art system. On 13 January 1993, in the name of Lanzhou Art Troop, the artists sent packages of small wooden boxes that contained walnuts and bubble gum to artists, critics, and magazine editors in various cities.16 Walnuts need to be hammered, thus expressing the artists’ antagonistic attitude; while the word “blow” in Chinese also means to boast something, so the artists sarcastically deployed bubble gum to criticise the art critics’ behavior of exaggerating the artistic value of awarded works.

Four days later, they carried around a glass coffin containing a fake human corpse made of cloth, wood, plaster, and other materials. They named the dead man “Zhong Xiandai”—meaning “the finality of modernity” in Chinese—and distributed Zhong’s last words and death certificate while they paraded along the main streets of Lanzhou, until they finally cremated the corpse on a sports ground, and then proceeded to lecture on the death of modern art in China.

In Funeral, the artists appropriated the visual elements and writing styles of the Cultural Revolution. The parade and the mock funeral in public spaces also evoked struggle sessions, with artists also adopting military terms like “troop” and “battle” to emphasise a sense of strength and confrontation. Indeed, according to the original plan, the artists were meant to jointly draft an article entitled “Mao Zedong’s Speech on the Enlarged Meeting of Lanzhou Art Troop.”17

Due to the lack of exhibition opportunities for experimental art, critics and periodical editors—whose responsibility was to interpret artwork and to elaborate criteria of evaluation—were formidable “gatekeepers,” able to determine whether or not an artist’s work could gain wider visibility.18 For artists in the northwest, the situation was even more dire: in the absence of art periodicals and art critics dedicated to experimental art in their own cities, they could only count on recognition from beyond the region. The Guangzhou Biennial, then, only accentuated the outsized role of art critics for them, with their fury at the perceived corruption being the protest’s primary driver.

That said, for the local art community themselves, Funeral may have held a different, deeper social meaning. One critical thing to note is that, except for the initiator, none of the main participants of the event—Liu Xinhua, Ma Yunfei, Yang Zhichao, and Liu Yiwu—had sent their works to Guangzhou. Unlike Cheng who was traumatised by the unpleasant experience in Guangzhou, this younger group of artists were not familiar with the corruption of art system that Funeral openly protested against.19 Instead, they were motivated by a need to commit to some sort of fervent movement, and worked industriously in designing the visual materials and drafting the fictional documents.

From my interviews with various members of the Art Troop, as well as from Cheng Li’s diary, it appears this craving for a movement stemmed from anxieties widely shared among artists at the time. Since the mid-1980s, as economic reform spread to China’s northwestern hinterland, more and more people were making money by starting their own businesses; and in a short time, the disparity in economic conditions and social status increased.

While this rise in commercial success stories might have suggested a wealth of lucrative opportunities, artists in Lanzhou were pessimistic about a future in experimental art and so pursued alternative paths. In fact, since the Special Economic Zone of Hainan Island was established in 1988, most members of the Lanzhou Art Troop, like other artists, travelled there with the hope of getting rich outside the art system. Yet for many different reasons, their dissatisfaction with their business pursuits only grew, and they were determined to rededicate themselves to art.

An article entitled “Diving into the Cultural Hot Wave,” co-authored by Cheng Li and another artist Wang Wangwang in 1992, vividly illustrates this conflict. While the authors denied any transcendent value in art, they also affirmed that art is indispensable for life. The solution they found for themselves was to “stir up a ‘hot wave’…each one of us could discover our own strength, play a unique role, and gain a sense of meaning.”20

While this “hot wave” movement temporarily provided a sense of purpose, the artists eventually felt their core frustrations remained unaddressed. For though Funeral brought some attention to its instigators, no substantial changes in their material conditions occurred. After 1995, one after another, these artists left Lanzhou and settled down in Beijing. Funeral, and the emigration of Lanzhou artists, reflect the uneven distribution of resources for pursuing an art career among different regions. Even today, most artists outside China’s main art centres no longer consider pursuing art in their own hometowns to be a realistic option.



However, this way of thinking slowly began to change during the turn of the century. In 2001, six artists based in Xining organised the Six Men Painting Exhibition in a newly built commercial centre—paintings that were considered eccentric by the local art circle (as mentioned in Part 1); and in 2002, five artists based in Urumqi organised Re-Start in a residential quarter, the first exhibition in Xinjiang that featured new media art, including video, photography, and installation—indeed, no art forms other than painting and sculpture had been exhibited here prior to Re-Start, since depicting the region’s natural beauty, ethnic minority groups, and cultural relics had been the priority of the local official art system.

These exhibitions took place in temporarily unused spaces, which were provided by real estate developers who believed sponsoring contemporary art would be beneficial for promoting their products—since, at that time, contemporary art was becoming a fashionable cultural phenomenon embraced by mass media in China. Inspired by these new opportunities, artists in the northwest reconsidered the possibility of promoting contemporary art in their own cities.

Compared to the organisers of previous exhibitions in Urumqi, the initiators of Re-Start received more professional art training, and had lived a long time in China’s art centres. Before moving to Urumqi in 1996, the couple Sun Ge and Li Jun spent years studying art in Shanghai, Anhui, and Beijing through educational programmes moderated by the college in Karamay, Xinjiang, where they used to work. Tian Baozhen studied at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in the 1990s, and the activities of the Big Tail Elephant Working Group—an artist collective active in South China—deeply impressed her. Qin Feng moved to Beijing in the early 1990s, and founded the Amona Gallery in 1993, which was among the earliest galleries in China to promote contemporary art. According to these artists, the absence of new art forms in Urumqi’s previous art exhibitions indicated that the local art scene had lost vigour.

The title Re-Start captured the initiators’ urge to kindle a renovating spirit among local artists, and their overhaul would operate on two levels: the media they work with, and the subject matter they approach. The exhibition featured over one hundred works by forty-one artists from three social groups: the amateur painters represented by the participants of the Twelve Men exhibition, art educators working in art schools in Urumqi, and their students.21 Although the majority of artists previously practised painting and sculpture, many of them, especially the young students, experimented with new media and brought installation, photography, and video to the exhibition.

In these works, the artists addressed global issues such as climate change, the impact of information technology, and conflicts between cultures. If in the 1980s, the expression of regional identity was once sought after by various artists in the northwest, as a way to claim their artistic authenticity, this was no longer a desirable practice by the time of Re-Start. For these artists, what defined artistic contemporaneity is the artists’ awareness of issues “universal” to humanity, as the exhibition foreword stated:

Commoditising tradition is an abuse of culture and history. Today, as we are sharing the cultural achievements brought by globalisation, we should care more about our contribution to the civilisation of human beings, and sincerely present our true personal experiences and thoughts to viewers.

Mainstream mass media in Xinjiang enthusiastically reported the exhibition, praising it as an impressive effort to reverse Xinjiang’s “backward” status in contemporary art, and even began to envision Urumqi as a place for contemporary art to thrive, just like other cities in China.22 Nevertheless, this statement proved overly optimistic. When a participating artist specialising in wood sculptures came to the exhibition opening—who I will only identify here as Yuan—he was upset to find most of his colleagues working with new media, which made his work seem “conservative” by comparison. In response, he made an abrupt decision to take off his clothes and walk naked around the exhibition space, considering this “performance art” a demonstration of his radical commitment.


Image: A review of <i>Re-Start</i> entitled “Listening to the voice of Xinjiang’s contemporary art,” published in <i>Xinjiang Economy Newspaper</i>, 5 November 2002.
Image: A review of Re-Start entitled “Listening to the voice of Xinjiang’s contemporary art,” published in Xinjiang Economy Newspaper, 5 November 2002.


The responses to this unexpected incident were mixed. The artist-organisers of the exhibition criticised Yuan and stopped his act. From their previous experience in other cities, they were well aware of the precarious status of contemporary art in China, and believed Yuan’s behaviour would lead to the cancellation of the exhibition and produce misunderstandings of contemporary art among the general public. However, Yan Li, one of the initiators of the Twelve Men Painting Exhibition, supported Yuan’s act. He believed that the most important value of contemporary art lies in its emancipating spirit, that artistic freedom should be respected, and that any form of practice should be allowed. He was disappointed by the organisers and accused them of bowing to the existing social order. Partly due to the ideological split among the local art community, no exhibition of equal scale and impact was ever held here again.

Re-Start, as well as other exhibitions held around the same time, marked the beginning of enduring efforts of local art practitioners in building infrastructure for contemporary art in northwestern cities. Although promoting contemporary art in the region remains difficult today, this experience from the period raises important questions for future art practitioners in the northwest.

How should one reconcile the discrepancies in concept and knowledge between artists and their audiences, as well as between artists from different educational backgrounds and generations? How can art stay relevant to the local experience, while avoiding the trap of fabricating superficial regional characteristics? And, ultimately, how should artists invent and articulate an original language given the already complex contemporary art discourse? As we will see in Part 3 of this series, these questions remain urgent for art practitioners dedicated to promoting contemporary art in northwest China.


Xie Congyang is AAA's Research Associate specialising in Greater China.




1. As discussed in “Growing from the Barren Ground: Part 1.”

2. In the early 1980s, Cao and Cheng continued to explore various styles and techniques in painting. Inspired by Freud, their works were usually symbol-laden, depicting imaginative scenes with explicit sexual implications, which differentiated their practices from those of previous artist groups. In 1982, the two artists co-organised Painting Exhibition At Home, in which—true to the title—they featured their paintings in their homes. A small group of students and teachers of Lanzhou University were invited to view the exhibition.

3. Fine Arts in China, no. 21 (1986).

4. The textual materials were organised by the artists and sent to the editor. The three articles were the exhibition foreword written by Zheng Tielin, an esteemed intellectual who was then working in the Gansu Daily newspaper; an exhibition review written by Wu Liwang, a student of philosophy at Lanzhou University; and an excerpt from the news coverage on the exhibition conducted by the Lanzhou Youth Daily newspaper.

5. Fine Arts in China, no. 38 (1986): 4.

6. For an analysis of imageries associated with western China, see Han Ziyong, The West: Literature in Remote Provinces of China. [Xi bu: pianyuan shengfen de wenxue xiezuo], Baihua wenyi chubanshe: 1998. Although Han focuses on literary works of writers who lived in western China, as well as those that sought to address the region’s history and culture, it is interesting to note that parallel tendencies can be found in visual art practices in northwest China.

7. In 1986, Cao Yong attended a meeting of Chinese avant-garde art organised by Gao Minglu in Zhuhai, and presented works by other Lanzhou artists there. In 1987, in a letter to Cao Yong and Liu Zhenggang, Gao invited Lanzhou artists to participate in preparing for the exhibition in Agriculture Exposition Hall. However, when the “Campaign against Bourgeois Liberalisation” was launched, the exhibition was cancelled. In 1988, Cao Yong and another Lanzhou artist, Yang Shufeng, attended the Huangshan Meeting.

8. Yang Shufeng was also invited to participate in the show, but he withdrew for personal reasons.

9. While their works fell beyond the scope of officially approved art periodicals, in the mid-1990s, works by Lanzhou artists Ma Yunfei and Ma Qizhi were included in the Black Cover Book series, which was self-published and privately circulated within Chinese experimental art circle.

10. In his diary in 1995, Cheng Li kept records of art publications he followed at the time. The list of art periodicals include the following: Gallery (registered in Guangzhou), Jiangsu Pictorial (registered in Nanjing), Avantgarde Today (registered in various cities), Fine Arts Literature (registered in Wuhan), Art Currents (founded by Taiwanese Wang Wenji and edited by Li Xianting and Cao Xiaodong, among others), Twenty-First Century (published by the Institute of Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong). See Cheng Li, A Person’s Art History, self-published, 266.

11. For a detail study of the event, see Jane Debevoise, Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2014).

12. The three levels were strangely named. Roughly translated, they were the “Documents Award” (i.e., first place), the “Academic Award” (i.e., second place), and the “Exceptional Award” (i.e., the third place). The committee members were Lv Peng, Shao Hong, Yan Shanchun, Yi Dan, Yang Xiaoyan, Zhu Bin, and Wangzhuan. For related documents of Guangzhou Biennial, see Asia Art Archive's Lu Peng Archive.

13. Jiangsu Pictorial, no. 7 and no. 12 (1992).

14. According to Cheng Li, he himself, as well as Cao Yong, Liu Zhenggang, Zhao Shaoruo, Zhao Junbo, and Chen Jing sent their works to Guangzhou. See A Person’s Art History, 230.

15. Ibid, 229–34.

16. According to Cheng, the receivers were the art critics and other practitioners who were engaged in publishing affairs, including Li Xianting, Wang Youshen, Xu Tan, Li Zhengtian, Zhuang Hui, Gu Chengfeng, Chen Xiaoxin, Wang Lin, Lv Peng, and Li Luming, among several others. For the long list of receivers, see Ibid, 212.

17. A typed document of a text bearing this title and dated June 1993 was kept by Cheng Li, of which Cheng was signed as the only author.

18. For a study on the role of art critics, see Peggy Wang, "Art Critics as Middlemen: Navigating State and Market in Contemporary Chinese Art, 1980s–1990s," Art Journal, vol. 72, no. 1 (2013).

19. Author’s interviews with former members of the Lanzhou Art Troop.

20. Unpublished textual material.

21. For an account of the exhibition and the artworks, see Shi Xiaoming, “A Insiders’ View of Restart Exhibition,” included in Shi’s anthology Contemporary Art in Xinjiang, Urumqi: Xinjiang Fine Arts and Photography Press, 2010.

22. “Peculiar Painting Exhibition Opens Up New Horizon: Restart 2002 Art Exhibition Held in the City,” in Urumqi Evening News, January 9, 2002; “Has Contemporary Art in Xinjiang been Restarted?,” Xinjiang Economy Newspaper, January 11, 2002; “Listening to the Voice of Xinjiang’s Contemporary Art,” Xinjiang Economy Newspaper, January 15, 2002. (All the texts are in Chinese only.)



XIE Congyang, 謝從暘

Fri, 7 Dec 2018