Photographs are synonymous with facts, although we may have totally opposite interpretation of facts. —Xiamen Dada


I'd like to thank SOAS and in particular Shane McCausland for the invitation to participate in this two day conference. It is an honour to be invited back to SOAS by my teacher and to be included amongst a list of such well respected scholars in the field.

16 years have passed since I walked down these steps having completed my MA in Art History. Looking back, it's probably no surprise when I say that what we referred to then as the Chinese contemporary art world has changed beyond recognition.

It's not necessary to recount here the past decade's well-documented, ongoing 'museumification' of China—or, commodification of Chinese art—alongside China's stratospheric economic growth. I would however like to remark that despite these staggering and at times dizzying developments, upon closer inspection, the flow of chi, to borrow an analogy from traditional Chinese medicine, would seem to be directed through only a few meridians channels— and that flow through all 12, through the nurturing of both yin and yang, is essential for a balanced and healthy system.

Since 2000, Asia Art Archive has been modestly engaged in addressing this imbalance—or nurturing the yin of this art ecology, if you will. For the majority of Asia, there has been a general lack of resources and even disinterest in building a more in depth knowledge infrastructure for recent art history. This is largely reflected in the absence of systematic public collections or substantial academic art history departments for 20th and 21st century art. And, outside Asia, in the so-called centres of art knowledge production and power, namely Euro-America, it is only recently that the inclusion of these histories is starting to take place. One may argue this is necessary and long overdue, though at risk of perpetuating and reinforcing the same power structures so long as efforts are not spread amongst different geographies. There is a need for a multiplicity of centres, reference points, and networks.

In the absence of much of the foundational work having been done in public or academic institutions, one of our areas of focus for the last few years has been to look at where and how art history has been written, which has inevitably led us to look at where and how art has been made, taught, circulated, activated, and displayed.

Space and Display of Contemporary Art, the focus of this panel, is a topic of great interest not only to AAA but the wider field at large, under the increasingly prevalent field of study referred to as 'exhibition histories'. Exhibition histories is one of the strands of enquiry we have been developing at AAA1, and while it is an area whose parameters and methodologies are still being defined and debated, what is evident, especially in the case of China in the 1980s and 1990s, is that exhibitions were not simply places where art was displayed but the primary sites of art historical construction, experimentation, resistance, and circulation. 

The way that we are able to attempt to re-construct these exhibitions from the present and make sense of their impact is through the document—photos, correspondence, sketches, notes, plans, printed material, clippings, catalogues, interviews, and video documentation, amongst others.

I certainly don't need to tell this audience how the document, and the home of the document, the archive, has become one of the most theorised and practiced forms amongst artists, philosophers, and curators in recent years. The promise of the archive to reimagine the past and shift our understanding of the present has become possible in the digital world, where the production, circulation, and sharing of knowledge is no longer determined by official institutions but by anyone with a mobile phone and access to the internet.

While there is currently much thinking going on amongst scholars and curators as to how best to capture an exhibition, and to what level of detail for the purpose of future study when looking back in time, it is only possible to work with what we have on hand. Much of our work (and when I say 'our', much of this work falls to AAA's researchers, I'm not a researcher or academic) is like piecing together a puzzle—filling the gaps, connecting the lines, and pursuing new leads when the one we have in our hand doesn't work out.

In thinking through the vast theme of this panel, and sifting through our online and physical collection of documentation of exhibitions in China in the 1980s and 1990s, a time period we have been focusing on for over a decade at AAA2, a piece of the puzzle that repeatedly fell in to my hand as a way to navigate the context of exhibition-making was through the lens of the document itself. A form we are inescapably preoccupied with at AAA. And so in the next part of this talk, I'm going to touch on three exhibitions within which the document reveals some of the debates around the display of art in a public context during this a seminal moment in the recent history of Chinese art.


1. 'The Art Event of Burning the Exhibited Works of Xiamen Dada' , 1986

Regarded as one of the most radical groups working during the 1980s, Xiamen Dada formed in 1986 (by Huang Yongping, Zha Lixiong, Liu Yiling, Lin Chun, and Jiao Yaoming) stands out for the way in which they sought to consistently test the limits of what defined art at a time when the definition of art was understandably both limited and conservative. We have to remember that China was emerging from the devastation and insulation of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and access to books on art and art materials, let alone a camera, were both rare and expensive.

Today art no longer requires the conventional sense of canvas or paint … the venue is not a concern either—art can be moved out of the gallery and stand in a house, in a park, in the street … with or without an audience. Art can also draw on any imaginable material or do without material at all. But the artist must abide by a rather stringent principle, a will to claim 'art.' And to express this claim, one can hardly do without two basic media, photography and language.3

This extracted text from the article published in 1986 by Huang Yongping entitled 'Giving up Painting and Sculpture in the Name of Art' shows the astonishing grasp of the issues around 'conceptual' art that had been developing in the West for decades despite, China's complete isolation from these debates.

Acutely aware of the power of the camera, 'The Art Event of Burning the Exhibition Works of Xiamen Dada' in 1986 was ground-breaking amongst the other experimentations and deliberations taking place at the time in the way it called for an extreme reconsideration of both the role of the artists and the framing of art in line with 'global' trends. As the title would suggest, all the works shown in the exhibition, from September 28 through October 5, 1986, were publicly burned in front of the Cultural Palace of Xiamen on the afternoon of November 23, 1986. The photos and text here are what remain.

This 'happening', amongst others staged by Xiamen Dada, and their accompanying texts not only frame some of the discussions around what form art may take, but paint a picture of the freedom artists had in the absence of having to produce for the market or official venues for exhibition. A very different picture today, where many artists adopt the paintbrush and easel to satisfy the tastes of the growing number of collectors, and are often bound to filling the giant halls of the numerous 'museums' littered across China.

What also becomes clear from this quote is the early awareness of the camera and its value in recording history; and at the same time, the realisation of the document as a valid format to test alongside other more traditional art mediums.


2. 'China/Avant-Garde', 1989

It is somewhat of a miracle that the 'China/Avant-Garde' exhibition was able to open its doors to the public at the China National Art Gallery (National Art Museum of China today) in February 1989, just four months before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The most referenced exhibition of that period, it was unprecedented in the way it brought artists from across the country together and signaled the recognition of experimental art practices by the authorities for the first time, and in the various twists and turns it was able to overcome when first raised as an idea in August 1986 at the Zhuhai symposium.

The full name of the symposium, Grand Slideshow and Symposium on Young Artistic Trends and Theories of '85, is an obvious clue to the importance of the document as a way in which artists from around the country were able to showcase their work and achievements in a pre-digital age. Despite the title, the actual intention of the gathering, as explained in a recent interview4 by one of the organisers of 'China/Avant-Garde', Zhou Yan, was, in fact, 'to conduct an exchange through actual works rather than simply through slides. This kind of "see the originals" complex was actually quite academic: in other words, everyone thought that technical details would more likely be omitted or distorted by using slides.' At the same time, he goes on to say, 'This complex actually contradicted the trend amongst artists of that time, who emphasized being "conceptual" and overlooked or even dismissed technique and artistic language.' Despite the inescapable practicality of the use of slides as a valid form of exchange, through these comments, echoed in those of Xiamen Dada's in the earlier example, we are able to get a further sense of the extent of the debates around form, language, and role of what constituted art within society at that time.

These heated discussions escalated in the run up to the 1989 exhibition at the Huangshan Modern Art Symposium in 1988, where two camps more visibly emerged—those who wanted to subvert 'tradition' (both antique and modern), and those who wanted to find a more moderate path. In the negotiations between the organisers and the China National Art Gallery, Zhou Yan explains how the crux of the matter lay in the inclusion of actual performance work. In short, the exhibition was not allowed to go ahead if included. Despite protests from various artists who insisted that an exhibition highlighting the artistic achievements of the '85 art movement would be incomplete without live performance art on-site, the organisers decided that the only way was to compromise if the show was to go ahead. The result of the compromise was for documentation of performance art pieces, both photographs and text, to be shown in a specially designated selection.

'There was a large number of performance works shown as photographs in the exhibition; these included a suicide plan, a worshipping ritual of Mount Everest in the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, … the incident of burning works, etc. Truly a rich variety of extraordinary works,' artist Mao Xuhui recounts in an article he wrote following the exhibition. He goes on to observe, 'But when these exciting performances were shown in the form of photographs, they no longer had a direct impact and had lost their newsworthiness.'5

Whether this section would have indeed attracted the attention of the media or visitors to the exhibition is unknown, as the focus of the exhibition quickly turned to the impromptu performances both inside and outside the venue resulting in its premature closure shortly after the infamous gunshot fired by artists Xiao Lu and Tang Song rang through the halls. Once again, however, these comments point to the conflict inherent in the ongoing experiment with form—the document/camera on the one hand an integral component to conceptual art, and at the same time a poor substitute for the 'real thing'.

We are now all familiar with the well-circulated documentation of these unofficial, impromptu performance works—the photos of which have now come to symbolise this seminal exhibition—which represent the hope, emotions, frictions, and complexities of what it meant to bring experimental and contemporary art to the public realm at this charged moment in time.


3. 'Let's talk about Money: Shanghai First International Fax Art' Exhibition , 1996

One of the archives Asia Art Archive has been working to digitise and make public is that of Shanghai-based curator Biljana Ciric. The archive takes as its focus artist-organised exhibitions in Shanghai between 1979 and 2006—a project Ciric began in 2007 to address the lack of research on, or inclusion of, these exhibitions in a largely Beijing-centric art history. Ciric began her research on the premise that, unlike in the West, it is exhibitions rather than museums that acted as sites for the production of knowledge throughout this period of history in China—a phenomenon that no longer exists with the predominance of white cube spaces and the commodification of art and its viewing experience.

An exhibition held in 1996 included in the archive, 'Let's talk about Money: Shanghai First International Fax Art', proposed by Vancouver-based Hank Bull and curated by Ding Yi, Shi Yong, Shen Fan, and Zhou Tiehai, both forewarned of the direction that China's art world and economy were heading and stands out for being able to ingeniously work within the social and political realities of the time. Employing the format of the fax document as the medium, over the exhibition period of 20 days, faxes were transmitted from around the world and pasted to the exhibition walls daily at Shanghai's Huashan Vocational School. The exhibition signals the first time that local and international artists were able to exhibit together in post-Mao China (101 artists and organisations in total), and that Chinese artists actively sought to begin a conversation with artists outside the country. In an interview with one of the organizing artists Shi Yong, he illuminates how this 'international' exhibition was only possible because of the format and strategy taken by the exhibition: '[I]t obviated the need to obtain official approval from the Cultural Bureau for artworks entering the country via the usual channels; because there were no physical artworks crossing borders.'6

This exhibition and its original approach to exhibition-making became an important reference point for artist-organised exhibitions in Shanghai in the 90s to follow—in that the definition of art and its value continued to be explored in an environment without professional curators or a structured/official infrastructure for the arts. In an interview Ciric conducted with artist Xu Zhen, for example, he recounts how he visited the exhibition and stuck up a fax without invitation. She goes on to speculate how this encounter may have influenced his organisation of the seminal exhibition 'Art for Sale' in 19997.

Seven years after the 'China/Avant-Garde' exhibitions and the Tiananmen Square incident, while the urgencies of artists may have changed within a China that was increasingly facing outwards and upwards, the conditions for experimentation were still rife and ingenuity was a necessary requirement for publicly displaying contemporary art outside the mainstream.


 *   *   *

These are just three out of hundreds of exhibitions that were held during this seminal period in the recent history of Chinese contemporary art—a moment in time that is almost indiscernible in China's art scene today. In going back to reconstruct this history, what lives today from this time are the documents. And from this entry point, what becomes evident is the document not only as record, but as a versatile form in itself in 1980s and 1990s China to address and work within specific social, political, artistic, and economic contexts.

Through the lens of the document we are able to get a sense of how information circulated and ideas were exchanged, how exhibitions were able to bypass censorship, and the way in which artists were experimenting with and debating notions like conceptual art.

What also becomes evident is the incredible sense amongst the artistic community of being part of something bigger, of being witness to and directly participating in a new history in the making. 'These photographs are predestined to become precious images of history of Chinese modern art,' goes the statement accompanying Xiamen's burning happening, 'Some people say that if we want to be really radical, we should burn these photographs documenting the burning of artworks. If we really do it, however, who or what can prove the authenticity of the burning of artworks …?'8

Ma Liuming's performances in the East Village are well-known examples of the prominence of the camera in the planning of a performance at a time when they would have been expensive and difficult to come by; and while Mao Xuhui questions the effectiveness of the documents of performance art during 'China/Avant-Garde', it must be noted that these documents have come to stand-in for the artwork themselves today.

The documentation of artistic gatherings is not something new9, as witnessed in the historical literati gatherings whose documentation we see captured not only in paintings, but in the chops and colophons that embellish many of the famous ink paintings that have survived today. However, in comparison one might speculate how this form of documentation existed within an inner circle and in dialogue with the past, whereas the work we see happening in the 1980s and 1990s was very much to the camera as a witness to the future. One may recall the words of Chairman Mao when he said, 'The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history'—and while this can only be read with great skepticism while Mao was in power, when following the development of art in the early post-Mao decades one can only conjecture how real this must have felt.

Having worked in an archive for 16 years, what I find most promising about its form is the way in which the documents are constantly able to have multiple lives. While we speak of art histories with a capital A and H, we are constantly reminded of the individual encounters, memories, friendships, and relationships that live on deep within the stacks or servers. And how these can be resuscitated, reanimated, and reshaped to point to different concerns in the hands of an artist, researcher, curator, student, or teacher.

In bringing this full circle, I'd like to finish with '36 Calendars', the work of Beijing-artist Song Dong, which came out of a residency at Asia Art Archive and was presented in an exhibition format (co-presented with M+) in January 2013. '36 Calendars' draws on the material within AAA's collection, the artist's memories, and other key world events over a period of 36 years from when the artist was 12 years old. Taking the form of wall calendars, common to all households in China in the 1980s, each month marks a significant event during his life.

Song Dong not only mined the archive and his memories to create his own version of history, but called on the public (432 members which is 12 months x 36 years) to add another layer with their own personal interpretations. And so I leave you with a short video highlighting some of the calendar entries from the 1980s and 1990s that provide an alternative entry point to piecing together this truly extraordinary moment in time, and yet another cycle of documentation.

Acknowledgements: Research on exhibition histories in China in the 1980s and 1990s at AAA is possible because of the cumulative efforts of the team at AAA for over a decade. In particular I would like to thank Jane DeBevoise, Anthony Yung, Angela Su, Hazel Kwok, and Paul Fermin for their kind assistance with this paper.

1. As evidenced in the documentation of exhibitions prevalent in our physical and digital collections, eg. Sites of Construction, a conference on this topic we presented in October 2013 with the proceedings and reflections published in Yishu (Vol. 13, No. 2 and Vol. 13, No. 3) and Issue 4 of our e-journal Field Notes.

2. AAA's research and projects on China in the 1980s and 1990s include: Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980–1990; Hans van Dijk Archive and Joan Cohen Archive (in progress) led by AAA Chair of the Board, Jane Debevoise, and AAA Senior researcher, Anthony Yung.

3. Philippe Vergne, House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, Walker Art Center, Minnesota, 2005, pp. 56–57.

4. Anthony Yung, 'Zhou Yan in Conversation with Anthony Yung on the "China/Avant-Garde" Exhibition', The Time is Out of Joint, Vol. 2, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2016, pp. 240–337.

5. Mao Xuhui, 'A Display of Madness, Shenanigans, Art or …?: An Account of the Inaugural "China/Avant-Garde" Exhibition', The Time is Out of Joint, Vol. 2, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2016, pp. 247.

6. Julia Gwendolyn Schneider, 'Bridging the Past, Present, and Future', Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2015, pp. 12.

7. Biljana Ciric, '1999 Art for Sale', A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, 2014, pp. 354–362.

8. Philippe Vergne, House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, Walker Art Center, Minnesota, 2005, pp. 56–57.

9. This may be somewhat of a far-fetched comparison, but considering what I learnt under this roof please indulge me.