Sunday, 20 September 2009





Hu Xiangcheng belongs to a generation of Chinese artists who find themselves in a unique situation. On the one hand, they find themselves in a position to remake Chinese culture, in a way that hasn’t been possible for many generations. On the other, they find themselves called upon to represent China to the outside world.


This situation has come about through the collision of two forces. One is China’s rapid surge into the front rank, as an economic power whose influence is now felt throughout the globe. The other is the increasing acceptance of contemporary art as a major non-verbal means of communication between cultures with very different traditions.


The success of certain Chinese contemporary artists in the west has been one product of this conjunction. Flattering as this is to Chinese cultural pride, it has brought certain disadvantages with it. One of these has been a commodification of Chinese art, in response to the enthusiasm of the western market. Leading Chinese artists are expected to offer an immediately recognizable series of products. Once a painter, sculptor, photographer or maker of installations has developed a signature style, he or she is expected to stick with it. The cry is “Give us what you gave us before!”


The other disadvantage is perhaps less expected. In recent years the supposedly ‘radical’ contemporary art being made in the West has made an unexpected swerve towards a revival of Victorian values. What I mean is this – that the idea of radical or avant-garde art has become linked to a philosophy of social protest, but protest of a rather paradoxical kind, since it finds its platform within official structures – literally so, since the places where the public now most commonly encounters art of this kind is in state-supported galleries and museums. A similar phenomenon could be observed in the great official exhibitions of the immediately pre-Modern epoch. The Paris Salons of the late 19th century, for example, were rich in paintings that were impeccably academic in style, but which were, nevertheless, extremely critical of the industrial society of the period. The Modernist revolt was originally strictly about a new way of seeing. It was only at a rather later stage in its development that it became synonymous with radical politics.


A recent major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in my own country – ‘The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China’ at Tate Liverpool – is a good example of the way in which western curators have tended to force what they have found in China into a pre-conceived pattern of social protest. Not all of the exhibits could be described in this way, but a good many of the artists chosen seemed to take a slightly gloomy view of Chinese society. In addition, the interpretation of the works on view, which consisted almost entirely videos and installations, showed a strange lack of awareness of the peculiarly Chinese quality that so many of them shared - a sense of irony. No Chinese contemporary work of any quality can be safely interpreted without taking this factor into account. In Chinese literature, every text, or in this parallel case every visual statement, is accompanied by a sub-text and often, indeed, by several sub-texts.


As his exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Modern Art demonstrated very fully, Hu Xiangcheng occupies a key position in the story of the rise to international prominence of the new Chinese art.


A particular factor is his direct experience of cultures other than that of China. Normally this statement would imply that the Chinese artist concerned has spent time in the United States, or in Europe, or perhaps in both. Hu Xiangcheng’s life has not followed this pattern. He has, instead, intimate experience of Japan, and also of Africa, where his brother lives and works.


The influence of African art, specifically the rock drawings made by bushmen in the Drakensberg, in what is now South Africa, is clearly visible in some of his paintings. This cross-breeding between Chinese and African art is something entirely new. It does not occur in the Caribbean region, where there is quite a large population of Chinese descent, living side-by-side with inhabitants of African origin. The Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, perhaps the most important artist the Caribbean has produced, was half-Chinese by blood, but there is no trace of Chinese influence in his work.


The appearance of these motifs in Hu Xiangcheng’s painting is a reminder that, contrary to the assertions experts sometimes make, Chinese art has in the past been quite permeable, with a ready assimilation of ideas from other cultures. Examples are the Sassanian influence visible in T’ang artifacts, and the things that Chinese artists learned in the 18th century from European Jesuit painters such as Giuseppe Castiglione.


The impact made by Japan on Hu Xiancheng’s output is, however, much more considerable than that made by Africa. His reputation in Japan, where he has spent much time, stands very high and a number of the works in the Shanghai exhibition testify to the way in which is has absorbed Japanese aesthetic values. Though Japanese art is celebrated for its extreme refinement, Japanese connoisseurs, perhaps in reaction against this, appreciate a certain roughness – an air of total untrammeled spontaneity. This spontaneity can be found in full measure in the abstract paintings included in the show, which show a wonderfully impulsive, reckless touch.


The real proof of this impulsiveness, however, was the exhibition seen as a totality. While one could put its contents into categories – paintings, sculptures and installations – in reality the main floor of the museum functioned as a single gigantic installation, with a wild intermingling of genres and materials. This use of apparent chaos, which wasn’t in fact chaos, seemed subtly manipulated to reflect the changing nature of the Chinese environment and of Chinese society, as these can be experienced in and around Shanghai.


In one of his multiple roles, Hu Xiangcheng is well-known as a conservationist. In particular, he has played and important part is rescuing the beautiful canal village of Zhou Zhuang from reckless modernization. This village was also a favorite subject of the Chinese realist painter Chen Yifei, and  it is interesting that two artists otherwise so different from one another should have shared a passion for the same spot. Chen Yifei was responsible for calling this unique historic site, situated in Jiangsu province just 37 miles west of Shanghai, to the attention of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. It was, however, Hu Xiangchen who was largely responsible for persuading those responsible for the village that they possessed a treasure that, in the new China, with increasing Chinese interest in the past, would bring them all prosperity.


One feature of Hu Xiangcheng’s installation work is that he often incorporates fragments of carved wood rescued from old demolished houses. These fragments serve several functions. Like many contemporary Chinese artists, Hu Xiangchen’s art is often concerned wsith the symbolic. That is, certain objects or elements are more than merely visual – they are meant to evoke specific conjunctions of ideas. In this sense, they are complex pictographic signs, rather like Chinese characters, which also often rely on associations of ideas, not just on pictorial content, in order to convey meaning.


Hu Xiangcheng is also a rescuer of discarded but quite modern objects. A feature of the major installation that took up a large space in the Shanghai show was a section of concrete drain-pipe. Fixed to its inner surface were all sorts of discarded objects – children’s toys, mass-produced images of Buddha, old alarm clocks, in fact everything one might expect to find in a skip, in a wasteful consumer society. In this context it was symbolic of the way in which consumerism is invading Chinese society, especially the more urban part of it. It alo exemplified the mingling of east and west that is now so visible in China.


In another part of the installation there was a set of shelves containing old television sets, now painted in brilliant colors. Their screens were blanked out with the same colors, one each screen the paint had been scraped through to produce the image of a pair of spectacle frames. In these narrow spaces images could dimly be seen moving, as each set was live and linked to a DVD player. This assemblage seemed to offer another image of a society blinded by consumerism.


One fascinating aspect of the exhibition was the way in which it mingled plastic elements with purely emblematic ones. The most recent works in the show were a series of large abstract sculptures made of fiberglass, in preparation for final realization in stone. These were sometimes entangled with the large installation I have been describing, but also existed separately. Their quasi-organic forms linked them to works by leading Modernist sculptors working in Europe – to Barbara Hepworth, for example, but they also had strong affinities to the ‘scholar’s rocks’ that are ubiquitous in traditional Chinese garden design. At the same time, paradoxically, they often  had the air of being the husks or chrysalises from which other forms had emerged. That is, they often seemed to be about absence rather than presence: rather than being definitive forms in their own right, they alluded to things that had once been present, but that one now had to imagine.


The casual fashion in which they were placed helped to reinforce the impression made by the exhibition as a whole, which was one of exploding creative energy. This was less like a formal display of finished work, and more like a visit to the artist’s workshop, where things were still in a state of becoming. The fact that the main installation incorporated scaffolding poles, of the kind used when buildings are in a state of construction, helped to reinforce this impression. Shanghai itself often seems like a vast building site, and it seemed appropriate that the process of building should continue within the exhibition hall, as well as outside it. If one looked on the floor, one could find a group of yellow builders’ helmets that formed part of the installation.


Yet if one part of the exhibition seemed to hold up a mirror to a world in flux, another part stressed the importance of measure, and of the act of measuring. The biggest object in the show was a vast globular form, representative of the globe itself, with measuring tapes stretching away from it in every direction. It seemed to speak about two different kinds of measuring. First, the way in which we, as human beings, measure ourselves against the world – in other words, against natural phenomena. Second, the way in which the world, and everything it contains, acquire specific meaning from the observing presence of the human mind. Without this, nature has no meaning, because there is no-one there to interpret it.


As is well known, one of the ways in which the Chinese artistic tradition differs from its European counterpart is that Chinese artists give a central position to nature, whereas in Europe this is reserved for the human figure. In many ways Hu Xiangcheng’s exhibition could be read as an argument between these two traditions, and also as an attempt to reconcile them, in terms of what is happening in Chinese society today.


The exhibition was emphatically from the present moment, not least because of its use of objects and materials that are identified with the contemporary consumer society. Nevertheless one always felt within it a search for values that remained linked to traditional Chinese ways of thinking. The fact that the artist had the courage to leave certain questions unanswered, or only partly answered, made it all the more interesting. What one felt, when visiting it, was that one was being physically incorporated into a process of thinking – that one’s reactions were not external, but intimately part of the work.


Entering it, one entered a kind of labyrinth, which offered numerous clues about the nature of China today, without offering prescriptive answers. One had to make one’s way through the maze, and find one’s own exit.


Eddward Lucie-Smith


This site was last updated 20-09-2009