Art of Change: New Directions from China (7 September – 9 December 2012) presents some of the most interesting art to come out of mainland China over the past three decades. The first major exhibition in the UK to focus on contemporary installation and performance art from China, it brings together works by nine of the country’s most innovative artists and artist groups from the 1980s to today – Chen Zhen,
Yingmei Duan, Gu Dexin, MadeIn Company, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu , Wang Jianwei and Xu Zhen. Comprising 40 works, the exhibition will show significant early examples of the artists’ work, alongside recent pieces and new commissions.
In China, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, installation and performance art emerged as defiantly new, controversial and subversive art forms in China. Until around 2000 installations were largely unrecognised by the governmental art system in China, and performance art – which had never been officially sanctioned – was banned following the opening of the exhibition China/Avant-Garde in Beijing in February 1989, when the artist Xiao Lu fired pistol shots into her glass installation Dialogue, an action that caused the exhibition to be temporarily closed down. Following this event, performance art went underground for a time, with works being performed in private for invited audiences. While the two art forms have gradually become more integrated into the official art system since 2000, performance art remains unrepresented in public art institutions.
Against this historical backdrop, installation and performance art have developed with a spirit of innovation, risk-taking and independence that’s set them apart from work made in more traditional media. In particular, many artists working in this area have drawn on the special characteristics of installation and performance to explore notions of impermanence and transformation. As exhibitions in China always ran the risk of being closed down by the authorities, there was considerable practical advantage if the works were by definition transitory, and where the focus was more on the artistic process than the finished artwork. At the same time, the idea of change – impermanence as an undeniable and inescapable fact of human existence – is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy. Art of Change: New Directions from China argues that this has led artists to positively embrace transformation and transience as key themes running through much of contemporary Chinese installation and performance art.
Each artist in the exhibition presents works that alter their appearance over time or convey a powerful sense of volatility in some way – from fleeting images of objects thrown out of a box to evolving structures made by live silk worms; from a person magically floating above the gallery floor to a wildly thrashing hose pipe dancing through space.
Stephanie Rosenthal, Chief Curator, Hayward Gallery, said:
“All of the artists avoid the classical notion of a work of art and allow the artistic process to take centre stage. We see things in this show that redefine what we can expect from an artwork – offering us something very unconventional from a Western perspective.”
Highlights of the exhibition include:
In Chen Zhen’s (b.1955- d.2000) Purification Room (2000) everyday items such as a bed, chair, refrigerator and TV are collected together locally and covered in a layer of mud which dries, cracks and changes its colour – in the artist’s words it is a ‘sort of archaeology of the future’, presenting today’s objects as they will be unearthed in future years.
Known for her performance work, Yingmei Duan (b. 1969) describes her role as that of a “curious observer who asks questions of all facets of life.” She lived in the legendary art district of Beijing’s East Village and participated in the performance To add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), considered one of the classics of Chinese modern art. She became a pure performance artist under the influence of Marina Abramović, with whom she studied with in Germany from 2000 to 2004. Duan will be present throughout the exhibition hosting workshops and performing Happy Yingmei (2011/12) in the exhibition.
Although Gu Dexin (b. 1962) had no formal art education he is regarded as one of the pioneers of transient, site-specific installations in China, featuring in the legendary exhibition China/Avant-Garde (1989) in Beijing. From the outset of his career, when he started making installations, Gu had no interest in creating finished works of art. He has worked with raw meat, pigs’ brains and other perishable materials such as fruits and insects, and says: ‘The main thing for me has never been making work, but simply thinking’. In 16. 06.1997-13.06.1998 he spent a year kneading raw pieces of meat until all the fluids have been expelled. Photographs of each piece of meat, plus the actual petrified flesh, will be shown in the exhibition.
The exhibition presents a selection of works by Liang Shaoji (b. 1945), from his Nature Series begun in 1988. The artist choreographs the activities of silkworms and explores all the phases of their lives from birth to death, causing them to weave their silk webs around sculptural objects such as hanging chains and tiny, individually-made beds. In the artist’s words, ‘Though there’s a traditional cultural background, the Silk Road, behind it, I don’t think it’s necessary to repeat the past. Instead I try to make silk stand for the line of human beings, and also the history of human beings and silkworms’.
Since the late 1990s Peng Yu (b.1974) and Sun Yuan (b. 1972) have worked as an artist couple. Their often spectacular works have ranged from installations and performances to sculpture and video art – their work Old Person’s Home (2007), depicting decrepit figures in wheelchairs looking suspiciously like world leaders, was shown at the Saatchi Gallery in 2009. For this exhibition they present Freedom(2008), in which water from a high pressure hose gushes into a specially constructed space on the outside Hayward terrace. Through a window the audience watch as the hose thrashes and jerks around, spraying water indiscriminately. They also present a new sculptural work I Didn’t Notice What I am Doing (2012) featuring a triceratops and a rhinoceros.
Wang Jianwei’s (b.1954) work encompasses performance, video, documentary films, sculpture, theatre and animation. From the outset Wang was interested in converging art with his daily life – inCiruclation; Sowing and Harvesting (1993-4) he worked on the land cultivating a wheat crop. His multi-screen video installation Making to do with the Fakes (2011) incorporates a misshapen ping pong table. Each visitor is allowed to hit just one ball across the table, and the rules of the game stipulate that the ball must remain where it comes to rest.
In 2009, Xu Zhen (b. 1977) ended his career as an individual artist and instead set up a team of cultural workers, MadeIn Company to produce all his future works. The exhibition shows both earlier works by Xu Zhen such as In the Blink of an Eye (2005) which presents a human floating freely in the gallery space – how the artist achieves this remains a mystery – and works by MadeIn Company like Action of Consciousness (2011). This work consists of 48 different sculptures which fly upwards from inside a large white cube box, the sculptures only visible in motion for a few seconds.
A specially-created interactive archive tracing the development of installation and performance art in China from 1979 to today forms the backbone of the exhibition. Presented through an innovative digital interface created by Land Ahoy, the archive is comprised of short descriptions of over 130 performances, exhibitions and art events, as well as images, and expert commentary.
Published to coincide with the exhibition, this fully illustrated book features a central text by Stephanie Rosenthal plus critical essays and individual texts on the artists featured. Contributors include artist and curatorColin Chinnery; Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, University of Nottingham, Paul Gladston; Director of Office of Contemporary/ Lecturer in East Asian Art Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, Katie Hill; curator Carol Lu; curator and critic Karen Smith; writer Philip Tinari; independent curator Pauline Yao; curator and critic Zhu Zhu.
Art of Change: New Directions from China opens on 7 September and runs to 9 December
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
Information and tickets: 0844 847 9910
Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, occupying a 21-acre site that sits in the midst of London’s most vibrant cultural quarter on the South Bank of the Thames. The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Southbank Centre is home to the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery as well as The Saison Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection. www.southbankcentre.co.uk