An opinion piece on the current state of avant-garde art in Beijing brought to mind a conversation I’d had in Guangzhou with someone who’d been around the scene, the day before I left. My impression both from a distance, and through what I’d seen of the art which made the journey south to Guangzhou was there was something unique and vibrant in alot of the pieces compared to much of what I’d recently seen in Australia where a beige suburban middle-aged monotony is creeping through the galleries. Their response was increasingly much of the avant-garde had become a repetition of ever-more desperate attempts to shock, and a pervasive hollowness had overcome the formerly daring experimentation.
The opinion piece, Beijing Underground reiterates this, seeing in the Maoist and Chinese-culture pop-art an “oppositionist simplicity”, and in the performance art an extremist-induced numbness, against which the bland populism of filmmaker Feng Xiaogang is held up as a talented exception. Much of the piece is devoted to an almost pornographic fascination with the details of works by artists like Peng Yu and Liu Zheng, who along with others are regulars on That’s Beijing‘s Starving Artist pages, whose work in part belongs within the history of a specific performance art which reached hilarious depths of depravity with Throbbing Gristle and the 80’s industrial scene.
Negation is no longer creative.”Pi Li, a young Beijing critic and curator, has made a similar point. “Chinese artists,”he says, “are bent on destruction, on saying ‘no.’They can’t get themselves to say ‘yes.’In other words, they can only deconstruct power, they cannot manifest the necessary power to construct. We challenge, we attack, we resist, but we don’t pro-actively build.”There is only so much hardcore avantgarde art one can absorb before one’s senses are numbed.
Beijing, unlike Shanghai or the rest of China, has an edge, doubtless because it doubles as the country’s political capital. It’s a difficult, in-your-face city. It is not frightening; merely hard and uncompromising, not-pleasant or soothing. The art to come out of Beijing has such an edge, as well.
This edge has been co-opted, and softened, by commercialism but it retains certain raw elements. These raw elements may grow further if social or political conflict arises, in which case the art may seem prescient.