SCALO Books have just published Beijing resident Karen Smith’s Nine Lives – The Birth of Avante-Garde in New China, and she was at Timezone8 Books in 大山子艺术区 Dashanzi Art District, a couple of weeks ago talking about it.
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in China
In the early 1990s, the idea of contemporary art in China simply did not compute to a foreign audience. But in 1993, ten contemporary Chinese artists debuted at the 48th Venice Biennale. They were immediately hailed as progenitors of a Chinese “avant-garde.” Their brightly colored, Pop Art-inspired paintings played with socialist motifs, parodied Mao, and gave a visual expression to the feelings of disaffected Chinese youth. They were everything western audiences expected of contemporary art from the People‘s Republic of China. But a number of critics were rather guarded in their opinions. Was this another flash-in-the-pan phenomenon just as Soviet art had been in the 1980s? Could a Chinese avant-garde maintain a distinct identity of its own and shake off its penchant for imitation? The answer is clearly “yes.”The emergence of a market for their art transformed the lives of these avant-garde pioneers from rags to riches, from outcast to hero, from social pariah to cutting-edge cool in a Chinese society adapting to a new era. They did not change but China has changed. The ideology they once had to fight now propagates a cultural climate of laissez-faire that is tantamount to encouragement. Set against China’s official program of modernization, Nine Lives paints a compelling picture of artists working beyond the pale of official culture, who started a new cultural revolution that is sweeping China today.