By 2019, Hong Kong will open the museum M+ as an icon of the West Kowloon Cultural District. Art commentators speculate that M+ has the potential to rival the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which houses the largest modern art collection in Europe. As a crucial supporter for its establishment, Uli Sigg, deputy chairman of the Swiss media company Ringier, donated more than 1,400 contemporary Chinese artworks to the museum that he started collecting in earnest from the 1990s. Sigg said his collection was motivated by his intention to provide "another point of access to Chinese reality" or "a way in." Lars Nittve, executive director of M+ says, "His donation means that we are in a position to tell the world about the birth of contemporary art in China. We will have the definitive collection."
What is the birth of contemporary art in China that will be another point of access? We can have a reasonable guess from the exhibition, "Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture" in 2013, which was based on Sigg's collection. Its curatorial focus was laid in the use of the image of the figure or face as a means of "the act of individual agency," aiming at exposing wider concerns about the individual's situation in China.
The tendency of presenting Chinese contemporary art as an expression of burgeoning individualism is nothing new among international curators and Western media. This is why Ai Weiwei receives their enthusiastic admiration and is often portrayed as a representative of Chinese contemporary art. Having been arrested for his activism and detained for 81 days in 2011 and still remaining under constant surveillance by the Chinese government, Ai says, "I believe the core value of an artist must be to express yourself freely and fight for the freedom of others."
It has come to the stage where one does not even have to look at Ai's artwork to know his political persona as an artist. However, his defiance against social restrictions and his advocacy of the freedom of expression mainly made him a global celebrity and he was hailed for having the rare ability to combine formal experimentation with political comment.
My major concern with the current trend is that, through the accumulation of these kinds of narratives, a categorical preference may be established in the international community that contemporary Chinese art should be viewed as an individual's sacred fight for creative expression against the backdrop of oppressive political experiences. In general, however, artists who are at the vanguard of social and political struggle are rare. Most artists work on artistic realization, consciously or unconsciously moving in and out of the context of their socio-political situation. They tend to focus on the narrow and practical limitation of the artistic facture, not necessarily on the broader and more philosophical cause or mission. Chinese artists are not exception.
For example, Xu Bing, Ai's contemporary, spoke of his seminal work, "Book from the Sky" (1987-1991) as inspired by his experience of too much reading during the so-called culture fever period that came shortly after the opening of Chinese society and the subsequent availability of many books previously prohibited from reading. What made his artwork sensational was not because of a political expression of the event but its artistic configuration in which "meanings had been emptied out after excessive consumption." Xu made Buddhist scrolls, books and newspapers that were written in systematically fake characters and presented a large-scale installation in which the fake characters engulfed the exhibition space. All these grand texts were "undecipherable and unreadable." This work powerfully reflects the cultural state that Chinese society encountered on a collective level. The artist's invention of his own rules for creating new characters indirectly alludes to the individual latitude in interpretation but the work evokes the totality of the meaninglessness of new ideas and thoughts that shrouds collective minds and feelings. It is far from a desire to fight for the freedom of expression, yet it is still a very compelling piece of work.
Another famous contemporary artist, Yin Xiuzhen, also recaptured the collective dreams of average Chinese families through her work, "Collective Subconscious" (2007). The work uses a minivan known as Xiao Mian that was coveted by many families as an emblem of the early phase of material progress and happiness. Yin explicitly expressed that she wanted to emphasize the concept of the "collective" and so used over 400 pieces of clothing collected from different people for a patch-work middle section of her work, elongating the minivan into a very long bus. Yin Xiuzhen's work is a moving portrayal of collectivist idealism. As if to mend or patch up the fabric of an individualized society, Yin tries to recall the spirit of collectivity that used to construct a life purpose for the people.
Although the opening of M+ is still about four years away, the Western media and some critics are overly excited with their prediction of a definitive narrative on contemporary Chinese art based on their own ideological preference. If one directly listens to the many well-regarded Chinese contemporary artists, they will have very different perspectives towards the relationship between the individual and the collective. It would be untruthful and a partial exaggeration if one single exclusive perspective is portrayed to dominate contemporary Chinese art. The real question for Chinese contemporary art, as well as for Asian art, is what kind of artistic narrative can be developed other than the hackneyed repetition of the liberalist credo.
Kate Lim is director of Art Platform Asia, an independent curator and art writer.