AN ERASURE IN THREE ACTS: XIAMEN DADA

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE May 2010 issue.

 

Zürich, 1916. The war is in full swing in Europe, but a group of artists, enjoying the haven of Swiss military neutrality, establish Cabaret Voltaire. It quickly becomes the center stage for the Dada movement, defined as antiart, anti–war, nihilistic and transgressive.

Erase the traces of bourgeois life urged Brecht in 1926 and that is precisely what the Dadaists did. Everything was criticized and demolished, from the colonial perspective, the Enlightenment’s cult of reason to Dada itself. Unsurprisingly perhaps, while living in Zürich, Lenin was a regular of the Cabaret Voltaire. The nihilistic drive of the dadaists proved to be an invaluable example in the orchestration of another major “erasure”: The October Revolution of 1917. The seeds for utopia were planted and the next following decades witnessed a widespread struggle for its realization.

Beijing, 1966. The promise of a new world and the call for revolution had been shaping the Chinese society since Mao Zedong became the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 1943. The most printed book in the twentieth century, Quotations from Chairman Mao had laid the foundations for the Cultural Revolution to come. Claiming that the threat of restoring capitalism was growing, Mao called for a re–activation of class struggle and permanent revolution. As propaganda posters advocated, the “erasure” of the old world was crucial, in order to build a new one. Many ancient monuments and artworks were eliminated, the extent of this destruction still being unclear. At the same time, Mao’s Little Red Book, as was known in the West, was widely read and appreciated, especially by young students, disillusioned by the right–wing politics of their countries. But none could foresee the disastrous effects the Cultural Revolution had on Chinese economy and society.

In 1976, when Mao died, the opposing forces within the Communist Party gained momentum and China slowly advanced towards an epoch of reform and “opening–up” towards the West. Cultural Revolution had been abandoned, but what was there to be done when the world had been swept clean?

Xiamen, 1986. The port city of Xiamen, located in southeastern China, was one of the first special economic zones, areas that enjoyed more liberal economic policies than the rest of the country and were especially designed to attract foreign investment. This city, as Zürich had been in 1916 for the Dadaists, became a safe ground for a collective of young Chinese artists. Inspired by the vitality of a new wave of experimental art and by the recent influx of Western art theoretical writings, Xiamen Dada was formed in 1986. It included artists such as Huang Yong Ping, Cha Lixiong, Liu Yiling, Lin Chun and Jiao Yaoming, that would later become one of the leading figures of contemporary Chinese art.

In the climate of developing political dissent and social problems, new sources of inspiration were cited: Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Taoism and Zen Buddhism. On one hand, the Western avant–garde, not yet fully accepted and on the other hand, traditional Chinese culture that had been undermined during the Cultural Revolution offered a suitable background for this subversive, radical collective. Interested in notions such as haphazard, nihilism or absence, they wrote manifestos, organized happenings or burned their previously exhibited artworks.

Their creative ethos is best exemplified in actions such as Huang Yong Ping’s The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes, during which two popular art history books Wang Bomin’s The History of Chinese Painting and Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting were transformed into an undistinguishable mass of celulose. Thus, a third erasure was performed, creating a new, clean slate for art practice. Both the millenial tradition of Chinese painting, mutilated by the Cultural Revolution and the recently discovered Western avantgarde art were refused and obliterated in a two–minute washing cycle. But, like any other idealistic attempt at total resistance, it was short–lived.

Epilogue. The brutal repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 offered a harsh lesson to that new wave of artists and intellectuals. Cynicism became a prevalent attitude and it’s no wonder that today’s bestselling Chinese contemporary art exports are “cynical realist” works, ironical renditions of propaganda images. A sense of hopelessness and an utter subjection to commercialism have grappeled most of the contemporary art scene. Huang Yong Ping, the leading member of Xiamen Dada now lives and Paris and is courted by private galleries and influential institutions for his monumental, conceptually sophisticated installations. One cannot ignore the question that is immediatedly raised: Is this the logical conclusion of succesive erasures?

Artwork: Designer unknown. ca. 1967. Scatter the old world, build a new world (chineseposters.net)

by Simina Neagu

Full article here.