History of Ideas in Pioneering Contemporary Chinese Art as a History of Time
Text/ Nishimi Masao Translation by Lance Pursey
As well as a history of language the history of ideas in pioneering contemporary Chinese art is a history of time. What is normally meant by ‘history of time’, is the history of the way in which people perceive time, and naturally, how people use this concept of time. The history of ideas in pioneering contemporary Chinese art follows the same logic. To understand its history of time we need to analyse how artists express and communicate their ideas and awareness of the past, present and future.
That said, in our discussion of the history of ideas in pioneering contemporary Chinese art readers may ask why have we relegated the history of time to merely something second in importance to the history of language? Objectively speaking, all works of pioneering art take place in physical time, which is why when we discuss works of art alongside the title, creator, medium/media, materials, dimensions of a work, we list the time at which the work was produced. Critics refer to this time of creation not only to retrospectively understand the particular characteristics of the time at which the artist was living and working, but also to examine the conditions of an artist’s life at a specific period of time. The latter relates to the subjective nature of time, the psychological time in the mind of an individual artist. After all, for periods of romantic activity, periods of bad health, periods of grief and so on, there are probably works of a corresponding and nuanced nature appearing. Feng Zhengjie’s work “Life like a Flower No.2” (2006-07) and his individual exhibition “Imagery of Death and Life” (2008), both produced following the death of the artist’s parents, are examples of this.（Another example would be Mao Xuhui’s ‘A White Chair Lying Down – Summer Day’ produce following the death of the artist’s mother in July 2012.）Or, conversely, these works contain some ideas of the artist’s views on life and death and his concept of psychological time. In this case the artist couldn’t possibly have avoided dealing with his experiences of temporality. While producing this work he would have had the task of organising his limited supply of both objective physical time and the subjective psychological time, furthermore, the creative process in itself occurs as a temporal process.
The difference between the art’s history of idea and the history of art documentation (a word we use here to encompass not only works of art but also drafts and notes by the artist) manifests in the division between the diachronic and synchronic aspects of time. As a historical narrative, the history of ideas in art is very much concerned with the question of what particular time a work of art was produced, otherwise it would not be considered a history, after all the passage of physical time is what makes up history. However, the history of ideas in art is also largely preoccupied with exploring the ideas contained within works of art. The ability of ideas to extend beyond their time of inception lends the art’s history of ideas its transcendence of the temporal.
When compared with the history of art documentation, we see that the history of ideas in art is more prominently of a diachronic nature than of an synchronic one. The diachronic nature of time can be explained as a kind of temporality, time within a stretch of time. As well as discussing the ideas within a single, individual work of art, the history of ideas in pioneering contemporary Chinese art also discusses many different artists that are working within the same period of time and dealing with a similar theme. When actually writing such a history, there will undoubtedly be reference to the backgrounds and art documentation of individual artists, the goal of such an inclusion would be to better highlight the connective logic of artistic ideas over related periods of ten or twenty years in the artists’ careers.
I will endeavour in this book, as a history of ideas in pioneering contemporary Chinese art, to inquire into the roots of artistic ideas in the minds of the artists as individuals. I will also make efforts to underline the special value of such ideas within the overall milieu of contemporary culture. The scope of this investigation will look at the twenty years of time between 1993 and 2013.
Readers may ask why I choose to restrict myself to these twenty years of Chinese contemporary art. I have stated in previous publications, “Contemporary art, in the west is a term used to describe the postmodern current in art since the 1960s, often epitomised in media such as installation art, performance art, video art, land art, which seek to express human life in its entirety… In China, the ’85 New Wave (with the ‘China/Avant-Garde Exhibition of 1989 as the ending point, and the oil painting exhibition at the 1990s Guangzhou Biennale as an echo), could be seen as similar to the period of art history in the West that was initiated by the Impressionists and stretched from the second half of the 19th century through to the modernist period of the 1960s; while the period of time starting in 1993 which saw 13 Chinese artists took part in 45th Venice Biennale’s ‘A Journey East’ exhibition and the ‘Chinese Art of the 90s: China Experience’ exhibition to now, is more like the contemporary period of Western art. I say the two are similar, because China’s contemporary art has synthesised both the modern and postmodern cultural ideas of the West, however in the sense of system and structure, the art world remains today in a pre-modern state.”（ Zha, Changping, “Dangdai Yishu Zhong de Shounan Tuxiang” Images of Suffering in Contemporary Art, in Wenyi Yanjiu Studies of Literature and Art, 11(2009),117.） For now I will refer to such a phenomenon as ‘mixed modern’. The ’85 New Wave, with regard to its artistic language, was at its root an imitation of Western modern and postmodern art. Conceptually however, some works were relevant and linked to the China’s society at that time. Nevertheless, the significance and meaning of this mixing of pre-modern, modern and postmodern ideas in Chinese contemporary art can be traced back to several individual pieces of work that came out of the 1980s.
As for the concept of time in works of pioneering art, the present is mostly emphasised, and the past and future are more overlooked. There are in fact several potential concepts of time. You may have a concept of time focused on the past, where time starts in the past, progresses through the present and moves toward the future. The problem with maintaining this concept is that the past is always disappearing slipping away from the present and unable to truly act as the starting point of time. On the other hand, the concept of time that gives precedence to the future, and sees time starting in the future and passing through the present on its way to the past, is equally problematic. The future has not yet arrived and thus cannot legitimately act as a starting point of time going on to arrive at the present. Any work that contains either of these concepts, probably has a sort of vague or uncertain element to its image, because any work that posits the future or the past as starting points of time for an artist are objects of the imagination. If one attempts to envision an idea of time where the past loses that which makes it the past and the future loses that which makes it the future, the resultant imagery can be very obscure and perplexing. Really though, the past can only become the past by way of the present, the future has to be reached before the present can become the future. Because of this, as far as the real existence of time is concerned, the present is the true origin and centre of time. In the assorted writings and conversations of artists, many use the ephemeral-feeling word ‘now’ (dang xia – which translates as the moment we are in) to express this ‘present’ that is the starting point of time, although this ‘now’ while describing an instant of time actually implies a relatively long passage of time (checked by Zha Changping).
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