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Exhibition explores rapid economic and social change in 1990s China
Installation view. Courtesy UCCA.

BEIJING.- From August 31 to November 24, 2019, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art presents the group exhibition “Society Guidance: Part II,” featuring work by Chen Zhen (1955 – 2000, Shanghai), Huang Jingyuan (b. 1979, Xi’an), Li Juchuan (b. 1964, Shashi, Hubei province), Double Fly Art Center (established 2008), Shi Yong (b. 1963, Shanghai), Xing Danwen (b. 1967, Xi ’an), Xu Tan (b. 1957, Wuhan), and Xu Yong (b. 1954, Shanghai), made during, or in relation to, the 1990s. Also included is a special presentation devoted to Wildlife Art Project (initiated 1997), a unique art program of the period.

The exhibition is a continuation of “Society Guidance: Part 1,” exhibited from May 18 to August 18, 2019, which presented artworks together with a reading room of archival materials, to outline for viewers the wider context of rapid economic and social change in 1990s China. Artists responded to changing moral standards and incipient commercialism through a variety of strategies , some retreating from the social sphere while others dove headlong into emerging consumer culture. The second installment of “Society Guidance” focuses on the latter half of the 1990s, a time of profound change, which deepened and continued the economic reforms first initiated in 1978. The transformation of China’s economic system, social structures, and cultural life in the beginning of the decade prompted an uncertain atmosphere that carried over into the following years, which would see the further decline of the Enlightenment culture that defined the country’s intellectual life in the 1980s, along with the emergence of the Internet, and increased awareness of the outside world.

The artworks gathered here encapsulate how the artists understood and reacted to the era, as they expressed themselves through a wider range of mediums and artistic languages than previously available to their predecessors. Artists explored themes including individual identity, feminism, economic marketization, urbanization, and personal mobility, attempting to find artistic truth or a spiritual center in the midst of the constantly changing reality around them. “Society Guidance: Part II” presents a snapshot of the 1990s as a moment when a multitude of new directions emerged in Chinese society and contemporary art, while also sharing a range of differing perspectives on the ostensibly “incomplete” cultural landscape of the time. The exhibition is curated by UCCA Head of Exhibitions Bian Ka, who has previously engaged with related themes through his own practice as a critic and curator of independent projects.

“Society Guidance” (Renjian Zhinan, 人 间 指 南) takes its title from the fictional magazine at the center of the 1991 Chinese television comedy Stories from the Editorial Board (Bianjibu de Gushi, 编辑部的故事). Featuring some of the biggest stars of the day, including Ge You and L Liping, the program humorously introduced emerging social phenomena, shaping the public imaginary of the period. As such, the title may also be understood as referring to the desire for a new and durable system of values at a time of constant change, defined by new economic paradigms, shifting social norms, and collective feelings of anxiety and confusion.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the majority of people in China—artists included—faced the same rapidly evolving reality, and used whatever means possible to make themselves part of the ongoing transformation, in the hopes of coming out on top. Whether one is undertaking academic analysis of the period, or attempting to indirectly grasp recent history through art, this specific context must be taken as a starting point to understand and evaluate artistic practices of the 1990s.

In theory, discussing Chinese art of the 1990s is not so difficult: in the context of wider society the era is very clearly bookended, its beginning and end marking major historical turning points. Furthermore, a select group of Chinese artists experienced their first encounter with international acclaim and market success. However, this does not mean the decade can be defined according to a single set model, or that its art historical significance has as yet been definitively determined. The 1990s are still an open structure, a condition stemming from their “incompleteness.” This unfinished state can be understood in two ways: artists of the time were still at the stage of experimenting with their personal languages, and in the midst of societal change, it remained uncertain what space would remain for the survival of artists and creative expression.

By the last few years of the 1990s, a handful of young people in China were already using modems (nicknamed mao, meaning “cat”) to access the internet over telephone lines, stepping into unexplored vistas and forming new connections. But the online age had not yet arrived in a meaningful sense: the 1990s were still defined by traditional media. At the same time, people were already considering what it might mean to be a global citizen. Embarrassed by the relative economic situation of their country, Chinese artists oriented themselves towards the wider world, working between local realities and international aspirations. Yet at the time the majority of them had no way to obtain any real support, nor the chance to form anything approaching today ’s international art system. Failing to receive a warm welcome either at home or abroad, artists instead looked inward to progress through their own cultural consciousness. They believed that through continuing their own practice , they could eventually
achieve cultural liberation. In this sense, artists were optimistic, looking forward to a more receptive future.

In the 1990s neither the art market nor museum system were well established in China, though the “incompleteness” of contemporary art was not merely due to these material circumstances. The struggle to survive and create art in a semi-underground setting, detached from official systems, also originated from a more philosophical
uncertainty, that of contemporary art’s own doubts over its own growth and maturity. This led artists to focus on the act of making art itself, rather than creating a finished product. Meanwhile, accelerated urban change and a re-ordering of personal relations threw into question the role of the artist within society.

In the 1990s Xu Tan and Shi Yong lived in China’s south and east, respectively (as they still do). These two regions were already the country ’s most prosperous areas, so compared to elsewhere there was space to accommodate art. But the issue of how artists fit into the rest of society remained unsettled, and this tension came to define their experience, fueling their practice. In Beijing, Xing Danwen and Xu Yong worked with their cameras at hand. They were not particularly enthused about joining the art community, and instead drifted around its periphery. As an architect Li Juchuan espoused an attitude of wandering without fixed address to build his understanding of urban space. Chen Zhen settled in France, yet in his hands references to global issues and identity always returned to Chinese classical literature and philosophy. As an experimental art program, Wildlife Art Project proposed a way of thinking about art without an exhibition space or form, instead taking place over an undefined number of locations according to the individual circumstances of participating artists, who created work all around the country over a set time period. This project by 27 artists presents a fairly comprehensive view of the breadth of art practices present in the 1990s, along with a glimpse of the “wild,” quasi -underground conditions of the contemporary art scene.

Throughout the 1990s, artists were able to build new knowledge, imagery, and structures, though they operated in separate groups, unable to construct a sense of wholeness across geographic distance and differing understandings of identity and the body. “Society Guidance: Part II” attempts to present a vision of the 1990s true to the decade’s fragmented nature. The inclusion of work by Double Fly Art Center and Huang Jingyuan helps the viewer locate traces and afterimages of the 1990s in the practice of artists that did not actually enter the art world until after the new millennium. For their pieces in the exhibition, these artists from a younger generation have not re -imagined or paid tribute to the 1990s, but instead re -examined and reviewed the decade. In doing so they expand our understanding of the state of Chinese contemporary art as it stood poised to enter a new century.

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