All under one sky

China is changing the world. Day by day now, the country usurps the United States’ claim to global leadership. China succeeded in all but destroying traditional culture with its notorious Cultural Revolution by using drastic political visual campaigns. However, today, an immense disorientation has set in in the wake of an unstoppable transformation of that country’s social reality. In particular, it is art that reflects the outcome of this transformation, taking on a new face almost every day.

In responding to the hypermodern rapidity overrunning China’s material past, artists increasingly ask questions about what is Chinese in Chinese art. For example, just take architectural heritage: more building stock has been destroyed by the government in the past ten years than between 1949 and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

«China, I love you!»

The vanishing of traditional lifeworlds is accompanied by a permanent redefinition of what has been lost. Wang Qingsong monumentalises the outrageous momentum of a new ‘religiosity’ in stupendous large-scale installations. Countless devout singers of patriotic communist songs perfectly match the trend toward religious devotion. Since the singing of Mao’s red songs was encouraged by the communist party on occasion of its 90th birthday, the parks resound with choirs of hundreds of people chanting “China, I love you!” in perfectly nostalgic solidarity.

However, the youngest generation––heirs to a 4,000-year-old culture—are in search of an identity more in tune with the promises conveyed in the visual language of lifestyle advertisements that, paradoxically, are charged with the quasi-religious powers of old myths. While these iconographies weaken the boundaries between Sinicisation, retraditionalisation and nationalism, the government uses the explosive powers of popular culture to reinforce its own agenda. A commercial advertisement of a ‘Western’ or capitalist character is now being exploited in support of the government’s strategic message of Chineseness.

Simultaneously and paradoxically, in the course of this renaissance of traditions, the government purges school textbooks of Mao’s pictures, or ‘modernises’ historic jargons of propaganda. For many years, artists like Zhang Dali are commenting on this tinkering with images, while at the same time debunking fictitious hero-myths that serve the pervasive forces of multinational capitalism as much as they fit the agenda of the Chinese government’s most recent five-year plan. Both share a pragmatic interest in the build-up of powerful creative industries designed to be simultaneously Chinese and international. From now until 2015, the government plans to build more than 1,000 museums. There are presently more than 3,200 museums as well as thousands of galleries throughout the country. Soft power has become the buzzword of cultural diplomacy.

Subtle distinctions

China’s most famous blogger is Han Han, who is celebrated by many users as a superstar—a new Lu Xun. He sees the internet with its more than 500 million users as the most important stage for free culture in China. According to him art owes its speedy linkage with “non-local cultures” (i.e. the global arts scene) exclusively to the new media. Thus, he concludes that the contemporary art history of China is about as old as the digital age.

The aspect of “timelessness” features rather prominently in the topical writings of Lu Xun, who is firmly committed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. This principal idea can be seen in the works of artists such as Lin Tianmiao, or Cui Xiuwen, and modifies the virtual avatars of Xiaoyan Fan. These artists’ recent interpretations of traditional symbols or magical practice found in the canonical books (e.g., Feng-Shui or the cult of ancestors) runs through all kinds of genres. Beyond all abstract goal setting, the unfathomable inventory of traditional texts encountered in the Chinese classics or opera are teeming with dragons, tigers, and god-men and anthropomorphic and theriomorphic gods—above all Sun Wukong, the monkey king.

When I ask photographic artist Chi Peng in his Beijing studio about the reason for this adoption, he starts to rhapsodise about the Chinese classics. Sun Wukong, whom he chose as an artistic double a couple of years ago, dominates popular culture as a literary iconic figure with his magical power of shapeshifting into 72 different forms. He had already figured in a TV series in the 1980s. In his series Journey to the West (2007), Chi Peng transposes the classic tale into virtual space, taking as a role model compositions of the Song-dynasty, when Wang Shen (1048–1104) was one of the founders of typical Song Shan Shui (water-mountain) landscape painting.