Getting to Know Contemporary Art in China: Lu Peng
Lu Peng and Gabriele Sassone in Conversation
Lu Peng, the first curator of an art biennial in China and the author of essential books on contemporary Chinese art, opens up here about his recent assignment to the directorship of MOCA Yinchuan; the effects of the Second Yinchuan Biennial on the territory, the population, and the economy; and the history of Chinese art—its emergence, its fundamental exhibitions, and its role in the global art market.
GABRIELE SASSONE: In 1992 you were the first curator of an art biennial in China. And now your most recent position is the directorship of MOCA Yinchuan, where on June 9 the second Yinchuan Biennial, curated by Marco Scotini, opened. The title, Starting from the Desert: Ecologies on the Edge, approaches crucial themes of our time, such as the problems of minorities, the environment, and relations between East and West. How is this biennial different from other significant art events in China recently?
LU PENG: Although there are many of them, and much commentary on them, it is hard to have a clear overview of the state of biennials in China. However, as regards the latest editions in Shanghai, Starting from the Deserttakes a clear and precise stance. Marco Scotini carried out much research on the local context and its history, together with its unexpressed possibilities and future perspectives. The desert has become a site for rich critical discourse, where a number of countries dialogue. So, it has been relatively easy to involve the public, and get them informed about the reflections carried by the artist’s work and by the entire biennial. A few specialists say the Shanghai case has been more experimental and much narrower in focus. Certainly, between these two research modes, it is not simple to say which is the best. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the social and artistic Chinese context, I prefer Scotini’s. Moreover, I believe it’s time to read, to notice, and to think through the long history of philosophy in China in order to address the real social problems. Perhaps this is the direction that art needs in order to move forward.
GS: What are the effects of a biennial based on a territory, in particular its relation to the local economy?
LP: A research as focused on the territory as the Yinchuan Biennial can really motivate the local population to approach the contemporary art world—to study it and get to know it better. Although it is difficult to evaluate the benefits in a short period of time, also regarding the economy of the country or region, we expect future positive developments. By continuing to organize the biennial at MOCA, we hope the visitors’ flow not only supports the cultural trade of Yinchuan, but also drives other institutions to create new infrastructures devoted to art and culture.
GS: You have written, among many other books, Fragmented Reality (Charta, 2012) and AHistory of Art in 20th Century China (Somogy, 2013), two essential references for the study of contemporary Chinese art. From your perspective, when did contemporary art arise in China, and how did it happen?
LP: Answering your question is not easy. We could say that Chinese contemporary art has run parallel with economic reforms, laying its fundamentals around the 1980s. From a linguistic and conceptual point of view, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Chinese art opened up to the Western public at large. Before that, the majority of artists were still working in the wake of modernism. In particular, starting in 1989, we witnessed some big changes: starting with the Venice Biennale of 1993, many Chinese artists began taking part in international exhibitions. It became almost a cliché: “taking the Western train.” Only then, along the lines of the European model, we began to hear the word “contemporary” in the art scene. Actually, the complexity of Chinese art history can be reduced to “modern” and “contemporary” categories only with difficulty. It seems a tangled process, but I try to make it clear in my books.
GS: The 1990s marked the conclusive consecration of Chinese art on the global market. As a key protagonist in this significant event, what can you say about how an economic art system is built from scratch?
LP: Since the beginning, Chinese contemporary art has had a complicated, sometimes difficult, association with the art markets. From 1949 to 1989 there was the idea that art belonged to a mystic life only, and it could not have any relation with trading. Anybody who thought differently was accused of being too close to capitalist systems and reported to the government. Then in 1992 Deng Xiaoping started working to introduce in China a market open to promoting the circulation of capital in the form of artworks and artists. Nowadays, the art market is officially legal and, indeed, it has its own magazine, Art-Fair, which addresses also the Western situation. In the same year, we staged the Guangzhou Biennale (closer to an art fair than a biennial). On this occasion I received many criticisms for welcoming trade into the art world. But over the years this format has expanded across all of China, and the number of art fairs, galleries, and auction houses has increased rapidly. In the last twenty years, we’ve seen wider debate about the great value that contemporary art has gained. Moreover, the beginning of free trade loosened the ideological control of the government: now the regulation is more economic than political or governmental. I am not saying that the political sphere has completely lost its importance, but that the situation has evolved.
GS: How would you describe the Chinese curatorial approach?
LP: Nowadays, China offers a wide overview of well-structured exhibitions, not only solo, but also group shows in galleries and museums. Currently, there are many researches in progress to determine a chronology of exhibitions crucially important for Chinese art history in the last forty years. Among these I would certainly name China-Avant-Garde (Beijing, 1989), Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair (1992), Post 89 (Hong Kong, 1993), the 3rd Shanghai Biennale in 2000, and the 2002 Guangzhou Triennial. But these are just few examples among many.
GS: What is the relationship between the audience and contemporary art? From a European point of view, the growth opportunities seem enormous.
LP: The Chinese audience is quite different from the European one, in that most people do not know much about contemporary art or, maybe, about art in general. But thanks to profound changes in the educational field and in the economic and cultural spheres, there are many more people visiting galleries and museums. It is safe to assume that in the coming years, the art audience in China will grow significantly.
GS: In the Chinese scene you stand out for your transversal art approach. By this I mean that you have been involved in teaching, publishing, writing, critique, and curating. What can you say about your method of research, and your reference models?
LP: This a quite complicated question. I will try to answer briefly. In the 1980s I started to study English in order to be able to translate Western books about the theory and history of art, such as texts by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin’s letters, The Spiritual in Art (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape into Art (1949) by Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dalí’s monographs, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, many more. At that time I wrote many articles about Western art. From 1989 on, I focused on modern and contemporary art in China. I wrote several books about those subjects, together with a number of monographic researches on artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, which were published in French and English. Aiming to attract the huge Chinese audiences to art, I wrote A History of Art in 20th Century China, which has also become part of the mandatory curriculum in the Chinese academies. I believe that my grounding in Western art has helped me delve deeper into the Chinese context, bearing in mind, though, the differences between the two cultural frames of reference. Hence, we cannot entirely export either model, Western or Chinese, as their ways of examining and exploring the environment, and the environments they have been living in, differ completely. For example, Chinese readers know Herbert Read, Ernst Gombrich, and other masters pretty well. Mainly from Read, we may deduce a deep interest in the visual element of the artistic language. But in looking at twentieth-century Chinese art, we cannot be limited to consider only visuals: the political, cultural, and social elements are too relevant to disregard. By the 1980s a new manner of looking at art, and culture in general, taught us to be free and open-minded. Therefore, in the act of writing the Chinese history of art, we should prioritize finding our own way of interpreting the spirit of the time.
We would like to thank Valentina Avanzini, Laura Colantonio and Shuai Yin for collaborating in the editing of this interview.