Art & art criticism / July 2011 (Issue 14)

China-ism II: Democracy or Economy? (Curatorial Introduction)

by David Rong

The following piece is based on the curatorial introduction for China-ism II: Democracy or Economy?, an exhibition which will be presented in Fall 2011 and is being curated by me and Alex Demko. The exhibition asks the question: "If China is already changing the world, will the world change China?" It will present more than twenty new oil paintings and several installations by the Ukrainian-American artist Anton S. Kandinsky (see some of his works in this issue of Cha) as well as one original photograph and documentary film by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Since China has become one of the world's economic powerhouses, Chinese contemporary art can be seen as a last Viagra for the contemporary art world. When Andy Warhol transformed Mao into a pop art icon through his larger than life portrait, Mao officially entered the world art scene and became a timeless symbol of what artist Anton S. Kandinsky calls "China-ism." Since the 1990s, Chinese contemporary art has played a large role in the global art world and market as evidenced in numerous publications, exhibitions and auction results. Today, the price of art by certain Chinese contemporary artists is sky-high, and some can be said not only to be leaders of the Chinese art world but of the art world as a whole. Yet we might ask, is China's rise to "savior" of our declining world a reality or is it simply a hopeful myth, kept afloat by the contemporary art market? We can only wait and see.

The first China-ism exhibition was curated by me and Alex Demko at Art Next Gallery in Chelsea in October 2009. It was the first exhibition by the New York-based Ukrainian-American artist Anton S. Kandinsky to present a series of paintings and two installations on the subject of China addressing the topics of culture, politics and economy. As this exhibition demonstrated, the notion of China-ism is a way for us, the global art community, to view and consider aspects of contemporary China. China-ism is "an alternative modern China" in the contemporary art world.
Anton S. Kandisky
If Vassili Kandinsky's art is representative of revolutionary change in the early twentieth century, then Anton S. Kandinsky (his great-grandson) has upheld his family's tradition and followed in the footsteps of his forefather. Well-known for his Gemism paintings, which are works inspired by and decorated with gemstones, Anton S. Kandinsky founded the movement in New York in 2004. Gemism is composed of realistic images of gemstones intermingled with flags, ideograms, political figures and celebrities as well as historical and social iconography from China, the former Soviet Union and American pop culture.

In his 2008 exhibition Meditation of Weapons in Chicago, Anton S. Kandinsky reflected on his family's artistic tradition and showcased his pop art style. Important to his oeuvre is the work of Andy Warhol, which is considered in today's art world to be mainstream and ubiquitous. Warhol's Coca-Cola and 25 Colored Marilyns are representative of aspects of a post-industrial consumer society referred to by Jean Baudrillard in his notion of hyperreality and simulation as well as by Walter Benjamin in his classic text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. However, when Warhol painted Mao, the artist expressed an illustration of contemporary politics in addition to giving an artistic interpretation of contemporary China. Here, politics not only entered art, but art entered politics, going beyond Baudrillard's hyperreality and simulation and subverting Benjamin's mechanical reproduction of the aura of art. As a result, Warhol became one of the most significant figures of twentieth century art.

Is Anton S. Kandinsky's painting I do not want to become Stalin, I want to be Mao Zedong, which was exhibited at the first exhibition of China-ism, a comment on the contemporary art world, a reflection of it or simply a joke? It is good evidence that the characters and stars of the contemporary art world and market are being pulled from history—just think of the roles of Stalin and Mao today. Although the atrocities Mao committed cannot and should not be erased, we can still see him today with a smirk on his face.
Ai Weiwei
While China's economy has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, the state of democracy in the country has not changed at all. The treatment of the artist Ai Weiwei serves as a perfect example. Ai who, according to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is "one of the world's most creative and courageous public citizens" was detained on April 3, 2011 and was subsequently held in an unknown location by the Chinese government. The reason? Ai Weiwei spoke out, a right denied billions within China. Unfortunately, freedom of expression does not look like it will be coming anytime soon to the Middle Kingdom, as the Communist Party seems impervious to outside pressure on the matter. Indeed, despite calls from across the world, it was not until June that the Chinese Government was finally willing to release Ai. Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, speaking at the opening of Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in May in New York City aptly summarized the state of affairs. She stated that if there is no freedom of speech, there is no modern art and that the world is not challenging the Chinese government but the Chinese government is challenging the world.

Indeed, at the moment the answer to the question being asked at China-ism II— "If China is already changing the world, will the world change China?"—may be depressingly "No."
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