Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985 @ Asia Society, Hong Kong
By: Travis Jeppesen
An ambitious exhibition at Hong Kong’s Asia Society posited a revised historical account of the evolution of Chinese contemporary art. While previous narratives have situated the ‘85 Movement as the country’s artistic Great Leap Forward, with artists suddenly and swiftly jumping from the dictatorial aesthetics of Socialist Realism to avant-garde experimentalism in a matter of minutes with the backing of those in power, “Light Before Dawn” focused on the period immediately preceding the mid-80s’ moment of expansiveness, thus proposing a more evolutionary tide towards the country’s current and increasingly pluralistic streams of vision. In particular, curators Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews focused on three unofficial groups: Wuming, Xingxing, and Caocao.
The Beijing-based Wuming (“No Name”) artists all had one thing in common, besides a passion for painting: they were all the children of parents that had been purged during the brutal early years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As such, it seems somewhat natural that the young artists – many of them teenagers when the group began to unofficially form in the early 1970s – would come to form a solidarity and allegiance among themselves that is almost shocking in how uncompromising it now seems. Their common motif was a quasi-Impressionistic preoccupation with the beauty of the natural world, which sounds innocent enough; in Mao’s time, however, any image that strayed from the politically correct dictates of Socialist Realism was a serious transgression; indeed, to be apolitical was a political offense. At the same time, works like Shi Zhenyu’s Outside the Office Window, rendered in oil on paperboard in 1976, with its bleak depiction of colorless blocklike communist apartment blocks beneath a sunless sky, were far from innocuous and looked unlike anything being painted in China at the time. The solidarity of the artists, then, rested in the fact that their colleagues comprised their sole audience. Having been exiled from the better social opportunities and limelight of the time due to their familial backgrounds, they were thus in a position to work “freely” within the confines of their secret group structure, culminating in a public exhibition during the early years of Deng Xiaoping, at which point the artists went their separate ways.
Chronologically, the Wuming were followed by the Xingxing group, which contained a comparatively smaller roster of some twenty-three artists, including Ai Weiwei. Unlike the painting purists comprising the Wuming, the Xingxing, or “Stars,” were engaged in a myriad of media, though most of the chief members – among them Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, and Yan Li were as much writers as they were artists. The Xingxing only existed briefly – during the period of liberalization that marked Deng Xiaoping’s early consolidation of power from 1979 to 1980 – though its members would go on to rank among the “stars” of the post-Mao art and literary scenes in China.
The sole Shanghai group featured here, the Caocao, was also the shortest-lived of the three, perishing after the government shut down its one and only exhibition in the autumn of 1979. With a focus on the traditional Chinese art of ink painting, the Caocao aimed in part to resume the art form’s convergence with European and American forms of painterly Modernism, which had been interrupted mid-century by the Maoist regime’s imposition of Socialist Realism as the sole permitted form. The leading light of the Caocao group was Qiu Deshu, who is today one of China’s best known contemporary artists to develop ink painting into an idiosyncratic language of his own.
While many of the artists here have become household names, their earliest activities risk being wiped from the history books due to their unofficial nature and problematic reception by the authorities of the era. “Light Before Dawn” – both the exhibition and perhaps even more so the catalog – ensure that this will not come to pass.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author