Stairway to Heaven: From Chinese Streets to Monuments and Skyscrapers Essay

01/17/2009 - 04/04/2009

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Introduction to Stairway to Heaven: From Chinese Streets to Monuments and Skyscrapers
Mark H. C. Bessire

Stairway to Heaven
 is an exhibition of contemporary art analyzing the changing streets and urban landscapes of China. The work in the exhibition responds to traditional monuments and the unparalleled growth in skyscrapers within the context of cultural transformation. The artists provide an intimate look at how new histories are constructed and old histories are erased in a country that assiduously recorded its history through the arts until the Maoist era, which was dominated by propaganda. It is a remarkable opportunity to watch art history unfold in real time during this extraordinary moment in Chinese history when the country’s transformation has realigned with a resurgence in Chinese art. Just as Germany tore down the Berlin wall during a building boom that left little trace of the nation’s history, China is dismantling its urban history in an unprecedented scale. While the country is building skyscrapers the artists are recording and critiquing old and new histories alike as they unfold at alarming speed.

This exhibition presents layers of diversity through the multiple voices, strategies, and techniques of seventeen Chinese artists: Ai Weiwei, Chen Shaoxiong, Gu Wenda, Gu Zheng, Hong Lei, Liang Weiping, Liu Bolin, Lu Yuanmin, Luo Yongjin, Ma Liuming, Wang Jing, Weng Fen, Xing Danwen, Yang Yongliang, Yening, Zhang Dali, and Zhu Feng. Organized thematically, the exhibition focuses on the changing relationships between artists and streets, monuments, and skyscrapers with a sub- text exploring the multifaceted art boom in China. The loci are sites where artists are digesting and processing an overload of cultural, philosophical, economic, and technological changes in a condensed period of time.

As the twenty-first century develops, China is becoming the next dominant global culture. Yet, in 2008 the world is still curious about what role China wants to play. In the lead-up to the Olympics the government of China has spent more time defending its policies than reveling in its accomplishments. International public opinion has condemned its Tibetan policy, questions its currency policy, and is outraged by shoddy manufactured products, lead-contaminated toys, and tainted food products, yet the government seems more interested and responsive to domestic opinion. They are well aware that as the economy and culture have been opened, people have higher expectations about their relationship with government.

When the horrible earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008 killed up to 50,000 people and displaced millions, the spotlight was put on the Chinese government again. This time international opinion has proved extremely sympathetic and the government has for the first time welcomed international support and offered access to the disaster area to international aid organizations and the media. What is most interesting is to watch the leadership of China take on responsibility and accountability for rescue efforts and be put to task by citizens for the alarming death toll at poorly built schools. Also, for the first time in many years, people are taking personal responsibility by rushing to Sichuan to offer help, sending money, and challenging the government response, which by many accords has been quite responsive. Yet as the mechanisms of government become more open, people are demanding more and more accountability.

The best way to gauge the future path of a culture is through its art. For years contemporary artists have been questioning the leadership and responsibility of the Chinese government, and it seems that in the year that the government was to show the world the greatness of China the people are embracing the critical spirit of contemporary Chinese art by forcing greater accountability. Another new history is being scripted as you view the art in this exhibition, which foretold the transformative political environment today in China. As China’s political and economic policies continue to become the focus of the international scene during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Stairway to Heaven offers a unique context and opportunity to present the response of Chinese artists to China’s resurgence.

Stairway to Heaven refers to the search for an experience that may define the expectations and dreams of the Chinese people. In the context of the Olympics, it recognizes that as athletes strive for gold, they are searching for “heaven” and that each Chinese citizen is also trying to find her piece of “heaven” in the new China. The artists in the exhibition explore where heaven may or may not be found: from traditional to neon street life to the top floors of skyscrapers to a home with a family or a visit to cultural or spiritual monuments. They also look at the mechanization of change and contemplate how their landscape is being changed by machinery and technology. What does it mean for Chinese culture to become more urban than rural and more conceptual than representational? How will this influence Chinese history? It is a fascinating time and as the world focuses on China during the Beijing Olympics, it is an important moment to illuminate the culture created by rapid economic and social growth.

What signifies a period or a site with an abundance of great art for the ages? What made the art and culture of the Sacred Valley of the Inca, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth-century Holland, fin de siècle Paris, the Kingdom of Benin, and other great art regions or moments significant? Will this moment of Chinese art transcend time and place, joining the canon of art history? Or is it merely a trend exploiting social, historical, and economic conditions? Or are the social, historical, and economic conditions providing a perfect storm for producing the unprecedented burst of artistic creativity that is currently dominating the global art world?

After years of Mao’s subjugation of the arts, including his complete control and exploitation of photography, today there is a confluence of an incredible rebirth of classic Chinese art with a culture yearning for the nonlinear and open-ended possibilities provided by postmodernism and global contemporary art. Chinese contemporary art was originally supported and driven by an international market but has now been embraced by curators, collectors, and universities in China, providing the market with a depth and breadth transcending the fickle and trendy international market. Combined with excellent scholarship, major museum exhibitions, burgeoning art schools, and new museums in China, it seems that this period of Chinese art will remain significant well past this moment in time. Yet there are questions to be answered. The unprecedented rate of cultural and economic acceleration provides opportunity and often contradictions, as seen in the celebration of the new and mourning of the old. For example, in the mid-1990s some artists trained in traditional Chinese art, such as ink painting, quickly adopted the digital camera because of its immediacy and ability to document the rapid changes in China, as well as the possibilities of postproduction alteration. Yet in many ways the digital camera is a product of globalization, industrialization, and urbanization, making it very interesting that artists are choosing it as their medium of choice for expressing what they perceive as negative changes in their society. It is also interesting how the these artists are creating work that mourns aspects of the past and critiques the present but does not offer alternatives for the future.

The art in Stairway to Heaven is a testament to the transformation and creative potential brewing within a culture whose rich art traditions were stifled by generations of political upheaval. Today Chinese culture is experiencing a gamut of complementary and contradictory emotions and conditions that are providing new generations with obstacles and opportunities, including wealth, poverty, alienation, competition, and confusion. Unlike the clarity of propaganda unveiled during the Olympics, these artists provide a less-structured environment that invites questions and offers challenging and provocative critiques.

For three years Raechell Smith, Gu Zheng, Gan Xu, and I have seen a repetition of themes, streets, monuments, and skyscrapers, in photographs we saw during studio visits and exhibitions. With so many exhibitions of Chinese art concentrating on the same artists, we were looking for a more diverse and lesser-known group. These themes provided an exhibition platform to include artists from different back- grounds and using diverse strategies and techniques. It includes recent graduates, professors, international art stars, conceptual and street photographers, and those who use digital manipulation as well as gelatin silver-printing methods. The diversity of these artists comes alive in the essays “From the Street to the Skyscraper: Notes on the Relationship between Urban Space and Chinese Contemporary Photography” by Gu Zheng and “China Spectacle” by Gan Xu and Raechell Smith’s interviews with Luo Yongjin, Xing Danwen, and Zhang Dali.

Scholar, international curator, critic, and one of China’s preeminent street photographers, Gu Zheng provides an insider’s diary of the development of street photography as an art form in China. Except for colonial photography and a brief time in the 1930s when Chinese photographers aimed their lenses at the nascent sky- scrapers like the Park Hotel, twentieth-century China was framed by propaganda photography. Coming alive in the late 1980s, street photography, Gu Zheng explains, was such a stark contrast to the exoticized and often racist images created by colonial “outsiders” and the politically staged images of the Maoist propaganda ma- chine. The new style of photography was exciting and real, reflecting a new urban culture transformed from state-sponsored production centers to commercial/consumer centers. The force behind street photography, Gu Zheng suggests, was the street itself, and the best way to document change was photographing people in these new spaces. With a new freedom for self-expression through fashion and consumption, the people in the street were the art. It became a unique moment where artist, camera, and people on the street all reveled in the early performative dance of constructing new identities after years of subjugation. By the 1990s photographers were experimenting with flashing light, super fish-eye and noncompositional techniques, and the photographer’s angle, and conceptual nature increasingly crept into the lens as seen through photo manipulation and large-format prints. At the same time the skyscraper began to epitomize the transformation of Chinese urban culture and its shift from a horizontal to a vertical culture. Ironically, while the skyscraper made photographs look modern, as it did for Lang Jingshan and Ao Enhong in the 1930s, the 1990s verticality is more of a challenge to the establishment than a celebration. Today the horizontal street life of Shanghai with its limited buildable properties is disappearing as life goes vertical, and every inch of available land is being torn down for skyscrapers. In response, urban photography seems to be coming more and more performance-based and conceptual. Stairway to Heaven documents this extraordinary case study of artistic production, making the viewer feel like she is living art history as it unfolds. Within that context, Gan Xu’s essay explores the pertinence of art history to the artists and their work in the exhibition.

Gan Xu grew up in China during the Maoist period, attended graduate school in the United States, and teaches art history at Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine. He was one of the first Chinese scholars in many years to receive a Ph.D. in art history outside of China, yet he always stayed in touch with artists and scholars in China and now lives in both Shanghai and Portland. He brings an insider and outsider perspective to his essay on the relationship between monuments and sky- scrapers in contemporary Chinese photography. Weaving his own voice and intimate familiarity with the artists in the exhibition, he mines the conflict, tragedy, and hypocrisy of mourning and celebrating that seems to be the common theme in China. Placing the current phase of Chinese history in context, Gan Xu reflects on the new skyscraper architecture of China in relation to Mao’s “Great Leap For- ward” and “Cultural Revolution,” the “Open Door Policy” of Deng Xiaoping, Pure Land Buddhist traditions, and fifth-century poetry. He wonders if the skyscraper has become the popular equivalent to historical utopian visions and dreams of China. Whether or not the apartment in the sky is the updated “Chinese Dream” whose traditions are much older than the “American Dream,” we learn that as an icon of change it has become a magnet for positive and negative developments in China. In an excellent critique Gan Xu suggests that Liang Weping’s image of factories that have since been demolished represents a fading history of the few early successes of industrialization. And in Yang Yongliang’s work the digitally altered images reveal how the cranes of progress are building skyscrapers that are trampling China’s 5,000-year-old civilization. As the skyscrapers rise on the remnants of the past, the Great Wall of China in Ma Liuming’s famous performative walk is crumbling, the Forbidden Temple is being encroached on in Zhang Dali’s Demolition series, and history is being erased by blood in the images of Hong Lei. Yening’s series Dream in the Deserted Peking documents skyscraper development, mourning the past and wondering what the future will hold for her in a city she no longer recognizes. In a clinical photo exploration Luo Yongjin captures the demise of the spectacular gas stations that competed for customers through uniqueness but are now being re- placed by sterile gas stations that can be seen throughout the world. Even in brilliant color there is no denying the sterile atmosphere in Xing Danwen’s Urban Fiction series of life in a gated or restricted urban development. The dark side of the new heaven in the skies may in fact be alienation and despair, where the utopian ideals of the collective are erased.

In candid interviews with Luo Yongjin, Xing Danwen, and Zhang Dali, curator Raechell Smith invited the artists to place their work and lives within the context of phenomenal changes in China. They discuss how the digital world and internet have made them more efficient and aware, but Zhang Dali suggests he views them as tools that do not change his understanding of art but provide more possibilities. What has really changed their making of art is the urban landscape where they live: the danger in riding a bike, Beijing’s population growth from four to thirteen million, the destruction of old neighborhoods, architectural development, the free and mass movement of people from the country to the city, and generally better living standards, to name a few. All three artists view their work as connecting to the past through the present, offering critical insight for the future, and they hope that their current work will indeed transcend this era, enabling those in the future to understand our present and their past. As radical as the art is within the context of recent Chinese history, the artists do lament some of the sacrifices made for greater prosperity and mobility, such as community for anonymity and Chinese culture for a homogenous global culture.

Much of the dialogue, which includes technology, changing surroundings, urbanization, capitalism, the art market, and the role of history, often returns to architecture and the causes and results of the changing urban spaces. “I hope,” Luo Yongjin explains, “that people will understand that in the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were some sensitive artists who were both suspicious and sarcastic about the trendy architecture of the day and yet they were able to turn these taste- less structures into tasty works of art.” What could be more tasty than Wang Jing’s wonderful installation The China Food in 2008, which is a riff on Olympic architecture and Chinese food?

I believe that the art of this period in China will always be recognized for its immense creative output following an incredibly controlled and fallow period of art making under Mao, who stifled the nations’ great art traditions. Who would have thought that after so much isolation Chinese artists would emerge with the energy and creativity to place Chinese art at the forefront of a global art world in less than a generation?

Much thanks to curatorial assistants Emily Monty and Rachel Tofel for their exhibition research, which has informed the introduction.