Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Wu Hung, with the assistance of Peggy Wang. New York: The Museum of Modem Art, New York, 2010. xvi + 455 pp. US$40.00 (paperback).
Western understandings of the trajectory of Chinese art following Mao's death in 1976 have been hampered by several factors. A persistent element, of course, is the propensity of Western art historians and critics to impose Western historical patterns, esthetic standards and critical methods to the analysis of Chinese art, its production and expression. This tendency was exacerbated by China's closing to the West after 1949, which discouraged scholarship and Chinese language study, resulting in a 30-year hiatus in scholarly communications and firsthand knowledge - a situation that invited imagination and speculation skewed by an obsessive preference in the West for art that could be satisfyingly interpreted as politically subversive. When China opened in the 1980s, scholars of contemporary Chinese art faced the further problem of trying to make sense of an anarchic disarray of theories and practices rushing in to fill the vacuum afforded by the collapse of Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong ideology. The prolific but scattered writings and publications by Chinese artists, critics and theorists were accessible only to those few who already possessed a high level of Chinese language facility, including the specially nuanced vocabulary of the art world, as well as a wide-ranging and balanced network of personal contacts.
Addressing the need for wider access to Chinese sources by readers of English, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Wu Hung (University of Chicago) and published by New York's Museum of Modern Art, presents a meaty and comprehensive chronologically arranged potpourri of English translations of writings published between 1979 and 2008 by Chinese artists, curators, critics, theorists and art historians. The selections are divided overall between "Contemporary Art as Domestic Movement, 1976-89" and "Globalization and a Domestic Tum, 1990-2000", with a final nod to the New Millennium (2000-09). Within these divisions, texts are further subdivided by time and dominant theme, accompanied by brief introductory commentaries and occasionally including even official government declarations. The selections range from brief to lengthy, from well-known to obscure authors, from direct and analytical discourse to convoluted and nuanced ruminations - but nearly all were written and published in China by Chinese authors for Chinese intellectuals. One of the delights, then, of exploring this collection is that of becoming privy to just how divergent were the views, how passionate the motives and how discerning the analyses by Chinese artists processing events in their world as they were happening. Wu Hung thus invites the reader to view the continuing search for new paradigms, for new language, through a window not yet beclouded by retrospection or devolution into simple explanations - we need no longer be hostage to a jumble of critical commentaries strewn across art journals or selectively sheltered in exhibition catalogs, but instead are empowered to construct more complex and holistic understandings. …