The Culture of a Border Within: Hong Kong Art and China

Article excerpt

Within the space of only a few years there has been an extraordinary increase in awareness of contemporary Chinese art in Europe and North America. Because of exhibitions such as the Asia Society and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Inside Out: New Chinese Art, the international art audience has been able to obtain a quite detailed picture of developments in Chinese art since the mid- 1988os.

One factor that has encouraged the growth of Western interest in recent Chinese art has been the emergence of China as a player in the global political arena. With the increasing cultural openness that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the economic growth that stemmed from Deng Xiaoping's market reforms, China now seems to many Western commentators both less alien and more of a force to be reckoned with. Certainly the focus of Western attention has been on the art of this post-Cultural Revolution period, and although one might wish to caution that a deeper understanding would require awareness of the century-long engagement of Chinese art with the modern,' there is some historical sense in treating the [g8os as marking a beginning of something new in Mainland Chinese art.

In the case of the art of Hong Kong and Taiwan, however, such a timeframe is less helpful, and as a consequence art from those two places was less legible in Inside Out and has received less Western attention generally. The moment of breakthrough to a consciously modernist and international idiom occurred much earlier in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in the former case it can be dated to the late 196os and early 1970s. Of preeminent importance in Hong Kong was the role of Lui Shou-kwan, who initiated what became known as the New Ink Painting movement. Luis contribution was to marry aspects of the Chinese ink painting heritage to the simplified abstract structures and gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism. His Zhuangzi (1974) is a good example of this. Although the People's Republic was closed to outside influences during that period, Hong Kong artists were actively engaging with then-current Western signifiers of contemporaneity, and along with their Taiwanese counterparts were producing the most ambitious Chinese art of the time.

In thematic terms the art of Lui and his many students and followers, such as Wucius Wong, was often concerned with East/West issues.2 Consciously hybrid at a time when hybridity had yet to become valorized in theoretical discourse, their art sought to balance Chinese and Western elements, and even to harmonize them. Such explicit cultural hybridity was not widely found in Mainland Chinese art until the 199os, when it appeared in works such as Wang Guangyi's painting Great Criticism Series: McDonald's or Xu Bing's installation Introduction to New English Calligraphy (1994-96 , shown at the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1999-2000). Preconditions for such art were the penetration of China by international capitalist consumer culture (Wang's work dates from 1992, the year McDonald's opened its Beijing branch) and an increase in opportunities for overseas travel (Xu is now based in New York). It hardly needs emphasizing that in Hong Kong, the quintessential open port, such flows of goods and of people were a long-established part of everyday experience by that time.

The art of Wang and Xu undoubtedly has a more 'postmodern' look than that of Lui or Wong, being less concerned to harmonize Chinese and Western references and more willing to let the discontinuities between them stand out. In addition, both artists make allusion to more up-to-date Western signifiers of artistic contemporaneity (Pop in Wang's case rather than Abstract Expressionism in Luis, for instance). Nevertheless, both Wang and Xu remain caught within the kind of binary East/West thinking which had preoccupied Hong Kong artists a generation earlier, but which was no longer of concern to them by the 1990s. …