THE INTERNATIONAL EMERGENCE of "Chinese contemporary art," first as a sphere of cultural activity, then as a category, and most recently as a market sector, has been driven by what we might term the "China show." The China show typically presents a sprawling assemblage of works by a large number of artists, which is taken as illustrative of larger historical conditions and contemporary social realities. Since the early 1990s, this exhibition has been through dozens of incarnations--at museums of greater and lesser heft, mediated by curators with different tastes and diverse institutional imperatives, and with various degrees of connection to the larger geopolitical context. The first wave of China shows--which began with "China's New Art, Post-1989," Johnson Chang's agenda-setting 1993 exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, and ended with Gao Minglu's "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and the Asia Society in New York in 1998--grew out of a particular moment in late Western liberalism, in which a desire to display art created under a repressive regime (especially given the post-Tiananmen context) fortuitously conjoined with the prevailing multiculturalist imperative to open up the Euro-American conversation. But the former is largely gone, and the latter has largely been undone by the inherent globalism of the art world since the mid-'90s. Where, then, does the China show stand now?
The theoretical problems that underlie the China show were clear before one was ever mounted. In Fredric Jameson's 1986 tract "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism," which dates to shortly after his landmark lecture tour in China and takes as its main subject of analysis Lu Xun's 1918 story "Diary of a Madman," Jameson argues that works from the periphery tend to appear as though "already read," pale imitations of trends that have long ago run their course in the West. He goes on to state that "third-world texts ... necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory." Indeed, on both counts: Throughout its short history, the China show has been taken as interesting mainly for the twin virtues of presenting modern (if sometimes "derivative") art from China and for what the works are seen to say about current social realities in a vast country in the throes of "a profound cultural revolution," to quote the somewhat curious wording of the jacket copy to the catalogue for "The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China," which opened last March at Tate Liverpool.
In spite of the problems inherent to the genre, however, the China show has proved remarkably durable. This is perhaps not so surprising, given how Western indignation at the lack of freedom in the country has given way to what now seems more like a heated fling taking place amid the rising skyscraper forests. The China show has been there through it all: The domestic legitimization of contemporary art was completed in June 2003, with official PRC sponsorship of the Centre Pompidou's Year of China bazaar "Alors, la Chine?" The next year, curator Fei Dawei mounted a quiet protest against the China show's excesses in "The Monk and the Demon: Contemporary Chinese Art," at the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, claiming that his was really an assemblage of miniature solo exhibitions (albeit culled entirely from the collection of Belgian baron Guy Ullens, whose investment in Chinese contemporary art has led him to found a new museum in Beijing, which opens in November). Also in the summer of 2004, the most canonical of recent China shows, Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips's touring survey "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China," opened at the Asia Society and at the International Center for Photography in New York, garnering significantly more mass-media coverage and in the process effectively opening the market for contemporary Chinese photography. …