The difficulty of approaching Chinese contemporary art was well described 25 years ago by Huang Yong Ping in his The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987. The artist placed two texts - The History of Chinese Art by Wang Bomin and The Concise History of Modern Painting by Herbert Read, the first history of modern western art to appear in Chinese - on a short spin cycle. He deposited the resulting mass of partially cleansed, unreadable pulp on a broken pane of glass on top of a tea crate (recalling John Latham's 196os mastication and distillation of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture into liquid form).
In London at the moment there are several China-related exhibitions, each of which marks out a particular space on the country's fraught 20th/21st-century timeline. Some take the form of documentary, such as Cecil Beaton's wartime photographs and Li Zhensheng's documentation of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Others, such as the Hayward Gallery's 'Art of Change: New Directions from China', want to look towards contemporary Chinese culture and its possible futures. Yet, judging from such exhibitions as these, attempts to represent China are far from straightforward.
The many mangled narratives of Huang's textbook pulp are suggestive of Chinese art's complicated relationship with western culture in the 20th century. The fall of dynastic rule in 1911 and the formation of the People's Republic of China set up tensions between the country's established traditions and its various and extreme social and political upheavals. In terms of art, what is now described as China's Avant Garde or xianfeng - that is to say, art taking influence from European modernism - only emerged at the end of the 20th century, overturning the socialist realist tradition of the Mao era and coinciding with Deng Xiaoping's 'open door' economic reforms and liberalisation (it is worth noting that some literary forms of Modernism were present under the nationalist government 1912-49, but it is not clear how far this history connects with what is now known as contemporary Chinese art).
In 1987, Huang described his laundered-book work as 'washing the notion of culture'. Following the ten-year prohibition of cultural artefacts and documents during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), western modern art was reintroduced to China and was devoured by many of its young artists. They experimented widely with this rich repository of techniques and ideas, free from the specific modernist narratives that might attach to them in a western context. And, more than transcending a specific style, the post-1979 breaking-free from Socialist Realism can be seen as overturning the cultural authority that this style represented; in this sense, Pi Li has suggested that Chinese contemporary artists effectively concentrated western art history into a single decade. Despite the artists identifying themselves as such, there is a continuing debate as to whether this period of contemporary art production should be labelled Avant Garde, given that its reference points had been long superseded within the western modernist narrative. Some favour the descriptor 'experimental art', whereas others point out that these developments in Chinese art represented a break with the old that can legitimately be described in terms of a parallel Avant Garde. Of course, though, this is a very different history.
Huang was part of the Xiamen Dada group and leader of this early avantgardist generation. He is also a good example of the uselessness of East-West binaries; he grew up during the Cultural Revolution but has lived and worked in Paris since 1989; he was formatively influenced by the likes of Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp and Ludwig Wittgenstein but his approach draws heavily upon Chinese identity, techniques and intellectual traditions. …