To Enter Art History - Reading and Writing Art History in China during the Reform Era

By Cacchione, Orianna | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2014 | Go to article overview

To Enter Art History - Reading and Writing Art History in China during the Reform Era


Cacchione, Orianna, Journal of Art Historiography


In November 1988, Lin Jiahua, Chinese artist and member of the Xiamen Dada group, organized the event, To Enter Art History - Slideshow Activity (Jinru yishushi - huandeng huodong) (figure 1) in Xiamen, China. Documentary photographs of the event capture slide images of masterpieces from the canon of Western art projected onto the naked body of the artist. In one image, the face of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is distorted along the curves of the artist's posterior. In another, the profile of the artist is covered over by the Mona Lisa, her eyes, nose and mouth masking the artist's cheek. The artist's chest provides a screen on which the genitals and legs of Michelangelo's David are projected, while a close up of the artist's face is lost under the hard lines and emphasised cross-hatching of Picasso's rendering of prostitutes in Demoiselles D'Avignon. In the photographs documenting the event, the body of the artist and the images projected from the slide are flattened into a single hybrid image. As the artist physically enters into the frame of a slide and 'enters' art history, the work questions the relationship between the body of Chinese artists and Western art historical masterpieces.

The slideshow played an active role in shaping the presentation of both Chinese and foreign art history during the 1980s. As Chinese artists and critics began making government funded, educational trips abroad, the slide became a medium of exchange between contemporary art practices in China and Western art. Returning from a government sponsored study trip in Minnesota, Zheng Shengtian, a professor at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, brought back thousands of slides taken in North American and European art museums.1 In 1986, Fei Dawei, an art history professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, travelled to Paris with more than a thousand slides of works by '85 New Wave artists to use when giving lectures about contemporary Chinese art.2 However, in addition to acting as a means to share art practices transnationally, the slideshow played an integral role in the construction of a history of contemporary art practices in China, particularly in documenting and presenting the '85 New Wave Movement to domestic audiences. The slideshow acted as the format for the first national presentation of recent art practices in China and was also as the medium used to select participants for the first national exhibition, the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, held in 1989. In August 1986, the 'Grand Slideshow and Symposium on the Art Trends of '85' ('85 Meishu sichao faxing huandeng zhanlan lilun yantaohui) provided a public, collective viewing experience of recent art practices in China, and is largely considered to have been the initial stimulus for the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition.3 The 'Grand Slideshow' afforded Chinese artists and critics the chance to look at contemporary art practices in China as a whole and emphasised their desire to write a new history of Chinese art. The slide offered a cheap, portable medium to 'exhibit' contemporary artworks without the expense of organising a large-scale national exhibition. However, artists and critics at the event acknowledged the limitations of viewing artworks through slides and thus proposed a national exhibition.4 Preparations for the national exhibition continued at the ''88 Symposium on the Creation of Chinese Modern Art' ('88 Zhongguo xiandai yishu chuangzuo yantaohui) held at Huangshan.5 For the Huangshan Conference, artists throughout China again submitted slides of their work; however, these were used to select artists and artworks that would be included in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. Even at the latter exhibition, a collection of slides was available for sale.

To Enter Art History, organised concurrently with the Huangshan Conference, draws out questions about the relationship between the canon of Western art history and contemporary art practices in China. …

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