Artists recall birth pains of contemporary Chinese art

Mon Sep 28, 2009 4:10am EDT
 
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By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Just over 30 years ago, not long after the death of Mao Zedong, a group of young Chinese artists staged an exhibition that pushed the bounds of artistic freedoms and helped pave the way for Chinese art's global rise.

Oil paintings including nudes, sculptures and wood blocks were hung outside Beijing's National Art Gallery in 1979, as artists such as Huang Rui, Wang Keping and Ai Weiwei mounted a bold challenge to authorities: demanding artistic freedoms after the suffocating decade of Mao's Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were violently persecuted.

"At the time, all these exhibitions were illegal and prohibited in China," said Wang Keping, a sculptor and member of the groundbreaking Stars Exhibition which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.

"That we were brave enough to do such things was a great challenge to the government. It affected society, the minds of people and their behavior," he told Reuters.

While China's contemporary art scene has since flourished and developed a global reputation with its constellation of feted artists and thought-provoking works, its origins are partly rooted in the groundbreaking efforts of artists like the Stars.

Of the 23 Stars who put on the show in 1979, perhaps the best known is Ai Weiwei, a blackguard, whose works sell for millions now in New York art galleries and global auction halls.

The Stars' emergence coincided with that of liberal activists, who began pasting political slogans that spring onto a wall to the west of Beijing known as the Democracy Wall.

Police eventually moved in and confiscated the works, sparking a daring street protest by the artists who marched down Changan Avenue on October 1 with a banner that carried the slogan: "Demand Political Democracy, Demand Artistic Freedom."   Continued...