September 28, 2009 / 7:54 AM / 8 years ago

Artists recall birth pains of contemporary Chinese art

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.”

While unorthodox expression of artistic individualism was frowned upon by authorities, the protest brought a concession: the artists were allowed to stage a second exhibition later that year which attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, many dressed in Mao jackets and uniform work clothes of the era.

“It’s a fallacy to think that they were the only people who began thinking out of the box, but they did it in a way that put the artists at the front of thing,” said Philip Tinari, an art historian based in Beijing. “It was remarkable for the time.”

But with the 30th anniversary of the Stars exhibition coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, some Stars remain disillusioned by the continued pressure faced by artists in contemporary China.

“On the surface it, Chinese art seems very open and international,” said Huang Rui, one of the Stars’ founders who later established Beijing’s iconic 798 Art District in an old factory complex that has done much to popularise avant-garde art.

”But on the other hand, the things that we fought against in the beginning like the suppression of artistic freedom ... we can’t say there isn’t any suppression now. In fact things have become more complicated.

While not the first group to emerge with anti-establishment aspirations, the Stars Exhibition is considered a milestone for Chinese contemporary art, as it moved from the fringes to the commercial and cultural juggernaut of today.

Other groupings include “The No Name Group,” Scar Art practitioners after the Cultural Revolution, the 1985 New Wave and the artistic foment after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown including the New Art movement and Cynical Realism.

“For China’s history, the June 4th incident is an important event and a deserving topic for artists to express themselves, but it isn’t yet allowed. It has become politically sensitive and this topic has been put aside. Artistic freedom in a political sense doesn’t exist, only commercial freedom,” added Huang.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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