The Beginning of the Age of Exhibition Production: Thoughts Starting with the Yunnan Art Scene from 2000 to 2010

Introduction: This is an essay on the state of art in Yunnan from 2000 to 2010 written for the exhibition Constellation: Yunnan Oil Painting Since 1978, but due to limitations in time, space and my own field of vision, I feel it would be difficult to recreate the rich scene of the time. For the inevitable omissions, I hope that future writers will amend and correct me. When I was invited to write this essay, I was mainly asked to discuss the state of oil painting in Yunnan during this decade, but I realized that before discussing this topic, I would need to first lay out the appropriate background for understanding the general situation of the time and the overall mindset of the people in order to uncover certain value beneath the trends. This backdrop is the efforts of many people who changed the Yunnan artistic environment through their individual actions, which form the basic thread behind this backdrop I describe.

When we discuss the phenomena of art or art history from 1978 as a starting point, it implies that our discussion and writing about art cannot be extricated from the narrative of the nation in that same time period. From the movement to liberate ideas after the 1978 Reform and Opening to the opening of markets, from the entry into the World Trade Organization to the hosting of the Olympics, these historical points remind us about the basic field of vision that we face when discussing contemporary China, the framework of China’s relationship with the world and the world’s relationship with China, and the ways we see these relationships. In this first decade of a new century, people were full of unprecedented optimism for the future, particularly about the ability to effect change that would be bestowed on each individual by globalization and the Internet. Though this decade saw various disasters, such as 9/11, the SARS epidemic, the Wenchuan earthquake and the financial crisis, and was marked by much uncertainty, overall, the people were optimistic, or at least willing to act in an optimistic fashion. The art of this decade amounts to little more than so many little whitecaps on these great waves that we have picked out for description.

In the art world, we can get a glimpse of the optimistic sentiment toward this new century through the titles of major exhibitions of the day. The theme of the 1999 Venice Biennale was “dAPERTutto” (“Open to All”), while the 2001 edition was titled Plateau of Humankind. In China, the Third Shanghai Biennale, curated by Hou Hanru, Toshio Shimizu and other international curators, and titled “Shanghai Spirit: A Special Modernity,” brought people fresh artistic air. This exhibition is also seen as marking the beginning of Chinese official acceptance of contemporary art. After this, the government went on to sponsor other major art exhibition projects, including the Guangzhou Triennial of Contemporary Art (2002), the Beijing International Art Biennale (2003), and the establishment of the first China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. More and more large projects with state and private funding were taking place in China’s first-tier cities, with Beijing and Shanghai quickly becoming new global art centers brimming with vitality and potential. As for non-central cities such as Kunming, the big pie wasn’t quite as it was in the major cities, so people expressed their optimism toward the future in other ways. Compared to the large events in the central cities, the regional art scenes were smaller and more on the grassroots level, but also more indicative of what was to come.

Since the turn of the new century, the artists who had achieved success in the 1990s began to exert their influence across China, first by gaining recognition and respect from the public and the media through market success. Such artists were seen as pioneers of fashion. Then certain Popified portraits became the first style to be imitated as painters and even art students sought out certain looks (or “individual schema”) of their own to engage in mass production, mostly under the influence of certain trends in painting from the 1990s. Meanwhile, some artists with organizing abilities began to bring their international experience and appeal back to their hometowns. In 2001, Ye Yongqing, Tang Zhigang and other artists established the Loft Artists Community at 101 Xiba Road in Kunming. Painters Su Xinhong, Liu Jianhua, Li Ji, Wu Jun, Duan Yuhai and Hu Jun all quickly moved in. This can be seen as a landmark event—China’s first artist-run art space and community. It may seem small and dilapidated today, but it was once home to roughly thirty artist studios, four to five galleries, a cultural center, a cafe, a badminton court and several restaurants. It was basically the prototype for the many kinds of art districts that would emerge later, like a beta version, except that this beta version was never updated. Before this, outside of exhibitions at official museums, there weren’t many choices for art and culture events in Kunming, with most taking place either at the Upriver Club, established in 1999, or the T Cafe/Gallery. The scene was rather scattered. For this reason, the industrial atmosphere and fashionable modern art attracted a broad swath of the general public and much media attention, and there were outstanding art and cultural events virtually every week. Artists came here to work with the view that they could have a positive influence on the general public. There, artists created, entertained, exhibited and exchanged. The original intention of founder Ye Yongqing was to use artistic and cultural productivity to link his hometown to the world and to expand the night life of the city.

The Loft’s inaugural exhibition invited celebrity artists from the Chinese art scene at the time, under the title Boys and Girls. Evidently, the organizers wanted to emphasize that this community represented the most vibrant cultural elements of the city, even the era, even though the majority of the artists living in the Loft were middle-aged men. It is worth noting that the Loft’s founding artists were mainly born in the 1950s and 60s, but the platform the Loft provided was most suited to the generation born int he 1970s. Exhibitions such as Experience (2002) and Cry Sheep (2002) brought together the most dynamic young artists of the day, including Xue Tao, He Jia, Shi Jing, He Libin, Yang Wenping, Zhang Qiongfei, Yin Yanhua and Zhao Leiming. These exhibitions featured many works of installation, conceptual photography and performance art. Afterwards, artists born in the 1970s headed out to Shanghai and Beijing in groups to seek out exhibition opportunities. Xue Tao, He Jia, Jiang Jinxi and others established the Migratory Bird Art Space for Yunnan artists in Beijing’s Suojiacun in 2005, and held two exhibitions, but unfortunately the art community was demolished after only half a year in operation. There have been plenty of tales of art districts rising and falling over the years, including fears of closure when the Loft’s first contract with the original factory expired in 2008, and the many rumors of impending demolition that have spread since.

The Loft provided possibilities for local art to happen, especially experimental and international art. The main exhibition spaces that have opened there over the years include the artist-run Upriver Loft (2001–2005), TCG Nordica (2002 to present), Yuansheng Gallery (2006 to present), Jing Gallery (2001–2011), and Jiuzhang Gallery (2003–2009). The first two galleries listed were previously the Upriver Club and T Cafe/Gallery, which changed their names after moving to the Loft. In the first few years of the Loft’s existence, local audiences were excited by a profusion of exhibitions with international vision. International artists’ keen use of materials, up-to-date visual experience and cultural differences was particularly inspiring to local artists. Those global contemporary art themes and methods rooted in diverse media, cultural theories, gender studies, environmental themes, global and local became the content of thought for some artists. One example is among local women artists, who were often invited to take part in TCG Nordica’s international exchanges, including Maritime Journal (2002) and Sugar and Salt (2003). They also carried out many self-organized women’s art exhibitions, and in the process created many artworks experimenting with material. These women artists included Sun Guojuan, Lei Yan, Zhang Qiongfei, Su Yabi, Bai Xuejuan and Wang Yuqing. To this day, many of the Yunnan artists continuing to work in installation art first emerged during that period. The most important value of the Loft in its first few years was that the artists and cultural figures of this city finally had a place to gather, and international artistic exchanges were finally normalized.

By 2004, the artists already accepted by the international markets and exhibition platforms were mainly seeking growth outside of the province, and these frequent departures and returns perhaps allowed them to see their regional identity in a new light. This period saw a series of group exhibitions based on a regional awareness taking place in other locales, such as Destiny Sky (2003, Shenzhen), Shared Soil (2006, Nanjing), Setting Out from the Southwest (2007, Guangzhou), and On Yunnan (2010, Beijing). These exhibitions attempted to describe the Yunnan experience within the context of global movement, presenting othering or self-othering accounts. Another exhibition focused on Yunnan artists was titled Chinese Contemporary Art: Identity and Transformation. Curated by Swedish curators Agneta von Zeipel and Asa Herrgard, the exhibition was held in the Bohuslans Museum in 2007, and toured to Karma Castle and other locations. Another China art exhibition touring Europe at the same time was China Power Station, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. The exhibition mainly featured emerging artists from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (the only participant from Yunnan was Xue Tao, who happened to be based in Beijing at the time). For international curators, whether the artists were from China’s leading cities, or from Yunnan, the art from this country was all called “Chinese contemporary art.” Regional identity was relative.

Locally, in Yunnan, some artists born in the 1970s and 80s began actively organizing various art events. The self-organization “Loft model” had inspired many young artists, who fanned out across the city looking for idle factory facilities in which to establish studios and exhibition spaces. The ALAB Art Space (2003–2010), located in an old axle factory on Dianmian Boulevard, was one of the artist-run spaces to follow the Loft. It was founded by 1970s-born artist Xiang Weixing and mainly focused on experimental art. In 2003, ALAB and the Upriver Loft jointly organized Shadows—New Media Art Exhibition, featuring 70s-born artists from Yunnan, Guizhou and Chongqing. This was also the first exhibition in Yunnan to use the term “new media” in its name. This was followed by Blow-Up: Experimental Art Scene (2003) and Look then Speak: New Media Art Exhibition (2004). The “Jianghu” series of experimental art events, which ALAB organized between 2005 and 2006 in collaboration with Lijiang Studio, attracted even broader attention. This was an experimental art project carried out in public urban spaces, art spaces, school campuses and bars that attracted the participation of many international artists and Chinese artists from outside the province. Such experimental projects helped young artists and curators accumulate valuable experience in social practice and exchange. Other experimental projects from the same time include the “Artists Taking Pictures with Kunming” project begun by Xue Tao in 2003, the “Hedingben” community publishing project spearheaded by Lan Qingxing in 2006, and the Above the Clouds performance art festival organized by He Libin in 2009. These projects have continued each year since their inception to become another self-organizing form for artists beyond the exhibition space.

More art communities and spaces were established, mainly after 2006, including the Dongfeng Automotive Factory Art District (2006–2008), the Mingri Chengshi Artist Community (2006 to present), the Mayuan Art Cooperative (2007–2009), Hongshan Art Highland (2007 to present), the Xiyuan Tea Market Artist Community (2009 to present), the Jinding 1919 Art District (2010 to present), Green Lake Club (2006–2009), Wenda Gallery (2008 to present), Cigar Gallery (2008 to present) and 99 Art Space. There were also alternative spaces in which art events were frequently held, such as the Lijiang Studio experimental and residency projects, and the exhibitions of the 943 Group, which mainly took place in residences, clubs and bars around Yuanxi Road and the Green Lake area. In this way, a multi-centered, multi-layered art community scene represented by the Loft Artist Community took shape in Kunming in the first decade of the century.

Outside of Kunming’s art districts, Lijiang Studio hosted some experimental art projects that were quite influential in experimental art and international exchange in Yunnan. In the beginning, Lijiang Studio participated in and supported the Jianghu art project started by Yunnan artists in Kunming from 2005 to 2006. The studio later shifted its focus to Lijiang, where it created an international residency program that invited international artists to collaborate with local villagers and cultural figures. One such project relating to painting was the mural project (2008–2010) curated by Li Lisha. They invited artists from China and abroad to produce murals on the homes of the local residents of Jixiang Village on the shore of Lashi Lake in Lijiang. The focus of this project was to observe and intervene in the graphic struggle for public space in the countryside.

As self-organized spaces grew, the exhibition scene became much richer than before, and some artists became organizers, curators and project initiators, enhancing the social properties of the role of artist. Quite a few artists also began holding their own exhibitions, or taking part in various types of exhibitions. Most of the group exhibitions were rooted in exchange and experimentation. Artists generally gained rich exhibition experience during this period, something which was not happening before 2000. Dynamic exhibition production also gradually enriched people’s experiences and criteria for art.

Outside of dynamic experimental art and art as fashion, another phenomenon emerged in painting after the financial crisis of 2008, which is that landscape painting became a favored form among local painters and the market. This is closely linked to the tradition of plein air landscape painting that dates back to the 1970s in Yunnan. Many artists benefited from the landscape painting education of the 1970s. In the 1980s and 90s, people placed more of their focus on individual style, ideas, and social themes in their painting. The landscape was not the center of their attention, but it gradually began to recover in the 2000s. Some painters developed both landscape painting and contemporary creation. For instance, Tang Zhigang was painting landscapes at the same time he was creating his famous Children’s Meetings series. As he sees it, the use of colors in landscape painting can have a positive impact on his creations. Together with Su Xinhong, Liu Yawei, Jin Zhiqiang and other artists, he founded the “everyone paint the landscape” event on the shore of Lake Dian. Nearly one hundred artists and local residents took part. At Yunnan Arts University, some young painters began depicting a fragmentary landscape through contemporary images and individual perspectives, including Su Jie, Su Jiaxi, Su Jiashou and Chang Xiong. At Yunnan University, artists Mao Xuhui and Chen Qunjie have treated plein air painting at Mount Gui as an important part of the curriculum. This is where Mao Xuhui and Zhang Xiaogang’s generation of painters came of age in the 1980s. Today, they bring the children from Yunnan’s mountains to paint the most familiar settings of their lives, and to stay true to their own lives, rather than following the trends and painting those “popular signs.” Plein air painting awakens an unfamiliar awareness of the countryside. This place has given rise to a new generation of painters such as Tao Fa, Li Rui, Su Bin, Ma Dan, Xun Guipin and Liu Yu. On the positive side, landscape painting reflects artists attempting to overcome the proliferation of excessive conceptualization and graphic tendencies in painting.

In this way, we can summarize three major shifts that took place in the local Yunnan art scene from 2000 to 2010. First is the shift in the scene of exhibition production from official museums toward folk-based art spaces and public space. Before 2000, local exhibitions mainly took place in official exhibition spaces, and were few and far between. After the establishment of the Loft Artist Community, a great many folk-based art spaces, alternative spaces and public spaces became the main setting for exhibitions. New types of exhibition sponsors appeared and the variety of exhibition settings grew richer. In this period, the production of exhibitions was catalyzed by artists, curators and other folk-based forces. The self-organization and curatorial activities of artists were highly dynamic, and the holding of exhibitions became a means for gathering and exchange, and a strategy for finding opportunities. This was the main form in which the optimism of the art scene in this period was expressed. Dynamic exhibition production also enriched artistic experiences and the criteria for judgment.

The second was a shift in the means for obtaining knowledge from student-teacher relationships in the academy to a more comprehensive field of vision of the art world rooted in information and exhibition experience. In such a flourishing art scene, the traditional student-teacher relationship in the academy was no longer the sole factor influencing young students. People could learn about the outside world through the Internet, publications and personal experience, and could use new technologies to actively interact with people in various regions, form groups and hold exhibitions together. Young people often gained the most direct artistic experience and broadened field of vision by assisting those teachers who were most active on the art scene. They were a group of people who grew up and drew nourishment from the culture and art scene. This continued until 2010, when Yunnan Arts University and the Yunnan University College of Art and Design relocated to the Chenggong University Town in suburban Kunming. This changed the structure of the city, as art students were no longer the main audience for art events in the city center.

Third is the shift in the field of painting from formal style to schematic expression. This shift was mainly under the influence of the market and the media. During this period, painters were universally seeking some form of “individual schema.” Though the development of “individual schema” began back in the 1990s, by the 2000s it had become widespread, with everyone from young painters to students seeking a similar solution. This decade could perhaps be understood as a period of “transposed thinking” in which all of the issues painters had once discussed about painting had been replaced by a new era. Topics of discussion within the realm of painting, such as brushstrokes, shapes and colors, were replaced by questions outside of painting, such as how to paint in an era of image production, how to gain exhibition opportunities, and how to have a space of one’s own. It was more important for the artist to go out than to stay in the studio. The shift in perspective on these questions was particularly apparent during this decade, which expanded the realm of people’s thinking. There were both positive and negative elements here. The positive influence was that people came to understand that art’s effectiveness was inextricably linked to social influence. In an era before the emergence of individual media platforms, attracting the media’s attention and the chance to become the subject of public discussion was the first step on an artist’s path to success. In this decade, it seemed people could draw on effort, risk and opportunism to establish a foundation, whether it was fame or an economic foundation. The framework for thinking about painting and art also changed. People began thinking about the matter at hand from a much wider perspective entailing concepts of the image, cultural theory and international vision. The negative side was that, for art and particularly for painting, did the above issues really constitute issues? Were they really so pressing? Or were they just trends artists had to follow? The answer perhaps differs from one person to the next.

These shifts and trends do not necessarily represent a correct direction. Though the events of that decade are now ten to twenty years behind us, we still need to accumulate more time to make a historical judgment. Meanwhile, the selection of 1978 as a starting point in time also reflects that Chinese contemporary art does not entirely follow an independent and complete linear logical progression from premodern to modern and postmodern, as in the West. China’s modern progression, like much of the non-Western world, is in a state of rifts, clashes and fusion with its own traditions and the present. Individuals are seeking out opportunities within precisely this predicament.

If one thing is for certain, it is that the issues we focused on in the 1980s and 90s experienced a shift in framework and field of vision after 2000. This shift made it so that we could no longer talk about whether a particular oil painting was good or bad. This shift made us aware that any discussion of a thing requires a range, and to promote anything requires opportune timing. This shift in the field of vision and framework made events in art easier to control, and art itself more difficult to grasp.

Finally, we can say that the way in which the situation for Yunnan art from 2000 to 2010 differed from before was that exhibition production became the center of gravity, and artists had much closer relationships with the public, society and the market. Even if people imitated or chased after certain popular artistic forms, and always faced uncertainties, they were generally optimistic and ready for action. They yearned for expression and exchange, and were ready to seek out opportunities. The means for obtaining knowledge grew more open, on-the-scenes experience grew richer, and the international field of vision was normalized. These phenomena had a profound impact on the expansion of local art relationships. Complex elements of history, the present, the global, the local, the market and cultural experience, alongside all manner of explorations of media, were mixed together to form a spectacle of lively, diverse growth among private art spaces and artistic forms.

Luo Fei

Bangkok, August 4, 2019