Total Awakening of Self-Awareness—Yunnan Oil Painting in the 1990s

The 1990s was a period when Chinese contemporary art moved toward the everyday. Though Yunnan is in a remote geographic location, this condition of relative weakness of orthodox forces promoted the emergence of a group of artists who influenced the development of Chinese contemporary art, many of them oil painters, and some of them coming to oil painting from other fields. These artists did not constitute the majority of oil painters in Yunnan, but they were clearly the most creative among them. They continued along the path of ideals opened up in the previous decade to further explore the cultural significance and social value of art, and opened up an era of total awakening of subjective awareness, which is why we would engage in dedicated theoretical research of Yunnan oil painting over the past forty years.

The “Yunnan oil painting” discussed in this essay does not refer to the entirety of Yunnan oil painting, but to those works that have played a critical or groundbreaking role in the development of Yunnan’s society and culture. Furthermore, the “Yunnan oil painting” discussed in this essay does not refer specifically to “oil painting” as a medium, but to the artists and artworks, mainly oil paintings, that have been influential. Following a “genealogical” research perspective, this essay does not attempt to establish continuity between different historical materials, but instead applies Michel Foucault’s ideas of the research of origins and discourse analysis, and follows the main thread of exhibitions held in Yunnan Province to convey the complexity of the dissemination of modern and contemporary art while also tracing the individual experiences of the participating artists with a focus on the cultural impact of their works within the specific social context. Due to space limitations, the essay will not engage in extended commentary on specific artworks.

Human subjectivity is the original impetus of the creator. People’s awareness of their subjectivity, moreover, is gradually awakened through the process of spontaneous creation. Art had always been a latent driver until it was revealed by modern artists over a century ago. Once they began to view art as an independent social affair, their various unorthodox experiments were no longer about stylistic innovation but conceptual reconstruction—art is a field in which the truth is realized, the origin of man’s historical presence. As Martin Heidegger said, “Whenever art happens… a thrust enters history, and history either begins or resumes… Art is the setting-itself-to-work of truth… Art allows truth to arise… [art is] a distinctive way in which truth comes into being, becomes, that is, historical.”[1] This conceptual blooming is precisely the embodiment of the awakening of subjectivity. It demands that people make a judgment: “Whether art can be an origin—and therefore must be a leap ahead—or whether it should remain a mere postscript, in which case it can only be carried along as a cultural phenomenon that has become routine.”[2]

Of course, due to the sensory nature of artists’ working methods, they do not necessarily have to employ philosophical thinking. They are better at applying what Michel Foucault described as “people’s knowledge” (a kind of knowledge that has always been subjugated by the intellectual and scientific hierarchy).[3] Rooted in this understanding, modern artists discarded the postscript production methods in favor of “becoming an origin” and a “leap ahead,” forming into what Clement Greenberg called avant-garde culture: “A superior consciousness of history… a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism.”[4] This implies that the concepts of equality and liberty, always treated as ideals, had started to become a reality, with an essential step along the path being the “disintegration” of the existing artistic language structure, what Heidegger saw as true steps back onto the “path of thinking.”[5] The New Wave Art Movement that took place in China in the 1980s was just such a practice in cultural criticism. On the surface, the New Wave was imitating the forms of Western modern art, but these very forms, which had a destructive power in Western society, had an even stronger cultural criticism effect in a Chinese society that had just recently started down the path of Reform and Opening. Though, as Li Xianting reflected in his essay It’s Not the Art that Matters,[6] the artists in the midst of it were not entirely clear on what exactly they were doing, their responses to social reality rooted in their individual needs had a real cultural effect.

As a remote region with unique natural scenery and ethnic customs, Yunnan had long been relegated to the role of provider of creative material, and it was precisely in this context of being othered that the subjective awareness of Yunnan’s art took on a double meaning: first was in casting off that image as “ethnic exotic” other under the gaze of mainstream culture and in affirming the value and significance of individual experience in artistic creation, and second was in exploring possibilities of exhibition independent of the mainstream discourse. In terms of the roots of modernity, the subjective awareness in Yunnan art can be traced back to the establishment of the Shen Society in 1980, but this awareness only evolved into a culturally effective practice five years later with the first Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition. Though the 85 New Wave Art Movement would eventually end in disappointment, the efforts of artists such as Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang and Pan Dehai in the 1980s, and their continued explorations thereafter, provided a wealth of information and spiritual encouragement for the development of Yunnan oil painting in the 1990s.

The Ten Young Yunnan Oil Painters Exhibition of 1990 was the beginning of the total awakening of subjectivity in Yunnan oil painting. The exhibition was organized by the Yunnan Artists Association, with artists Mao Xuhui, Zeng Xiaofeng, Pan Dehai, Luan Xiaojie, Ma Yun, Chen Chuyun, Chen Heng, Zhai Wei, Su Xinhong and Hui Yuanfu participating. Their works were quite different from the realism that was the mainstream of artistic creation at the time. This exhibition may appear to have been full of contradictions, but it actually possessed its own internal logic. First, Yao Zhonghua, then the board director of the Yunnan Artists Association, had always been a promoter of new directions in art, and as part of the nominating committee for this exhibition, he and Yao Yongmao used this official platform to introduce avant-garde artworks to Yunnan, to great effect. Second, the reputation built by participating artist Mao Xuhui through his artistic explorations throughout the 1980s was a major factor in bringing this exhibition to fruition. The artworks were also published in the journals Chinese Oil Painting and Jiangsu Pictorial, disseminating Yunnan contemporary art outside the province.

Wang Lin, who was then promoting the development of contemporary art in southwest China, took note of its development in Yunnan, and in 1992 curated the 92 Image and Painting Exhibition at the Yunnan Art Museum. “Artists Duan Yuhai, Luan Xiaojie and Zhu Fadong participated in the exhibition. Duan Yuhai used ‘Pop’ methods to touch on issues on various levels of Chinese society. This would become his main creative language in the decade to follow. Luan Xiaojie and Zhu Fadong’s works are marked by certain abstract elements. They were both in a phase of individual linguistic experimentation. This exhibition was very different from previous exhibitions. The participation of critics, and gallery sponsorship, formed an important exhibition model outside of the national art system.”[7]

In 1993, Tang Zhigang and Mao Jie, both recently returned from Beijing, independently organized the exhibition Oil Paintings by Tang Zhigang and Mao Jie at Yunnan Arts University. Tang Zhigang spent most of the late 1980s in Beijing. It was only his identity as a soldier that kept him from getting swept up in the subsequent waves of modern art at the time. Even so, Tang Zhigang’s works maintained individualized traits. Though his creative material remained within the army base, and the content did not leap the bounds of mainstream art, his expressive techniques were no longer limited to the confines of realism. Contrary to Tang Zhigang’s Expressionist leanings, Mao Jie used realist techniques to seek out implications in schema. Their artworks and exhibition approach provided new references for the later development of contemporary art in Yunnan.

Since it was held at Yunnan Arts University, Oil Paintings by Mao Jie and Tang Zhigang had an enormous impact on the young students of the time. One of the more obvious outcomes was when 1994 academy graduates Wu Yiqiang, Tian Rong and Dai Zewei returned to the school to hold the exhibition 94 Progress. The exhibition 94 Southwestern Art Focus Exhibition, held the same year at the newly-opened Southwest Commercial Building, placed contemporary art in the everyday life of Kunming residents. “This was an exhibition organized by the artists themselves, and funded by various sources. There were many participating artists in this exhibition, mainly of their own accord, rather than being selected according to the state of contemporary creation, or based on cultural expectations. Significantly, the holding of this exhibition gave people a clearer understanding of contemporary culture, and greater urgency regarding creation and pursuits. The role it played was to establish cultural attitudes, cultural thinking and cultural awareness rooted in contemporary art viewpoints and expressed through artistic means.”[8] More than twenty artists took part in this exhibition, and several of them would be highly active in the decade to follow: Tang Zhigang, Zeng Xiaofeng, Li Ji, Mao Jie, Luo Xu.

By 1995, Yunnan contemporary art had used oil painting to complete the decoupling of its subjective awareness from the exotic ethnic customs marker, and entered into a period of establishing a model for the exhibition of contemporary art. This model was self-organized, scholarly and international. “In May 1995, the exhibition Present Condition was held at the Yunnan Art Museum with funding from the Columbia University Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and the Kunming Haibin Futures Company. Critic Wang Lin was the artistic host, and the participating artists were Zeng Xiaofeng, Tang Zhigang, Li Ji, Liu Jianhua, Wu Jun, Duan Yuhai, Luan Xiaojie, Li Jiandong and Mao Jie. The artists exhibited as the ‘Yunnan Contemporary Art Research Society.’ It was an exhibition with clear cultural directedness.”[9] In 1996, several of the participants of the Present Condition exhibition held the Typology of Life exhibition at the Yunnan University Science Center. This exhibition was not opened to the public. Its main aim was to inform an international curator about the state of contemporary art in Yunnan. Through these continuous exhibition activities, Yunnan contemporary art attracted the attention of curators and art institutions in China. That same year, Wu Yiqiang and Tian Rong held the exhibition Individual/Ism at the Yunnan Art Museum, hosted by Wang Lin. In 1997, the Urban Character Group Art Exhibition, with Wang Lin as head curator, was held in more than twenty different cities. The Yunnan component of the exhibition was held at Yunnan Arts University, with Mao Xuhui and Yu Jian as artistic directors, and participating artists Tang Zhigang, Li Ji, Liu Jianhua, Zeng Xiaofeng, Yang Yijiang, Duan Yuhai, Luan Xiaojie, Wu Jun, He Yunchang and Tian Rong. This exhibition put Kunming’s artists on the map in southwest China. In this exhibition, we saw many artists beginning to form their own representative styles and languages. Tang Zhigang presented a “meeting” themed artwork. Li Ji’s “young lady with pet” motif made its first appearance here, as well as Zeng Xiaofeng’s individualized imagery of cities and machinery, and Luan Xiaojie’s “big boy.” This was also the last exhibition these artists would hold together as a group in the 1990s. After this, they would each begin to move beyond Yunnan and take the international stage in their own way.

In fact, in the developmental progression of Yunnan’s local art activities, there were also Yunnan artists who were active outside of Yunnan domestically and internationally, including early explorers such as Zhang Xiaogang and Pan Dehai, younger artists who left the province for studies, such as Zeng Hao, and artists who left the province during this process, such as He Yunchang, Zhu Fadong (whose practices also shifted from oil painting to performance and other mediums) and Wu Yiqiang. In addition, there were artists who remained in Yunnan while their artworks were frequently featured in major domestic and international exhibitions, such as Mao Xuhui, Tang Zhigang, Li Ji and Ma Yun. The acclaim earned by these artists and their works across China and internationally were a powerful stimulus for local contemporary art activities, including spiritual encouragement, conceptual renewal and the expansion of methods.

In light of the influence of contemporary oil painting in the first half of the 1990s, Yunnan Arts University established a special oil painting focus program led by Su Xinhong, which provided the platform upon which Tang Zhigang and Mao Xuhui began the preparations for the founding of the Yunnan Oil Painting Society, and held many academic exchange events before the society’s official founding in 1999. These activities included inviting famous international curator Monica Dematté to deliver a lecture at the university, opening up an international channel for the future development of contemporary art; and holding the Yunnan Oil Painting Society Preparatory Exhibition in 1997, which brought together many artists who had previously been going it alone, and established a platform for effective discourse.

In 1998, Ye Yongqing founded the restaurant and gallery Upriver Club, and on its opening day held the contemporary art exhibition Opening the Four Corners, for which famous artists from across the country traveled to the city. Yunnan then had a contemporary art site within the urban milieu. Famous curators and artists from China and abroad came to Yunnan and learned about the province because of this space, and the artists of Yunnan exchanged information with the outside and went out into the world. It was here that the later Loft Artists Community and a dissemination model based on fusion with everyday life came into being.

From the first outside explorations of a few artists, to international and local exhibitions corresponding and progressing together, and on to the emergence of the Oil Painting Society and the Upriver Club, Yunnan oil painting effected an expansion of contemporaneity in the 1990s, realizing a total awakening of subjective awareness. The term “total” here does not refer to an increase in quantity, but to a maturation of ideas. Artists were no longer concerned about the question of the relationship between form and content in paintings but in finding the specific pathways for realizing the cultural significance and social value of art. They were no longer “walking into the salons”, “pretending to be philosophers” or “forcing artworks to take on conceptual tasks they could not bear” like the pioneers of the “age of idealism”[10] but were now more focused on real effects. They no longer saw power and freedom in a simple dichotomy, or no longer idealized a zero-sum struggle as the solution to the problem but instead integrated art with the working methods of other fields (such as sociology, anthropology and cultural studies) within a more comprehensive field of vision to engage in an artistic practice that could have a real impact on society and culture. Art was everywhere. It could appear in museums, in schools, or in commercial settings. It could give rise to artistic communities, bringing powerful conceptual impact to art lovers, students and residents, and provoking deep thoughts, radiating the aesthetic subjective awareness into the everyday life of the city, opening a new chapter for increasingly everyday, increasingly diverse contemporary art in Yunnan after the year 2000.

Xuan Hongyu

Mengzi Garden, August 1, 2019

[1] Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, Sun Zhouxing, trans., Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2008, pp. 56–57.

[2] Heidegger 2008, p. 57.

[3] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Qian Han, trans., Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1999, p. 7.

[4] Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Shen Yubing, trans., Nanning: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009, p. 4.

[5] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, Sun Zhouxing, trans., Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1997, p. 213.

[6] Li Xianting, Zhongyao de bu shi Yishu (It’s Not the Art that Matters), Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House, 2000, pp. 110–113.

[7] Wu Jun, 90 Niandai de Yunnan Dangdai Yishu Jianji (Notes on Yunnan Contemporary Art in the 90s), in Wang Jiefu, 90 Niandai Yunnan Dangdai Yishu (Yunnan Contemporary Art in the 90s), Beijing: China Youth Press, 2011, pp. 25–61.

[8] See 7.

[9] See 7.

[10] See 6.