At the present time the art field in China is in full swing: new names appear, the works by outstanding masters break records at the world-class auctions, new galleries are opened… More than 25 years have passed since the first exhibitions were held by the Chinese avant-garde. Today, Chinese art has obtained recognition in the global market. Of course, we can talk a lot about its value, but the fact remains – you will see the presence of Chinese contemporary art at famous auctions and galleries everywhere.
Among the most eminent artists in Chinese contemporary art are two main groups: «四大金刚» (Four Vajras) and « 四大海归» (Four Returnees). Also Chinese use the homophone for a returnee -- 海龟 (a marine turtle).
The first group includes the artists who have achieved a great deal of success in China. The works by these four artists are extremely successful with the auction’s bids: Wang Guangyi (王广义), Zhang Xiaogang (张晓刚), Fang Lijun (方力钧) and Yue Minjun (岳敏君).
The latter group, called «Marine Turtles,” is represented by four Chinese artists, who left China in the 90s. In contrast to the Four Vajras, these artists first became famous abroad: Huang Yongping (黄永砯)，Xu Bing (徐冰), Cai Guoqiang (蔡国强), Gu Wenda (谷文达). But recently their work has been showing up in China.
Although there are many differences between the Vajras and the Marine Turtles, their backgrounds are similar. By researching the development of art, esthetics, and examining the similarities and differences of these two groups, you get a good picture of the current situation in Chinese contemporary art field and can forecast its development.
First, the Vajras and the Marine turtles, both belong to the generation of the “1985 Year New Wave” movement (八五新潮). In other words they used to be “comrades”. In the early 80s the massive changes in China effected not only economics but also culture. Consequently, from 1985-1985 avant-garde communities emerged throughout the country. Within two years 79 groups were founded, 2250 artists joined them, and 149 exhibitions were held. The peak event of this movement occurred when an exhibition by the young, new artists was banned by Beijing officials.
The movement is best characterized by the two main conceptual approaches of the Chinese avant-gardists. One consists of rationalistic painting (理性绘画) and the second Zen-Dadaism. The most important of the rationalists include Haerbing’s «North Art Group» (北方艺术群体), Nanjing’s “Red Brigade” and Hangzhou’s «A Pond» (池社). The Dadaists were represented by Fujian’s “Xiamen Dada” (厦门达达) and Hangzhou’s «Red Humour» (红色幽默)。
The «North Art Group», whose premiere artist was Wang Guangyi, was influenced by the utopian values of German philosophy. The art was aimed at creating new ideals, necessary after the disappointment of the Cultural Revolution. It was not named because of its geographical location. The name is intended to create an association with the idea of new civilization – “North Civilization”, which might replace the diminishing cultures of the East and the West.
One of the founders of ‘Xiamen Dada” was Huang Yongping. Cai Guoqiang also joined this group. They created the new trend, called Zen-Dadaism, which aspired to draw a similarity between the philosophies of Zen Buddhism and Dadaism. Both of which question of the existence of Truth. The latter approach was developed in south-western China in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, which were less industrially developed, and were closer to nature. In addition, many national minorities inhabit these regions, people who had preserved their lifestyles and culture. This approach was named “Life current” (生命之流) and propagated a free expression of feelings and emotions.
One of the most influential groups was the “South-western Community” (西南艺术群体). Among their postulates there was that art should move people’s hearts, not amaze their eyes. One of their outstanding representatives of this movement was Zhang Xiaogang.
The differences between the Vajras and the Turtles began appearing when the future "Turtles" moved abroad. Western culture and lifestyles provided a different way of understanding the values of contemporary art, which changed the artists’ perspectives and influenced their art. For instance, The Vajra’s art is almost always depicted within the structure of easel painting (架上艺术). Certainly, Wang Guangyi and Yue Mingjun began creating sculptures, but the technique is absolutely similar to easel art, because it doesn’t adopt any concept. The major form of the Turtles’ art is through installation（装置艺术）and mixed-media. Sometimes they return to traditional painting, but often with a modern conceptualization.
The reasons for these differences are related to the conditions in which the artists were developing. In the early 90s Chinese contemporary art struggled in the opposition to majority opinion, when art and its movements were disappearing step-by-step. The avant-garde was in constant flux between individualism and social conscience. The art became a mode of existence and self-expression. Easel art, which implies individual work, became emblematic of an expression of otherness. By the way, this art was designed to be easily understood by the masses. The first installations in China appeared in the 80s, but these exhibitions were often misunderstood and, along with a lack of exhibition sites, they didn’t develop in a proper way. However, the West is more familiar with installations and conceptual art, so the Chinese artists who migrated had more opportunities to develop in these fields.
The second reason for the differences between the «Vajras” and the “Turtles” is due to the market. Most of “Vajras’s art consumers are wealthy Chinese who hold traditional values. The installations are interesting to them. While in the West the collectors have another idea about the value of artworks, so the pieces by the “Turtles” meet their requirements. That’s why, only in the USA and European countries Cai Guoqiang, Gu Wenda and others have got a chance to develop.
However, many of these artists have come back to China.One reason is the changing ideas about contemporary art in the Chinese society. There is a new audience here. Another reason is that they desire recognition in their own country, where, today, they are more often welcome.
The discussion about the prospects of Chinese contemporary art follows several trends. First, more and more “Turtles” will come back to China because now China can offer more opportunities for their development, while global recognition guarantees that many doors which used to be locked can be opened. Second, the return of the “Turtles” will have a great influence on art within China. Their art can expand the scope of art concepts. Finally, a new generation of Chinese artists will provide the attention that these artists have been working to achieve.
(a) Written by Olga Merekina
Edited by Monica Merenda