China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, 1989
Lecutre By Anthony Yung
Wang Youshen, Sample. China Avant-Garde, 1989, Photography Source: Wang Youshen Archive at Asia Art Archive
Held in February 1989, China/Avant-Garde was a landmark exhibition that aimed at representing a comprehensive review of the diverse experimental art practices that were newly emerged in mainland China between 1985-1988. The result was a massive exhibition with over over 180 artists and 290 artworks. Organisers of the exhibition amazingly earned the privilege to show at the China National Art Gallery (known today as National Art Museum of China) in Beijing, the most prestigious art venue in communist China. Therefore, the exhibition became an unprecedented occasion for Chinese experimental art, which used to be semi-illegitimate and only exist in some self-organized, limitedly accessible events and publications, to encounter and interact with the major official bureaucratic structure, the general public, and a wide range of mainstream media.
Meanwhile, another way to understand the importance of this exhibition is to understand the many difficulties that the exhibition encountered. These difficulties not only came from external political and social environments, but also came internally. Taking more than two years, the planning of this exhibition went through many twists and turns. The external difficulties the organisers faced included the repudiation of avant-garde art by the cultural apparatus, the campaigns to rectify political ideology and the complete lack of financial support. However, an even more significant problem was the divide arose between artists and the exhibition organisers, each of whom had gradually developed different understandings of the future direction of ‘avant-garde art’. These different understandings were evident in their variant hopes and dreams for China/Avant-Garde; amongst them, the most fundamental dilemma can be pinpointed in the act of organising such an ‘avant-garde exhibition’ itself – should avant-garde art make compromises to the ideological bureaucracy in order to gain legitimate exhibition space?
What made ‘China/Avant-Garde’ leave an even deeper mark are the various unauthorised extemporaneous incidents, such as the ‘gunshots’, the ‘shrimp selling’, the ‘foot washing’ and the ‘bomb threat’, carried out by artists during the exhibition. These resulted in the exhibition being shut down twice in the short span of its fifteen-day run, and garnered a lot of media attention both at home and abroad. However, as the exhibition was being held, and completely unforeseen to both the organisers and the participating artists, an even more significant historical event would unfold: two months after the exhibition, students across China successively began spontaneously protesting in a democracy movement that ultimately led to the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in June. For the China/Avant-Garde exhibition to occur at that time makes one wonder whether or not it was historically inevitable. Even though there may be no decisive answer, the angst and anxiety expressed in the exhibition and its related incidents, as well as those two gunshots that echoed in the exhibition hall, reflect the zeitgeist of this historical moment.
is a senior researcher at Asia Art Archive, specializing in China’s related research projects. He managed AAA’s major research project Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, which produced 100 interviews with artist, critics, scholars and other participants and collected a large amount of research materials about Chinese contemporary art from late 1970s to early 1990s.