The Zhuhai Symposium

The “Little Movements” research— launched by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Su Wei— takes Wang Guangyi’s verbal recollection of the seminal 1986 Zhuhai Symposium as a case study. The researchers claim that the chief aim of “Little Movements” is to emphasize the self-construction of dominant trends within contemporary art. Using this stated aim as the basis, we can attempt an understanding of their reasons for selecting to study Wang and the Zhuhai Symposium. In Wang’s telling, as a marker along his personal and creative development, the Zhuhai Symposium stands as the dividing line for his awareness of “group” versus “individual.” By Wang’s own analysis, after the symposium, he placed a greater emphasis on the importance of the individual and his self-construction.

This article takes exception not with Wang’s interpretation of his creative development, but that the researchers accept Wang’s words as the definitive account of events leading up to the Zhuhai Symposium. The method that Liu and his cohorts chose for researching as important historical event as the Zhuhai Symposium is problematic. An oral history, even one recounted by a central figure like Wang, is overly simplistic when the goal is to understand the origins and nature of a moment in history. An oral history is not a primary source; the facts asserted therein need the corroboration of other, additional materials. The biggest problem with oral histories is not that the narrator intentionally obscures or alters historical facts, it is that during the process of recounting, the narrator unconsciously selectively forgets. This is the reason why autobiographies include primary sources, because the presence of these documents serves to rectify facts that the narrator forgot.

Perhaps the “Little Movements” researchers did not consider the Zhuhai Symposium from a historical perspective, because they believe that “the artistic system emphasized by ‘Little Movements’ is flat, not a view of art as a hierarchical mechanism for power where the internals are the same, and the division of labor and roles are different.”² Nevertheless, this belief in a flat artistic system is an attitude, not a method for historical research. Art history research has revealed that during the 1980s and 1990s, avant-garde art mixed and mingled with official art, and internal debates within the avant-garde art movement were not without apparatuses of power and rank. In the case of Wang Guangyi, words such as “superman” and “sheep” abound in his writing and artistic experimentation from the period. Do these facts not signify the operation of power and hierarchy? Indeed, the power wielded by certain art journal editors during the 1980s actually determined the occurrence and development of many events and trends in contemporary art. To abandon the analysis of power relations, as Liu and his fellow researchers did here, equates to obscuring a major component in the development of contemporary art in the 1980s.

Wang Guangyi’s letters from the 1980s reveal that the main forces behind the Zhuhai Symposium came from Gao Minglu, Shu Qun, and Wang himself. And judging from the published remembrances of Gao and Shu, the concept of a staging a slideshow had been discussed before planning began. As early as April 1986, Gao, Shu, Zhang Peili, and other young artists had broached the idea of organizing a slideshow.

In an interview from the early 2000s, Wang describes the process of mounting the Zhuhai Symposium: “The Painting Institute [of Zhuhai] wanted to raise its profile. So it was decided that to celebrate the Institute’s founding, they would spend RMB 300,000 to invite famous artists from throughout the country, to meet for a high-level symposium. At the time, for a local danwei to organize a national event, they must first coordinate with the state-level agencies. I came to Beijing and quickly met up with Li Xianting, who was an editor at Fine Arts in China. Li talked to the publisher. And things progressed quickly from there.”

According to Wang Guangyi, mounting the Zhuhai Symposium was all smooth sailing, but the reality was more complicated. The first time Wang mentions a slideshow was in a letter was to Shu Qun dated April 1986. In the letter, Wang highly recommended staging the slideshow in Zhuhai: “As for a ‘group’ slideshow, I think it best that the first exhibition takes place in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone. Just so happens that a gathering of big names from all fields will take place in Zhuhai this June. When the time comes you and Gao Minglu should get a couple of essays published in concurrence with the slideshow.” Wang Guangyi’s reasons for so energetically recommending Zhuhai as the slideshow’s site were as he had stated, that the Painting Institute wanted to organize an event on the occasion of its founding, influential personalities within the art world were invited, and the slideshow was an opportunity to increase the Northern Art Group’s influence.

In Gao Minglu’s recollection, however, the slideshow was originally planned to take place in Guangzhou: “This type of communication (the slides), inspired several representatives at the meeting to consider the idea of mounting a slideshow. Li Zhengtian— of Guangzhou— and Shu Qun, Li Shan, and Zhang Peili together came to me to propose organizing this show jointly. The location was provisionally set in Guangzhou.” Gao’s reminiscences provide an alternative explanation for the origins of the Zhuhai Symposium. In two letters that Wang Guangyi wrote to Shu Qun, we see the important role that Gao had played in communicating with Fine Arts in China. On June 9, 1986, Wang wrote a letter to Shu, which stated, “Everything on the Zhuhai side of things are going well. Let’s invite all of the people that Gao Minglu had listed, all of them.” A later letter, dated July 23, contained the following, “Received a long reply from Minglu yesterday. He said that Fine Arts is concerned that it is not a good idea to publish names of the jury. So whatever notices that have not been distributed, we should stop sending them out. Then take all of the undistributed ones and send them to Gao Minglu, who will forward them to Fine Arts in China.” These exchanges reveal the role played by Gao Minglu, Shu Qun, and Wang Guangyi during the symposium’s planning.

From its formulation and development to the symposium’s impact, this meeting in Zhuhai was in fact a summit on theories of rational discourse in art. In April 1986, at the Symposium on Chinese Oil Painting, Gao Minglu used phrases such as “rational spirit (lixing jingshen),” “tide of rationality (lixing zhi chao),” and “rational painting (lixing huihua) ”to summarize the rational discourse that arose in 1985. This was the moment that rational discourse transformed from self-generating to self-aware. The Zhuhai Symposium was a meeting consciously organized by those who controlled the rational discourse. Zhuhai, as the location where this meeting took place, became the Utopia that those who controlled the rational discourse were yearning for. Shu Qun’s remembrances confirm this fact: “Li Zhengtian strongly recommended holding the first [slide] show in Guangzhou. But Zhang Peili and I said that we wanted to first discuss it with Wang Guangyi and then decide. So then I wrote a letter to Guangyi, recommending that he convince the Painting Institute of Zhuhai to undertake organizing this first [slide] show.”

The Zhuhai Symposium

In the beginning of 1986 Wang Guangyi was transferred to work at the Painting Institute of Zhuhai. It just so happened that at this time the Institute wanted to hold a large conference. These two events created the opportunity for symposium to take place. From today’s perspective, if we only view the Zhuhai Symposium as an event that happened by chance, then we ignore its historical inevitability. An alternative perspective that we can take to find the meaning of this event would be to examine the power of discourse.

Of the young artists present at the Symposium on Chinese Oil Painting, Li Shan, Zhang Peili and Shu Qun were singled out as representatives of rational painting. During that symposium, they surely recognized the position they held within the art world. This was especially true of Shu and Wang Guangyi. Judging from the stance they took as they published articles and showed artworks, they no longer viewed artistic creation as private murmurings of the artist alone, in his studio, facing the canvas. Instead, the purpose of artistic creation was to make art that entered the media of communication. Ideas were now the backbones of art. In 2006, when Wang Guangyi accepted to be interviewed by The Beijing News, he uttered the slogan-like phrase, “painting output can be fewer, but articles must be written.”

Members of the Northern Art Group never limited themselves to a space purely for art. Their activities extended toward communications channels, operations of power, and other such areas. The Zhuhai Symposium was an occasion where rational discourse and official power came into direct conflict.

The nature of the Zhuhai Symposium was in fact a Utopia dreamed up by 1980s rational discourse. The individuals and factions who were later grouped into rational painting all played important roles in this symposium. They were Wang Guangyi, Shu Qun, and Ren Jian, representing the Northern Art Group; Ding Fang from Nanjing; and Zhang Peili from Hangzhou. In their letter exchanges, when the topic turned to organizing a slideshow in Zhuhai, the artists all showed marked excitement.

Ding Fang, because he did not participate in the Symposium on Chinese Oil Painting, was more distant in his dealing with Shu Qun and others. Nevertheless, without a doubt, the Zhuhai Symposium represented a Utopian vision for Ding. In a letter to Shu, Ding wrote, “I heard that at the end of July Zhuhai is hosting a slideshow. This is a great opportunity for young artists from across the country to get together and have discussions. I will absolutely endeavor to attend. Hope to see you there!” The reason these young artists invested so much hope in the Zhuhai gathering was related to the suppression they experienced when it came to open discourse. The significance of having artistic freedom in a Utopia was also born from this suppression. In his letter to Shu Qun, Ding Fang explained the difficulties he had in combating outside pressures: “At the end of June [1986], I will have graduated and accepted a teaching position at the school. I encountered some intentionally difficult questions during the graduation oral exam, but because I was fully prepared for this, the few conservative administrators had to let me slide through, one eye open, one eye closed. Starting now, I’m ready to go out.”

Zhang Peili, as one of the participants of the Symposium on Oil Painting in April 1986, was even more aware of the art trends at the time. During the symposium, a dialogue formed between young, middle, and older generations of artists and art critics. The suppression and external pressure that the young artists felt did not come from the older, conservative artists, but from the ideological environment of the entire country. In the 1980s, the national ideology, through artists’associations and academies of art, permeated every corner of the art world.

Ideology should not be interpreted as an abstract, political thought complex, but “the ways in which the meaning mobilized by symbolic forms serves to establish and sustain relations of domination.” Ideology, first, is not only a concept of power, but a concept born from the intersections of “meaning” and “power.” Thus, form is not a static concept, but is ever moving and changing. The diversity of symbolic forms determines the diversity of meaning, at the same time influencing the diversified development of ideology. The art realm often uses images and discourse as symbolic forms to construct relations of domination. Therefore, what the artists struggled against was the control that ideology exercised over images and discourse.

The experience of Zhang Peili in the art world is particularly telling in this respect. As one of the most important exhibitions of rational art, “’85 New Space” in fact came from the work of and organization by Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. During its planning, Zhang was transferred to work at the Academy. One of the results of this personnel transfer was the exhibition’s success. But the experience also increased the discursive pressure Zhang felt, leading him to want to quickly escape the imagery and discourse pressures of ideology. Organizing the meeting in Zhuhai then became about creating a utopia where he could escape from these pressures.

In a July 1986 letter to Shu Qun, Zhang Peili wrote, “My greatest appreciation for your positive reception of Pond Society (Chi She). For me, its significance will greatly surpass that of “‘85 New Space.” Therefore I especially want to have your agreement. In a way, “New Space” was still more or less a product of official planning and operation, a tool of negotiations between the officials and us. But Pond Society is different. It belongs entirely to us. We can sculpt its image according to our intentions and wishes. Pond Society is closer to the state of things that we want. I have received the invitation [to the Zhuhai Symposium]. I plan on leaving the tenth, to arrive in Zhuhai on the twelfth. What about you? Shu Qun, leave early. Leave early for that realm of freedom!” Zhang viewed the Zhuhai Symposium with hope, to the point of using “realm of freedom” to describe it. This is the Utopia that we have mentioned earlier in this article.

In conclusion, the Zhuhai Symposium was not a “little movement” of Wang Guangyi, nor was it a “little movement” of art history. It was far from being flat; it was full to the brim of struggles between different powers. It was the result of a total contest between the avant-garde, officialdom, and the avant-garde’s internal system of discourse. The meaning and influence of the Zhuhai Symposium has become an essential link in the study of contemporary Chinese art. If these researchers are using Zhuhai Symposium to explain the “little movements” of Wang’s creative development, then the term “little movement” faces the danger of becoming a limitless, uselessly grand concept.