Xu Bacheng, A City without Sky, 2010, Mixed media, 600 x 300 x 200 cm

After the success of “Super-Organism,” the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum (CAFAM) organized “Sub-Phenomena—Report on the State of Chinese Young Art.” Mounting such an exhibition at this time reflects the awareness of the curators in the face of changes and trends in the current context of the art industry. Considering recent actions and discussions that targeted, covered, or impacted the artistic practice of young artists, the direction and ambition of this exhibition were abundantly clear. At the same time, although the exhibition focuses on the future, artistic practice in China during the first ten years of the new millennium was no doubt the backdrop for reflections and ideas. One imagines that the curators believe the young artists provide the reflections that are necessary for an evaluation of our past experiences, whether these reflections are supplementary, non-mainstream, or fantastical. To incorporate these ten years— possibly even the 1990s and the years previous— into the preexisting context for the exhibition is an impulse borne of the curators’ own historical experience. However, compared to the attention paid to the obvious demands of the art industry, the exhibition did not engage in in-depth, art historical evaluation.

Ninety-five artists under the age of 35 were included in the exhibition. The catalogue, Nominations, showcases works from a total of 286 artists working in the Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In terms of both scale and range, this exhibition is the largest of its kind to have ever been presented. The organizers and curators put their superior resources to use, choosing for the exhibition works that have a great variety in style, medium, methodology, strategy, and theory. Even the background and research focus of the 80-person nominating jury were intentionally diverse. Big and comprehensive— working methods that seem to have disappeared from contemporary art—are fully present in this exhibition and are the viewers’ primary experience. Institutional style and ambitious display stand clearly before our eyes, enlarging and expanding our limited experience, imagination, and judgment.

Perhaps to differentiate from the other group exhibitions for which the choice of artists and works is a matter of popular entertainment, here the organizers stated that the selection process was professional and scholarly. However, we the audience have no way of ascertaining how or whether the selection process occurred. We also do not see which research perspectives were reduced or developed during this parental process that was intended to be fair and objective. But not everyone harbors these concerns; for some viewers simply the name CAFAM is enough to elicit a knowing smile. Since its founding, this relatively new museum has steadily engaged in reorganizing its internal structures and renewing institutional attitudes. However, its staff and financial resources remain limited by its status as an official art museum. This exhibition reflects the self-imposed boundaries of the museum’s practice, as well a central problem with the localized experiments in “new institutionalism.”

The exhibition coins the term “sub-phenomena” to describe the emerging artistic practices, pinpointing six broad categories to organize the show: “Rampant Growth,” “Self-Media,” “Micro-Resistance,” “Otaku Space,” “Shallow Life,” and “Unknown.” During the exhibition, due to various reasons, these categories were only reflected on the labels and not much elsewhere. The curators’ descriptions reveal that they based their categories on the social and communal characteristics of contemporary artistic practice, while imbuing the position, relevance, and values of these practices with strong indicators of the times.

View of “CAFAM Future”, 2012, CAFA Art Museum, Beijing

On one hand, I cannot use the term “curatorial practice” as I understand it to describe the curation and display of this exhibition. To curate is also to create based on an understanding of one’s work. The curators intentionally used the word “report” to keep away from a curatorial perspective, favoring an even-handed and objective approach, though not enough to hide the problem of basing an entire exhibition on parsing past experiences. In fact, this interpretation of the emerging artistic practices just misses the specificity of these practices, while actively ignoring their connections to artistic context. For example, while the exhibition showed many works with abstraction as a main theme, there was not a discussion of abstraction’s place in terms of Modernism and its commercial context, nor of its form and meaning. In a non-historical exhibition, this dearth of questions is a fatal flaw. To concentrate all energy on the crude present and use simplistic, social descriptions to build connections for new artistic realms— this makes the future seem burdensome.

On the other hand, the reemergence of this familiar mode of social commentary in our present age of desensitization and passivity— and in great need of reflection— is significant and satirical. The question of how Chinese artists can explore and establish a conversation— between themselves and life and society through artistic practice and creativity— has long been obscured by the simplistic and idealistic interpretations of politics and society. At this moment, when we desperately need to reexamine the state of Chinese art after the ’85 New Wave, to again establish the effort and transitional background for individual artistic values, our critical and research perspectives remain limited to self-imagined, local developments. We need to ask ourselves whether this stance based in realism is itself realistic. The fieldwork as work method of “Sub-Phenomena” and value discussion based on concepts of community do not prevent us from seeing self-assurance and satisfaction in this exhibition. We discover that art is absent from this grand ceremony. Walking and pausing throughout the uncontrollable and complicated spaces of the museum, admiring the galleries and marveling at the difficulties of mounting and displaying so many works, we completely forget the existence of art before our eyes.

When an exhibition uses words such as “social values” and “ecology” to describe itself, it has intentionally left the boundaries of the art industry system. But the system is precisely the question that we so urgently need to examine. Can we confront the situation that we are in and the work that we do? Can we set aside competition, consumption, fights over resources, and imaginings of victory, in order to honestly reflect on our actual experience and the linguistic structure that have long entangled us? The answer is not about identifying differences, but how we understand our field of vision, assumptions, ways of thinking, evaluative habits, and cultural foundations. It is a question of how to face partial vision and partial experience, to proactively digest one’s own work and position; this will help us not to be restricted by our limited experience. Fundamentally, it is about facing one’s own limitations, about predicting and establishing connections between limited experiences in order to establish and reflect on one’s own vision— not about letting ourselves be confined within local concepts. Su Wei (Translated by JiaJingLiu)