Zhao Chuan, Joint Publishing, Shanghai, 2014, 224 pp., Chinese
Zhao Chuan, Joint Publishing, Shanghai, 2014, 224 pp., Chinese

ON RADICAL ART: The 80s Scene in Shanghai is a historical reflection on the paucity of language and ideological resources. Despite its title, On Radical Art: The 80s Scene in Shanghai covers a period up until the mid-1990s. It depicts Shanghai as a city that had the potential to challenge Beijing’s cultural authority, but was ultimately unable to prevail in the struggle for power. To a certain extent, the unconventionality of the Shanghai art scene was to its advantage. There were no prestigious art colleges in the city after 1949, and the 1980s artistic environment was largely made up of graduates of the Shanghai Theatrical Institute, Shanghai Arts & Crafts College, Central Academy of Arts & Design, and the China Academy of Art, as well as artists from literary families and the working class. Inevitably, this led to more youthful, vibrant artistic practices than in cities that championed the academy system.

The word “radical” in On Radical Art: The 80s Scene in Shanghai replaces other terms such as “contemporary,” “pioneer,” and “avant-garde.” This choice encapsulates Zhao Chuan’s position: that art from the end of the Cultural Revolution through to the mid-1990s was insufficiently modern, fashionable, and avant-garde, and was at best expressing rebellion against a restrictive social environment. A lack of language and ideological resources added to the radical character of the movement. Many teachers in Shanghai’s art schools in the 1980s were prominent artists during the Republic of China: through them, budding Shanghai artists absorbed the “make foreign things serve China” philosophy of the 1930s, which gradually matured into a strange creative state that straddled 30 years of post-war Western artistic development. Of course, this was never fully realized, but the zeitgeist in Shanghai certainly had a more Western flavor than that of other Chinese cities at the time.

According to the author, the background of the radical art movement is as follows: After the Cultural Revolution, the government and the people seemed to reach a consensus for social change, but nobody was sure how to begin. In order to stimulate the state apparatus, the government gave a modicum of power to the people—but the intellectual classes, who had long been excluded from politics, saw this as an opportunity to demand further rights to political discourse. Conflict among the elite provoked anxiety in the government, which feared that too much control would lead to stagnation, and too little control would lead to chaos. At the same time, it also eroded what little was left of the Chinese people’s ideological ethics.

On Radical Art: The 80s Scene in Shanghai goes on to illustrate the desire of artists at the start of the 1990s to isolate themselves from ideological influences and experiment with artistic language alone. In his cautious approval of the results, Zhao Chuan again highlights the lack of experimentation and reflection during the 1980s: Once artists had drifted away from the public, it became harder for them to develop their work or to find exposure for it, even as a surfeit of clever work was being produced.

Beginning with the “Garage Art Exhibition” in 1991, Zhao Chuan chooses to focus on artists active in Shanghai in the early 1990s, such as Song Haidong, Hu Jianping, Qian Weikang, and Gong Jianqing. Few of these artists were visible in international exhibitions and commercial markets for long—as Zhao puts it, “they could not adequately respond to rapid changes in society and the subsequent changes in artistic issues… artists like them are ten a penny in any era.” The book concludes with a vivid account of the death of Gong, an artist who remained uncontaminated by the influence of the academy and who was a symbol of the kind of radical art, emphasizing the value of society and rationality, which fell from favor in the 1990s. “The narrow path of independent choices, slowly and imperceptibly influenced by global integration, is finally replaced with the wide road of contemporary art.”

We might say that time has run out for the previous generation to reflect on their romantic, political passions and their search for liberation, or accuse them of not fully reflecting on Western modernism and their own traditional resources—but in truth, cultural figures around the world have never managed to adequately prepare before being drawn into global contemporary art activities. To draw on existing language and ideological resources is to return to the question of how social connections are formed between people, rather than to individual expression. For the most part, On Radical Art: The 80s Scene in Shanghai relates its history through a discussion of “ways in which people come together.” In an edifice founded on politics, art can become a catalyst, contributing to the creation of a social space full of friction in which we can cast off once and for our fear of meager resources. (Translated by Sarah Stanton)