Yang Zhenzhong, On the Pillow, 2000, C-print, 115 × 177 cm.
Courtesy ShanghART Gallery.

There seems to be a certain fetishization surrounding the concept of experimentation. Maybe the idea of experimentation is linked to the idea of creating something “alternative”—another deeply fetishized word. We love the idea of something being “alternative” and “experimental.” Maybe we mean the same thing. Is something “alternative” by definition “experimental”, and is being experimental automatically alternative? After all, one cannot create something for the mass market and call it alternative or experimental, or can we? When George Lucas came up with the creative and marketing ideas for Star War she was roundly rejected by Hollywood executives; and even when he brokered a deal they laughed at his naivety for giving up box office profits for merchandising royalties. In the end the merchandise dwarfed box office profits and created what is now standard commercial practice in Hollywood. Is that alternative or experimental, neither or both? What about having an experimental attitude? Is attitude the key to experimentation, something without which any experimentation becomes null and void? After all, attitude signifies intent, and one must have the intention to experiment in order to be experimental. Once again, maybe not. Attitude is not necessarily easy to identity. Attitude can be acted out, formalized, and worn like a perfume.

Like the tech industry buzz word “innovation” and government slogan “creativity”, “experimentation” seems to give sexy kudos to artistic practice. Like many substantial words, its meaning is undermined simply by being acknowledged and repeated. Repeat it enough times and the word becomes reduced to decoration to adorn press releases and wall texts. It turns out that experimentation, like attitude, can be formalized. We seem to know when something is experimental. It has a certain aura, a certain authenticity, a certain feeling. However, just like Hollywood executives shunning George Lucas, when self-professed experimental art-loving professionals are confronted with the results of actual experimentation, it is often dismissed or simply ignored. The reason for this is not that said art professionals are self-serving hypocrites who don’t actually appreciate authentic experimentation: it is because experimentation doesn’t have a series of recognizable traits like minimal sculpture or expressionist painting. The problem is, many people think it does. What I described above is its psychological profile.

Wang Xingwei, By the River Neva in St. Petersburg No.2, 2013-2015, Oil on canvas, 200 × 200 cm.
Courtesy Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne.

Where does this profile come from? We know what people mean by experimental film and experimental music. Both music and film are widely consumed as mass entertainment, so anything that goes against the grain of consumer and industry tastes can be described as experimental. There are many music labels that exclusively support and release experimental music, and there are film festivals devoted to promoting experimental film. This is actually important, because most films and music are produced as standardized products for an entertainment industry, so the experimental alternative to that is extremely important from a cultural perspective.

The previous sentence illustrated how alternative and experimental are related within a mainstream context. However, fine art is not produced for mass entertainment; it is not mainstream. Artworks are in general still produced as unique one-off works to be appreciated by a professional or well-educated audience. In China, contemporary art is the anti- establishment alternative to overtly commercial or state-sponsored art. Or at least it used to be. In the 1980s avant-garde art was the antidote to decades of state-produced propaganda art. However, by the 1990s things took a strange turn. When a strong market developed around a group of successful contemporary painters, commercial interests didn’t take long to realize the arbitrary nature of artistic value, and promptly built up elaborate schemes to inflate artist prices to incendiary levels. For many other artists, this represented a threat to the very nature of contemporary art as an independent cultural force in an otherwise conformist society. The object of rebellion shifted from the state to overtly commercial contemporary artists, and the fight for identity became an internal one. The word “experimental” became a kind of marker to differentiate between serious artists and commercial sell-outs. The uniquely Chinese art world term xueshu(学术) persists to this day to denote serious artistic as opposed to commercial intent. Xueshu art ended up winning this battle of identity, thanks in part to the global financial crash of 2008-2009 that flushed out a lot of manipulated art prices. Gone is the supremacy of substandard expensive artists propped up by crude businessmen, replaced by artists showing in top international galleries and biennales. The standard for artistic recognition had shifted from the crude and local to the sophisticated and international. So, in this new scenario, is there still a need for the term “experimental” or have we returned to the first paragraph of this article, asking whether experimental has become the new normal and therefore redundant as an exception? To answer this question it is important to assess the situation we find ourselves in at this moment in time.

Nadim Abbas, Chamber 665 “Kubrick”, 2014-15, Installation.
PHOTO: Benoit Pailley

Chinese contemporary art is arguably in a very good position. Just take a look at what happened in Shanghai this November to understand how things have developed over the past five years or so. Older collectors are opening museums for Chinese and international contemporary artists to do adventurous projects, and a younger generation of collectors with a more global outlook is supporting emerging artists, galleries, and even art fairs. There are more and more contemporary art spaces opening up all over the country, spreading to second-tier cities to make contemporary art not only accepted by a young urban population, but also a new generation of more open-minded government bureaucrats. All this despite a serious downturn in the Chinese economy. However, while feel-good optimism is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily produce important art. Rather, it feels like a thin layer of icing covering up fundamental problems that lurk menacingly just beneath the surface. A more sophisticated form of conformity is stalking Chinese contemporary art, one that is not designed by any malevolent external force, and therefore more insidious as a result. If one analyses a cross-section of Chinese contemporary art today, the spectrum of diversity is becoming narrower when it should be broadening. It appears that domestic restrictions coupled with collector and curator tastes are channeling artists down a certain path-the path of least resistance. Few artists deal with Chinese political, social, cultural, or historical issues, and even fewer artists feel connected enough with the world to comment upon anything happening outside of China. What’s left is aesthetic sophistication, an international contemporary language that can be quickly digested, appreciated, and shared. It has become approachable and acceptable—to Western collectors and curators, to young Chinese audiences, and to government censors. The whole situation described above has developed so well largely because the overall quality of work has been steadily improving. However, a contemporary culture that is cut off from the very reality it claims to represent is going to have problems down the road.

Wang Yin, Untitled, 2016, Oil on Canvas, 60 × 80 cm

So how does this relate to experimentation? As the analysis of the word “experimentation” above illustrates, many readily accepted notions of this term are problematic. If art is just a career, then experimentation can be a look or attitude to further that career. But if art is a vocation, then experimentation has to be a way of life. It is a way of thinking and feeling about art, oneself, and how to connect oneself to the world one lives in. It’s a constant exploration for the meaning of expression,and not stopping until the connection between oneself and art is a real one, a personal one. The biggest challenge for a young generation of Chinese artists is finding what the “self” means in Chinese society today. Even though China is a society still dominated by heavy handed ideological control, many artists imagine themselves existing in a post-ideological condition in this Chinese corner of the global art world. They have not experienced the massive changes that have transformed China over the decades. Many people who worshipped Mao and ransacked the houses of “counter revolutionaries” during the revolutionary fervor of the 1970s became people who worshipped money and despised the proletariat just two decades later. The subject is a very fragile and malleable substance, and ideology is the perfect social sculpting tool. Under these circumstances, does one really know oneself? What exactly is one’s relationship with one’s culture, with an imported art form, with one’s practice? Importantly, how does one get through to the subject, and what is art’s role in this process? Does one find one’s true self in order to make good art, or does one make art in order to get closer to one’s self? These questions may appear simplistic or even pedantic, but looking at the art being produced today, they appear to be overlooked more often than not.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1961, Pencil on etching proof, 31.115 × 30.48 cm.
Courtesy Pace Gallery

Experimentation is the process of separating the wheat from the chaff of artistic expression. If one looks at the work of Agnes Martin, one sees a clear and simple artistic language that uses lines and grids. These works exist as if they always existed. However, it took Martin twenty years to reach such timeless simplicity; a long process of constant experimentation that didn’t let premature commercial or critical success get in its way. Perhaps for Martin, art and subject were the same thing. Finding one meant finding the other. I have covered the work of Wang Yin in these pages. In my article “On Wang Yin-Towards a Poor Painting” I described two different forms of experimentation—the fashionable and the difficult kinds. Wang Yin’s desire to connect with modern Chinese cultural roots contrasted with a collective amnesia of those very roots by the cultural community,and thus his artistic vocation was given focus and purpose that related to himself but also created wider meaning. His attitude was experimental to the core, but the slow and awkward progress of his practice lacked the sheen of the recognizably experimental. It is indeed telling that his work and the work of Wang Xingwei have both been ignored by Western art professionals, even those looking for the best depictions of Chinese reality. The lack of familiarity of their work is a testament to their search for authenticity, and how in the process they produce something truly radical.

Here we come to the core of my argument, and that is the aim of experimentation is to produce something radical for the here and now. Radicality doesn’t have a look or swagger, it aims to cut to the heart of the subject and its context. Our situation today has hardly ever been so complex, as cultures melt together or curdle badly, as the battles between political and religious ideologies have reached terrifying levels, as the biggest population exodus in the history of the planet is happening before our eyes. This is our context, this is what we are part of. How does one cut to the heart of anything so intricate and tangled? Only by trying to find what the self actually is in all this. The process of finding this elusive self is what I understand to mean an experimental practice.