Creativity in the Context of Constraints: Contemporary Chinese Art

Remarks by Vishakha N. Desai, senior vice president of the Society and director of galleries and cultural programs.

Hong Kong
September 21, 2000

There is no doubt that one of the biggest stories of the past few decades is the re-emergence of China on the world stage. The rapidity with which China has changed, and is changing, in economic, social, and cultural terms has no parallel in world history. However, it is fair to say that we hear more about China’s economic transformation, and its more sluggish political changes than we do about her extraordinary artistic achievements. Ironically, the very fact that the seemingly westernized or globalized radical works in Inside Out have not been readily seen in China, has given them a special aura as “avant garde” works abroad. In the international contemporary art world today, Chinese artists have become the darlings of curators and their works are fetching higher prices than any other groups of Asian artists. Artists like Xu Bing, Cai Guo-qiang, and Gu Wenda, are routinely hailed for their visual forms that skillfully negotiate the transnational geographies of hybrid cultural identity. Performance art of Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming delights and provokes viewers and participants from Seattle to Sydney.

Western critics often write about these artists and their work as if it they have no parallel within the Chinese tradition; they are often seen purely from the perspective of the western, international developments in the arts. As radical and even subversive as they may seem at a first glance, it is illuminating to understand them in the broader historical and cultural context of how creativity has flourished in China, even in the face of political constraints. The agility with which the Chinese employ their entrepreneurial skills within the limitations of the communist ideology is readily apparent in the subtlety of subversion that the artists may use in creating the visual form.

In this brief presentation, I would like to share with you some thoughts about the role of art and art making in China in the context of constraints--constraints that may come from political structures or from the weight of tradition, or from the social expectations. I realize that I am in the company of Chinese scholars, connoisseurs, and art professionals. My observations are made as an outsider who has been a student of Chinese art for more than two decades.

We give great credence to the thought that such creativity is not bound by anything that came before or any thing that may come after. The power of such a creative act lies in its singularity, in its isolation from other forces. In the modernist thought which has been the prevailing artistic ideology for much of this century, there has been a romantic quest for the “pure creation” that is uncontaminated by the past, a force that, in fact, rejects what has gone before.

Most of the Chinese writing provides a very different context for the word “creativity.” As early as the days of Mencius, creativity was defined not in isolation but in dialogue with the great personalities of the past by whom one’s own work could be meaningfully judged and properly appreciated. At the same time, there is a tremendous emphasis on the cultivation of one’s mind and one’s true nature in relation to the larger universe. To quote Mencius:

"He who has completely realized his mind, knows his true nature. And knowing his true nature, he knows the heavens.”

This idea of connecting the personal quest for creativity with the bigger forces is also amply seen in the writings of Wu Dao zu who identifies creativity as the force that can capture the creative power of nature.

Another feature of Chinese discussions about creativity is its conceptual basis. Chinese scholars are clear that creativity is not simply about the visual form but that-ideas must precede the form. In fact, as early as 1005 A.D., in the Northern Song Dynasty, several influential writers talk about the best art form as being one that comes after the thoughts have come and gone--“think first, then create”--after the logical reasoning has departed the mind. The work may have allusions to the narrative of the world, but it is far more powerful when it does not spell out all the banal details of the world.

It was this suggestive power of art, and its capacity to engender new thoughts that were often feared by the authorities who sought to control artists at different points in Chinese history. One of the most famous examples of subtle allusion that was deemed dangerous by the authorities is the poetry of the great Song Dynasty poet/painter, Su Shih. Living in southern China in the late 11th century, when the Song emperors in the north were facing political turmoil and challenges from the north and the south, Su Shih was fond of sending metaphoric poetry to his friends. The poems were seemingly about such innocent subjects as gardening. A group of his friends collected the poems, created an anthology and made it public. When the poems became public, Su was arrested on charges that his poems “denounced the imperial power.” How did the authorities establish their charges? They cited specific verbs such as “to mold and to smelt” in a poem about a garden. They insisted that such phrases were really about promoting social change. In fact, Su Shih did ultimately confess that his poems did have critical intentions and he was charged with the crime of “great irreverence” and was actually sentenced to have his head chopped off! The emperor, recognizing that such a severe punishment of a popular poet painter may cause further social unrest, reduced the sentence and sent him off to a small penal colony for two years instead.

This story has several important messages for us as we try to understand the role of arts and the artists in Chinese society even today. First, it makes it very clear that all at forms, especially poetry and painting, were considered powerful and capable enough to incite protest, even if through very indirect means. Secondly, it also points out that artists are used to pushing the edges of the limits imposed on them, but in very subtle ways. The messages could be alluded to and even decoded, but only by those who would be aware. The works could be appreciated at the formal level, and but more the viewer or the reader would bring to the work, the more he or she, would be able to appreciate the complexity of both form and content.

It is fair to say that many artists in Inside Out also push the limits of conventions and constraints. But reading of the work in only one particular way would not yield the most satisfactory results. Like the deeper reading of Su Shih’s poetry, these works demand that we bring some knowledge of contemporary Chinese developments, some awareness of Western art history, and a willingness to be stimulated by the form and the ideas embodied in these works.

As we enter the 21st century in the age of globalization, it is clear that we no longer live in the age of binaries--East vs. West, tradition vs. modernity. It is the artists who give voice to our lived experiences of cultural hybridity and create a new third space. The avant-garde artists of the Chinese world--from mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the West--serve as beacons of the new life, full of contradictions and excitement. I hope you will appreciate their creativity and resourcefulness as you explore Inside Out: New Chinese Art.