Lisa Movius: Chinese Art in America

Xu Zhen

Super Absorbent

Published in The Asian Wall Street Journal, October 2003


San Diego and Shanghai could not be more different. The sprawling Southern Californian suburb doesn't have much in common with the chaotic Chinese metropolis it faces across the Pacific. Yet two San Diegans, Tina Yapelli and Eloisa Haudenschild, have found common cause with Shanghai through the unlikely medium of modern art. With the zeal of the recently converted, they have organized Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection, an ambitious series of exhibitions and lectures starting this October, in hopes of bringing together two disparate cities and cultures.

Avant-garde art like that to be shown in San Diego has been evolving out of Mainland Chinese cities since the country's opening, paralleling economic development and attracting international attention for its veiled social and political criticism. The global art world helped foment the emergence of modern Chinese art with funds and publicity, but the bulk of its foreign audience has thus far been European; exposure in America has been mostly limited to sporadic big exhibitions and private galleries in the big cities. Zooming into Focus marks not only San Diego's first introduction to such works but also heralds a broadened American exposure to the artistic movements-and social changes--coming out of today's China.

Zooming into Focus includes two separate exhibitions at the San Diego State University (SDSU) Art Gallery; one of photography runs from October 25 to December 6 and another of video art from January 31 to April 21 next year. The works in Zooming into Focus come entirely from the extensive private Haudenschild collection, unique particularly for a focus on China's edgier young artists.

Chris and Eloisa Haudenschild discovered Chinese art only a few years ago during a business trip to China. Mrs. Haudenschild developed an immediate passion for modern Chinese art. She began collecting during a number of follow up visits, starting with one in November 2002 to the Shanghai Biennale and Guangzhou Triennial. It was shortly after that trip that she encountered Ms. Yapelli, director of the SDSU Art Gallery, at an InSite event. "Eloisa was talking about her trip to Shanghai, and so I went over to see her acquisitions and was bowled over by the work," recalls Ms. Yapelli. "I caught her enthusiasm, and we started thinking about how to exhibit the collection."

Zooming into Focus is strategically timed to ride a wave of large Chinese art events in America in the spring and summer of 2004. The crowded schedule marks a turning point from the previous fits and starts of China's avant-garde's exposure in the U.S., such as the 1998 Asia Society exhibition "Inside Out: New Chinese Art". Sporadic exhibitions followed over the years, including New York Museum of Modern Art's 1996 Chinese video art exhibition, featuring Wu Wenwang and Feng Mengbo, and the Guggenheim's seminal 1998 "China: 5,000 Years" A few galleries specializing in modern Chinese art also sprouted up in New York. No critical mass, however, emerged sufficient to force a mainstream awareness or inclusion of Chinese artists in the top tier of recognized international artists.

This is partially due to aspects of the Chinese art scene that are still resistant to internationalization. Christopher Phillips, a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York and a participant in the San Diego Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection symposium, observes that China's geographic decentralization deters outsiders, and U.S. museum have difficulty finding curators with preexisting China background. "Visiting curators or critics can't just go to one city, they have to invest time in China, and go to the studios, talk to the artists, build relationships over time, and learn to maneuver within a very sophisticated social network." He claims that an even stronger factor is how Chinese artists resist the gallery system and tend to sell directly from their studios, which prevents the artists from being promoted and traveling internationally.

Despite such impediments, however, galleries and museums in Europe and Asia have managed to incorporate a sizable coterie of Chinese artists in their exhibitions. Yet only recently has the American art world begun paying equivalent attention to China. "We Americans are as provincial as the next people, and mostly prefer our own culture," observes Barbara London, curator of video art at New York's Museum of Modern Art and also a panelist in the Zooming into Focus symposium.

Ms. London adds that America lacks a formal cultural attache and budget for cultural exchanges, focusing instead just on trade missions. Countries like the U.K., France and Italy actively promote their national cultures in China, forging official-level personal connections with China's art world, and the resultant opportunities for cooperation are evidenced in theater and music as well as art. For example, Britain's "Think U.K." campaign, in addition to subsidizing China tours by the Royal Shakespeare Company and British rock bands, sponsors a number of leading Chinese artists, curators, dramatists and writers to study arts management in England.

Events like Zooming into Focus herald a growing awareness of China in American art circles. Exhibitions lead to coverage and curiosity, which in turn lead to more exhibitions. Although there are only five or six major American collectors of modern Chinese art, some, like the Haudenschilds, are using their connections in the American art world to spread awareness.

Meanwhile, Chinese artists increasingly crop up in international shows, suggesting increased acceptance: Most recently Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai contributed a much- discussed portrait of Rudy Guliani with elephant dung to the Whitney Museum's "The American Effect" show. Modern Asian art in general is becoming increasingly trendy in America; venues like the Seattle Art Museum have voiced commitment to including more of modern Asia, and this fall the Asia Society will hold its second annual Asian Contemporary Art Week. Moreover, according to Melissa Chiu, contemporary art curator at the Asia Society, "[I]n the U.S when most people say Asian contemporary art, they really mean Chinese."

But the rising profile of Chinese contemporary art in America is important beyond critical circles: as China's economic and political power grows, so does the value of Americans seeing a rawer, more accurate view of its realities than the popular stylized Chinoiserie. Chinese contemporary art, after all may be one of the best reflections of China's enormous transformations over the past decade.

This international acclaim is even more beneficial for Chinese art, which relies almost entirely on foreign funding, given the low domestic interest in more alternative art. Furthermore, overseas critical approval grants legitimacy to a genre that until a few years ago was viewed as political dissent rather than art. Foreign interest has forced China's stodgy cultural bureaus to grudgingly recognize the artistic value of the indigenous avant-garde. For example, the Shanghai Art Museum will exhibit works from the Haudenschild collection in the spring of 2004. Without being first shown in America, exported and re-imported, the government would be reluctant to give such edgy works such either mainstream venue or state sanction.

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