Made in China

Iconophilia is pleased to welcome Quentin Sprague as a contributor. Here he is writing about a recent visit to Beijing. Amid much Chinese contemporary art which is flashy and over-scaled lies some truly fantastic art practice. Visiting a country with such a rich and ever present cultural history, it’s hard not to be a bit jealous of the wealth of material available for artists and other cultural producers to draw on, and also of the opportunities presented by a dynamic, entrepreneurial art scene and an international appetite for things Chinese. Here the ‘contemporary’ often presents as a particularly dense proposition. Ai Weiwei is perhaps currently the best-known contemporary Chinese artist internationally. His current Turbine Hall commission at the Tate Modern has occupied the space with 100 million hand–painted sunflower seeds in a work which comments on Chinese history, globalisation and the human labour that fuels China’s transition into a contemporary world power.

Zhao Zhao’s “EURO” (2008), a set of eight “Euro coins” made of lead sheath taken from Anselm Kiefer’s “Volkszählung” (1991)

Maybe most interesting is not only the relationship an artist like Ai Weiwei displays to his country’s cultural history, but to the position he now occupies in China’s cultural landscape.  For instance, a work by the younger generation artist Zhao Zhao (b.1982) presents a group of thirty toothpicks tooled from wooden shards taken from one of Ai Weiwei’s reconfigured temple sculptures, itself made from pieces of Qing dynasty temples salvaged from the wreckers ball in ever modernising Beijing. As well as completing a material transition from the sacred to the mundane Zhao’s work highlights a complex intergenerational exchange, one that I read as particularly Chinese in character and lacking the attendant irony one might expect of a similar work in an Australian context. Illustrated here is a 2008 work – a series of replica Euro coins pressed from lead stolen from Anslem Keifer’s “Volkszählung” (1991) similarly presenting a riff on value and the role of the young artist in existing networks.

View of courtyard 104, Caochangdi, Beijing, designed by Ai Weiwei for Fake Design, 2006

In July this year Zhao attended an artist’s residency in the Gija community of Warmun in WA along with a small group of curators and Australian and Chinese artists as part of the No Name Station project (I took part as a curator). During the presentation of an exhibition in Beijing resulting from this exchange the project group attended a BBQ at Zhao’s apartment in the Caochangdi district of Beijing. This was notable for a number of reasons, but is relevant here because of the architecture of the compound-style network of privately funded galleries, studios and apartments where it was held. The compound itself seems to architecturally embody some of the density of contemporary art in China, representing some of the framework against which its production and engagement plays out. Designed by Ai Weiwei for his own architectural firm Fake Design , it is in a style that effortlessly blends new Chinese modernism with its ancient antecedents. Walled like a commune, the various buildings are linked by a network of alleys linking larger communal areas to smaller internal and external spaces, just like a traditional Chinese courtyard house or the hutongs (alleyways) which used to be a major part of Beijing’s urban space but which have largely been destroyed in the lead up to (and following) the 2008 Olympics. Ironically, at the time of our visit it was unclear whether this development, and others like it in the area, would survive proposed demolition. Fingers crossed it does.

Postscript: the demolition of Ai Weiwei’s studios is reported here at ArtObserved.

Quentin Sprague has a background as a practising artist, arts administrator and curator and has held positions with a number of organisations including Jilamara Arts, NT and Artspace, Sydney. From 2009-2010 he worked directly with a number of senior artists in the East Kimberley region of WA. He is currently developing a curatorial project, Groundwork, for the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne in 2011.


#1 Hamish Dalley on 10.29.10 at 12:14 pm

Hi Quentin, really interesting piece. Can you elaborate on what you mean by the ‘particularly Chinese’ character of the intergenerational dialogue between these artists? You seem to suggest that irony is typical of an Australian art context, and lack of irony with a Chinese one. What do you mean?

#2 Quentin on 10.29.10 at 3:19 pm

Hi Hamish,

Thanks for the comment. I do think there is something culturally specific in the nature of the dialogue between the two artists. At one level AWW’s current (immense) status is enabled by a particular meeting of history, art, and contemporary China (with no small part being played by the way Chinese art has been received in recent times on the International market). What i don’t mention in the post is that the relationship between the two artists is an established one, with AWW as mentor… something more common in China where the sheer scale of many contemporary practices calls for studio assistants etc. But in this case i think its more than that…

See an interview between the two here:
This alone changes the reading of the work from what could be seen as attempt to negate the work of an older artist, to something more complex and, i think, more sincere. I’m not trying to say that the ironic gesture is specifically Australian, or vice versa, just trying to guess how a similar gesture would be read here.. the Australian call is just a gut feeling really, but i don’t think its a baseless one.

#3 Hamish Dalley on 10.29.10 at 4:38 pm

Thanks Quentin, and cheers for the link. I think I understand what you mean about the different kinds of relationship: a respectful mentoring relationship versus an intergeneratonal tussle for authority. If you can (even tentatively) suggest that the former is more typical of China and the latter of Australia, what may be behind that? Do you think Australian art is suffering from the Oedipals?

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