Eastern Exposure

Curator Gao Minglu Brings the Chinese Avant-Garde West

As editor of Meishu, Minglu was in a unique position to not only discover the new movements (which reached critical mass in 1985) but to promote them. "Literati paintings were a genuine expression for those artists in an earlier era," explains Minglu, "but Chinese society no longer needed this kind of genteel art where people stand and contemplate for a long time. We needed something very direct to have an effect on this new society."

Even from this influential position, it took three years for Minglu to gain approval from the government to hold the "Avant-Garde" exhibition at the National Gallery, the same institution that had mounted the 1976 Robert Rauschenberg show, the first exhibition of an American artist ever held in China. "They gave us three conditions: no antiparty or antisocialist direction in the work, no performance art, and no pornography," explains Minglu. "But, actually, you could find it all in the exhibition." Growing agitation for increased liberalization (coupled with Minglu's diplomatic pitch for promoting local culture) helped the exhibition finally get the necessary seal of approval in 1989.

Just a few months later, the far chillier, post–Tiananmen Square period began. Minglu was ordered to stay home and study Marxism to correct his "bourgeois mental problems." Within a year, he left for the United States.

Up from hard times: Minglu with an installation by Chen Hui-chiao at Asia Society
Robin Holland
Up from hard times: Minglu with an installation by Chen Hui-chiao at Asia Society

Ironically, Minglu did not have to leave the avant-garde behind--many of the participants in "China/Avant-Garde" were already here to greet him. The commercial boom of the 1990s in China had given birth to an art market, and artists once isolated now traveled to the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Fair. "The artistic gaze now looks outward as well as inward," Minglu writes in his "Inside Out" catalogue essay, undecided whether the "Coca-Cola-ization" of China will continue to be fertile ground for avant-garde art. "I do know that a lot of Chinese artists like this new level of communication," he concludes optimistically. "They are trying to ask questions of Western art, rather than simply judging the West."


"Inside Out: New Chinese Art" runs through January 3, 1999 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street, and at P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, in Long Island City.

Other shows of contemporary art have opened around town that, in effect, extend "Inside Out" into the galleries. Among them:

  • Xu Bing's installation of live pigs in panda masks at Jack Tilton, 49 Greene Street, through October 10.

  • Fang Lijun's paintings and woodcuts at Max Protetch, 511 West 22nd Street, through October 10.

  • Mel Chin, Arian Huang, and Bing Lee, three Chinese American artists not included in "Inside Out," are showing new work at China 2000 Fine Art, 5 East 57th Street, through October 24.
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