Eastern Exposure

Curator Gao Minglu Brings the Chinese Avant-Garde West

 Globalization is the buzzword of the art biz in the 1990s. Istanbul and Sydney, Kwangju and Hong Kong, have become must-see stopovers for cell phone–toting curators and jet-setting dealers who would not be caught dead in Williamsburg in the name of mere multiculturalism.

But, back in 1995, when Vishaka Desai, director of the Asia Society, and Gary Garrels, chief curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, first considered co-organizing a show of contemporary Chinese art, they chose to bypass the new crop of "airplane curators" and select one from the mainland who knew the material inside out. Their choice? Gao Minglu, the foremost art critic in Beijing in the 1970s and '80s. The resulting show, aptly named "Inside Out," is currently on view at the Asia Society and P.S. 1.

"The thing about Minglu is that he knows China," says Garrels. "I think it is difficult, if not impossible, for a curator from the West to try to come in there and get anything more than the most superficial understanding." When Desai recruited Minglu, he was already regarded as a hero for his groundbreaking "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition, held at Beijing's National Gallery in February 1989--a show that was closed twice during its two-week run by a Chinese government unprepared for the full force of freedom of expression. Just four months later, Minglu attended the Tiananmen Square demonstration and was soon dismissed from his position as editor of Meishu (Art Monthly), the leading official art magazine in China. In 1991, art historian Julie Andrews (curator of the modern section of the Guggenheim's "China: 5,000 Years") arranged for his passage to the States via a fellowship from the National Academy of Science. He is now pursuing his doctorate at Harvard University.

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

"Inside Out" is Minglu's attempt to bring the full range of the avant-garde movements he supported in his homeland to an international arena. Working with Garrels and Asia Society curator Colin Mackenzie, Minglu selected 80 works not only from mainland China but also from the Chinese diaspora--Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as the West--including installation, video, photography, and performance pieces. Though most of the work could fit seamlessly into New York's contemporary art scene--a few of the artists, such as Cai Guo Qiang, Xu Bing, Fang Lijun, and Chen Zhen, already have substantial careers in the West--Minglu's imprint can be found throughout the organization of the show. In contrast to the Guggenheim's compromised effort (which will inevitably be unfavorably compared to the curatorial independence demonstrated in "Inside Out"), the exhibition displays not only the aesthetics, but the divergent philosophies that arose in response to the political upheavals in mainland China in the past two decades--from the last days of the Cultural Revolution to the Coca-Cola materialism of the 1990s. As such, it gives a context to the art, making it at once more complex and more comprehensible than before.

In New York for the opening of "Inside Out," Minglu looks more like an eager graduate student than a courageous pioneer. "In China, you are trained to look at the art as part of a bigger culture--anthropological, political, and social," he explains. His loyalty to this approach clearly helped in the savvy construction of "Inside Out." Still, it's a little strange to hear this defense of an education process tinged with Maoism, given Minglu's personal history in the People's Republic.

Born in Tienjin in 1949, Minglu was shipped off to Inner Mongolia at the age of 17 for a stint of "reeducation." His father, an accountant who wrote poetry, had already been arrested by the Red Guard for writing a poetic response to a famous verse by Mao. His grandfather, a landowner, took his own life in 1947, on the eve of the Communist revolution. "It was hard times, really hard times, but I think the life of the period really gave me good training because it was tough," he recalls. The budding scholar worked for five years as a cattle herder, developing close ties to the local Mongolian peasants. With a recommendation from his "work unit," the authorities overcame their suspicions of his family background, and, on his third attempt, Minglu gained admission to the Normal College in Inner Mongolia, where he studied art history as part of his general course of teacher training.

In 1973, Minglu went on to graduate school at the Chinese Academy of the Arts in Beijing, where he wrote his master's thesis on 10th- to 12th-century Chinese literati painting, a primary tradition in Chinese scroll painting in which subtle variations in landscapes and figures convey political commentary. Though this field appears to be a far cry from contemporary art, it may have been the perfect preparation for deciphering the art of the Chinese avant-garde in the post-Mao era.

Minglu estimates that after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, more than 1000 movements began to flourish in China. Western observers are most familiar with the post-Pop painters of the early 1980s, sometimes called "double kitsch"--send-ups of socialist realism with more than a nod to Andy Warhol. However, in "Inside Out," Minglu reveals the full range of radical impulses, many of which have been overlooked or entirely misinterpreted by European observers. He points out that, for example, while the U.S. press hailed Fang Lijun's surrealist paintings of screaming heads as "a cry against Communist repression," they were more accurately a commercial enterprise, not unlike Mark Kostabi's, calculated to appeal to the new leisure class emerging from the economic liberalization. Deng Xiaoping's reforms also brought Western art publications and exhibitions to China for the first time in almost a century. "The joke, at the time, was that in less than a year, we saw 100 years of Western art," recalls Minglu, underscoring the level of aesthetic sophistication Chinese artists rapidly absorbed.

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.

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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