via ArtZine China:
Christopher Phillips: Impressions of Chinese Art
By Lynn Zhang
Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, has been visiting China for eight years, looking at emerging artists in photography, video and painting, and curating exhibitions of their works. In 2004, he and Wu Hung published "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China." ArtZineChina.com recently asked Mr. Phillips to reflect on his travels to China.
ArtZineChina: Christopher Phillips, you've been coming to China for almost eight years now, looking at Chinese art and photography. Can you tell us when and why you first came and what your earliest impressions were?
CP: I first came to China in the fall of 1999 to present a series of lectures on contemporary art at Tsinghua University in Beijing. At that time I was working as senior editor at Art in America magazine in New York. On this and a follow-up trip to Beijing and Shanghai in spring 2000, I met loads of artists thanks to the generosity of Xing Danwen, Li Xianting, Ai Weiwei, and Hans van Dijk. Among those artists were Wang Gongxin, Lin Tianmiao, Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen, Zhang Dali, Ding Yi, Wang Qingsong, and Wang Jianwei. My impression of the Chinese art scene that I encountered was that it was a kind of wildly pulsating field of energy that was expanding every second. I was startled by the level of imagination and inventiveness that were evident in the works I saw. I felt immediately that this was one of those rare historic moments that comes along only once or twice a century in the art world.
ArtZineChina: Now, so many years later, how do you see the Chinese contemporary art scene?
CP: The world has discovered Chinese contemporary art, and the resulting changes have come almost too quickly to believe. There are artists who were living in near-poverty when I met them in 1999 who are now very, very wealthy, and who employ dozens of assistants to help produce their works. However, the flood of money that is washing through the Chinese contemporary art scene has not really yielded better or more interesting art, only glossier production values. I find it disheartening when I visit artists today and hear very little talk about artistic questions, only endless recitals of the latest auction results and gossip about whose work is or is not being purchased by mega-collectors like Charles Saatchi. If you’re not directly involved in the market, this kind of talk is just mind-numbingly boring.
Here's the way I see the current state of things. In the past ten years Chinese experimental artists fought a long, hard battle for national and international recognition. They won that battle--triumphed completely. During the next ten years, I think the major artistic struggle in China will shift to another area, to the desperate need to establish stable, long-term institutions that can support contemporary art. This is a very different kind of battle, and it will involve a different group of players, many of whom will not really be practicing artists.
I should say that there are still a number of Chinese artists who are continuing to push their art in new directions. For example, in the past two years Zeng Fanzhi has become an astonishingly accomplished oil painter--among the best in the world. Others who are still breaking new ground are Xu Zhen, Lin Tianmiao, Wang Qingsong, Qiu Zhijie, and Yang Fudong.
And although there is quite a lot of concern about the impact of the current art-market mania on the youngest generation of Chinese artists, I’ve been favorably impressed with much of the work I've seen in the past year. For example, the recent group exhibition "Infantalization" at the Shanghai Art Museum included works by very young artists who showed remarkable talent, skill, and imagination - especially in the field of animation, which is becoming an extremely active area.
ArtZineChina: In 2004, you and Wu Hung organized a major exhibition in New York of photography by some of China's leading artists. In recent years, we've heard more about oil painters, sculptors and installation artists. Has photography faded as a major medium of expression here, or is it just not being recognized as much?
CP: The art-world spotlight is constantly turning, always in search of something new and exciting. Interest constantly rotates from medium to medium. Photography and video were super-hot internationally in the late 1990s, and nowhere more than China. Today the spotlight has moved, and we see a surge of interest in drawing and painting everywhere.
Of course there are extremely good artists who continue, year in and year out, to explore a single medium, whether it is photography or video or installation or performance. I think that Chinese photo artists such as Miao Xiaochun, Xing Danwen, and Wang Qingsong are all doing better, more interesting work today than they were five years ago. In addition, photography is such a diverse and flexible medium that many artists who don't specialize in photography can make remarkable works involving photography - take a look at the recent book by the painter Liu Xiaodong, for example. I suspect that next year we'll see Ai Weiwei present a very surprising photographic project.
ArtZineChina: Can you give us an idea of some of the artists you've visited on recent trips, and what most impressed you about their work?
CP: During my recent visits to Shanghai, there are three artists in particular who surprised me with the scope and ambition of their recent work. The best-known of these artists is Zhang Huan, whose new paintings, woodcuts, and sculptural objects are absolutely sensational. He’s made an unexpected leap to an entirely new artistic level. The young animation artist Qiu Anxiong has developed rapidly. From his promising early works, he has now moved to creating long-format animations that are quite remarkable for their visual ingenuity and narrative drive. And Chen Yun, who is still in her early twenties, is turning very quickly into a substantial artist; she’s now using her colorful, Pop-style computer drawings to explore expansive, mythic themes in a way that’s visually dazzling and weirdly compelling. I expect all three of these artists will attract growing attention in the next year.
ArtZineChina: What projects are you now working on involving Chinese contemporary artists?
CP: I'm currently preparing a show called "Shanghai Kaleidoscope" which will open next May at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The exhibition will look at the new urban culture that’s arising in Shanghai, concentrating on the interplay between architecture, art, and fashion. It won't be an enormous exhibition, but it will try to suggest the enormous creative energy that is reshaping 21st-century Shanghai.