In dialogue with China's avant-garde

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In Beijing 30 years ago, on 5 February 1989, performance artist Xiao Lu fired a pistol at Dialogue, her installation in China/Avant-Garde, the first ever such exhibition in China. This massive undertaking displayed almost 300 works by more than 180 Chinese artists. Due to political sensitivity the exhibition was translated 'an exhibition of Chinese modern art', given that avant-garde was seen to be a movement often critical of formal institutions. Stunning though her act was, these were shots that were not then heard around the world.

Xiao Lu, 2019, pictured in front of her work 15 Gunshots… From 1989 to 2003«15?...?1989? 2003» , 2003, 15 black and white digital prints, framed and then punctured by a bullet. 100 x 45 x 15 cm, printed in 2018, edition 12/15. Photographs by Li Songsong. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, January 2019; photograph: Kai Wasikowski, 2019, for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.Yet just four months later tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Chinese history changed forever. Both occurrences were acts of power with dramatic effects. The impacts of the enforcement of martial law in Beijing were deadly, and the government has spent the last 30 years seeking to dismiss the consequences of the party leaders' decision to turn on its nation's youth, as described magisterially in Louisa Lim's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

In contrast, it is only in hindsight that the reverberations of Xiao Lu's discharges have come to be understood in a broader context. They encompass such important issues as the emergence of Chinese avant-garde and performance art and, more broadly, the long-recognised role in China of artists as harbingers of political opposition.

This is not to say that the artists of China form a utopian choir chanting the same prophesies. For instance, Xiao Lu's career and life also reflect the difficulties to express agency that Chinese female artists have experienced both within that world and in society at large. In 2006 fellow female artist and critic Xu Hong — who also featured in China/Avant Garde and is a curator of the present exhibition — wrote about these challenges in a major essay about Dialogue in the magazine Huakan.

For instance, as an emphatic illustration of the gendered nature of celebrity in the (Chinese) art world, many know of the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei by government authorities in 2011, which inspired his work S.A.C.R.E.D., but the three days Xiao Lu spent under interrogation after 'the shooting incident' in 1989 has been little remarked upon.

It is important then that Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art has brought together selections of Xiao Lu's creations in Xiao Lu: Impossible Dialogue to showcase the enduring influence of her work, and the continued and even increased relevance of the themes she embodies so passionately in her performances.

The exhibition includes C-type prints and contemporaneous video records of several of Xiao Lu's performances, including Dialogue, Polar, and One, and a wide range of documentation of other performances, including archival materials of the original 1989 exhibition. It also features two major works, 15 Gunshots ... from 1989 to 2003, and Tides, which are Xiao Lu's reflections on her most famous performance 15 and then 30 years after she pulled the trigger.

 

"At a time when there is much heated debate about China's attempts to utilise soft power tools to gain advantage, Australia's own deep-seated structural engagements with Chinese culture and communities is vital work."

 

Surprisingly, given that the artist has participated in exhibitions at such major venues as the Venice Biennale and New York's Guggenheim Museum, 4A's contribution is the first retrospective of Xiao's work. It is a seminal undertaking and a coup for Australia.

That it was able to happen is a credit to the drive and expertise of all the curators, and especially Dr Claire Roberts, who was able to rely on her long-standing connections in the contemporary Chinese art world to bring the event together. Roberts, one of Australia's top Sinologists, herself studied art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts alongside many of this generation. The exhibition has also been made possible by the support provided by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-China Council.

At a time when there is much heated debate about China's attempts to utilise soft power tools to gain advantage — think of the employment of Sophie Monk as the Australian face of telecommunications company Huawei and the circumstances surrounding the political demise of Sam Dastyari — Australia's own deep-seated structural engagements with Chinese culture and communities is vital work, if too often little emphasised. It is pleasing to see this important record of Australia-China relations receive such high level support.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was also instrumental in providing safe haven for Xiao Lu when, largely through the efforts of novelist Dr Nicholas Jose (cultural counsellor at Australia's Beijing Embassy between 1987 and 1990) Xiao Lu and a range of other important Chinese artists (including Ah Xian, Guan Wei and Shen Jiawei) all came to Australia either around or after the 1989 amnesty proclaimed by a tearful Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Many of these artists lived and worked here for the better part of the next decade and in fact some continue to do so. As a result of such support, the exhibition is free and runs 19 January to 24 March 2019.

The exhibition stands as a commemoration and celebration of the work of Xiao Lu, and by extension her contemporaries, who continue to clothe their lived experiences in images, acts and utterances, and in so doing communicate with others about the state of their lives as women and artists, their society and their nation. It is a dialogue that can be difficult, if not impossible, but as Xiao Lu's bold performances show, one that rewards the attempt, howsoever that evolves.

 

 

Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke is founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a company that advises interested parties about Chinese contemporary culture including through immersions within China, and is also a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Australian Centre on China in the World.

Main image: Xiao Lu, 2019, pictured in front of her work 15 Gunshots ... From 1989 to 2003, 2003, 15 black and white digital prints, framed and then punctured by a bullet. 100 x 45 x 15 cm, printed in 2018, edition 12/15. Photographs by Li Songsong. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, January 2019; photograph: Kai Wasikowski, 2019, for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Tiananmen Square

 

 

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Existing comments

Impressive photo selection, with the Circe-like pose of the artist in the foreground exhibiting an intercultural rapport in itself. Shelley's dictum about artists being "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" has a particularly resonant ring in the present context. Thank you, Jeremy.
John | 09 February 2019


Now I understand why it is said that, like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder!
john frawley | 09 February 2019


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