New China New Art by Richard Vine
This article was designated A Topical Pick from the Archives, January 2012 to mark the event at which Vine alongside artist Zhang Hongtu present the revised/expanded edition of his now widely acknowledged survey at New York Public Library, Wednesday, February 1, 6 – 8 p.m.
For details of this event, please visit nypl.org
Richard Vine New China New Art Prestel: New York, 2008, 240 pages, ISBN 978 3 7913 3942 9
[Revised/Expanded edition, 2011, 256 pages, ISBN 978 3 7913 4550-5]
Richard Vine, editor of Asian art for Art in America, has taken a ten-year-long interest in Chinese art and parleyed it into an encyclopedic volume of considerable information and intelligence. Vine has been publishing reviews and articles on China since 1998, when he first became interested in the field. Not so long ago, all but a few people in the international artworld were lackluster in their appreciation for contemporary Chinese art; today, the market bubble, showering money on even the lesser wannabes in Mainland China’s art system, has made the artworld there the focal place for art in Asia. Vine has wisely restricted his attention to the better-known artists in the relatively short history, perhaps three decades, of new Chinese art. He is an excellent writer, finding the exact term in any description and staying away from the unhappy grandiosity and triumphalism that often accompany writing about China’s avant-garde.
New China New Art seems pitched at the relative newcomer to the Chinese art world, with an emphasis on the introduction of names and particular achievements. It does a good job of describing that rather disconnected gathering of artists, gallerists, curators, and critics that constitutes the Chinese art intelligentsia, the latter unfortunately undermined by the practice in China of galleries directly paying writers for articles on their artists. As Vine rightly points out, the artworld in Beijing and Shanghai and other cities is clearly hindered by a lack of infrastructure: well-developed spaces, sharp writing and publications, and an overall professionalism that seems to have gone by the wayside in the face of all the money raining down on the artistic districts of China’s urban centers.
Rather than explain this rather labyrinthine state of affairs, Vine concentrates on the art itself, offering a wonderfully accessible approach to individual achievements, grouping artists according to seven categories: Painting, Sculpture, Installation, Performance, Photography, Video, and The Scene Now. He forgets no one, accurately summarizing an artist’s contribution within the space of a paragraph or two. Established installation artists such as Xu Bing and Cai Guo Qiang are given their due, but Vine also covers talented photographers such as O Zhang and Chi Peng, whose work is just beginning to make its way into Western awareness. He sticks close to the facts rather than working up a general theory for the pluralism of Chinese art. In truth, it may well be impossible to elaborate an overview when so many different kinds of art compete with each other, and Vine’s broad scope leaves very little behind.
One of the best things about Vine’s book is the very succinct way in which he characterizes artists and their work. He is able to capture, for example, Zhang Huan’s nearly twenty-year career in a few paragraphs, deftly analyzing his “breakthough” 12 Square Meters (1994): “Zhang smeared his body with fish oil and honey, then sat motionless for an hour in a sweltering, stench-ridden communal outhouse of that size (129 square feet), before stalking mutely away, step by step, to immerse his entire body in the brackish water of a nearby pond.” But even when the author packs so much information into so few words, the effect of the writing is never heavy or turgid. Conceptual sculptor Ai Weiwei is treated with similar objectivity and brevity. Even when Ai went so far as to deliberately drop a Han dynasty urn, Vine holds back from any judgemental attitude. This book stand out in its independence and clarity.