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From the Anxiety of Participation to the Process of De-Internationalization


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It was not long ago that the Western art system was an object of intense focus and emulation throughout China. Beginning with the enthusiastic introduction of Western philosophical writings and Modernist artworks in the 1980s, this one-way exchange crystallized into a dichotomy, with China and tradition on one side, and modernity and the West on the other. Post-Mao, Chinese intellectuals embraced a progressive narrative of history wherein Western Europe and North America represented the contemporary standard to which China was forced to catch up. As Shi Chong, an artist and professor at the Qinghua Academy of Art in Beijing, put it: “In the 1980s, it was still a learning process. On the one hand there was Western classical art and on the other there was Western modern art. We were in the middle of the two processes as they interweaved with one another.” But beginning in the 1990s, the rapid rise of China’s position in the global economic hierarchy set in motion a process of de-internationalization. This initially imperceptible shift has surfaced more clearly since the worldwide economic downturn of 2008. As a result, for Chinese art practitioners the globalization of the contemporary art system has been accompanied by the disappearance of the international, both as an aspiration and as a horizon.

In the intervening years, de-internationalization has evolved into a new historical condition shaping the thoughts and feelings of Chinese art practitioners, especially among those born after 1980. Like their peers in other fields, many young artists and critics were exposed to Western culture at a young age through the proliferation of English-language training programs, a gift of globalization. Moreover, the consumer society that has grown with the economy has no shortage of Western concepts and products. After high school, many students are sent to North America and Europe for higher education. Having lived in both worlds, it is perhaps not surprising that they feel empowered to reject the international realm and claim, with much more certainty than their predecessors, that China and the West are equal. There is a sense of unprecedented conviction and optimism about what is happening in China socially and politically, and this means that the image of the West as a place of promise and progress has faded. In this respect, it is difficult to separate the process of de-internationalization from one of de-Westernization. With China now the world’s second-largest economy, the West and its democratic values are generally portrayed and perceived as a model in decline, both in the rhetoric of the Chinese government and in the sentiment of the general public.

The 2008 economic slowdown brought a noticeable reduction in demand for Chinese art, especially overseas. However, the domestic market rebounded quickly. In a matter of years it not only compensated entirely for the loss of international demand, but became a powerful force in its own right. The current domestic Chinese market for contemporary art consists of a relatively steady pool of private collectors supported by a significant amount of government resources. Some collectors have even opened museums of their own, and in some cases, these museums have received substantial reductions in rent and even investment capital from local governments. This trend is especially pronounced in Shanghai, where the city government has taken many of the remaining venues from the World Expo of 2010 and offered them to select individuals who can afford to turn them into museums and art venues maintained by private funds. The government is also committed to supporting the booming art fair culture in the city, with three fairs each year. At the same time, the city remains one of the strictest in terms of content censorship and ideological control. Like the Shanghai Biennial, the fairs are subject to a thorough inspection by government officials prior to opening.

The slow rejection of Western influence has grown harder to detect as Chinese participation in the locality that we call the global has increased dramatically. In the 2013 Venice Biennale, more than one hundred exhibitions featuring Chinese artists and curators were organized by Chinese institutions, funders, and artists. More and more galleries from China have taken part in art fairs in such prime locations as London, New York, Basel, Madrid, Singapore, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

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