Robert Rauschenberg was considered a risk-taking, experimental artist in 1960s New York, so he must have seemed like an alien when he travelled in the 1980s to Mainland China, which had only just begun opening its doors to the West.
Yet Rauschenberg was not rejected by China—he was embraced by it. In 1985, he was given permission to host his “ROCI China” exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, making him the first Western contemporary artist to have a solo show in the country after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
More than 300,000 people visited the exhibition, awed by Rauschenberg’s boundary-pushing paintings, prints, sculptures and installations, which could not have been more different to the Soviet-style realist art that dominated in China at the time.
Before a new exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s Vydock series opens at Pace Gallery in Hong Kong, we investigate how Rauschenberg inspired five internationally-acclaimed Chinese artists—some of whom attended the groundbreaking “ROCI China” exhibition when they were children.
When he was eight years old, Qiu Xiaofei’s father took him on a day trip to Beijing specifically to see Rauschenberg’s “ROCI China” exhibition. “My dad was always curious about contemporary art,” Qiu recalls. “Although he didn’t understand [the exhibition], he didn’t show rejection at all. This was my first impression about the freedom [of] art.”
After that experience, it’s no surprise that Rauschenberg has had a huge impact on Qiu’s career. In 2013, Qiu titled one of his solo exhibitions “Rauschenberg Said, “The Walking Stick is Longer than the Maulstick, after All” and Rauschenberg’s influence can be seen in the way Qiu moves seamlessly from making paintings to sculptures to installations.
Xu Bing is now most famous for his sprawling installation “Book From The Sky”, which features 4,000 invented Chinese characters that cannot be decoded. At the beginning of his career, his work was less experimental—until Rauschenberg came along.
Like many of his contemporaries, Xu attended the “ROCI China” exhibition. In an interview with art critic Hiroko Igegami, Xu admitted that the show prompted him to “think about his art and future” and “stop producing work in the official style.” A few years later, Xu made “Book From The Sky” and shortly after that, he moved to the USA.
Whether you think he’s the voice of a nation or an attention-seeking provocateur, Ai Weiwei is arguably China’s most famous contemporary artist—and like many of his contemporaries, he’s cited Robert Rauschenberg as an inspiration.
As Rauschenberg did, Ai incorporates found objects into much of his art. Throughout his career, Rauschenberg made what he called “combines”: paintings on which Rauschenberg pasted found objects, such as an umbrella, a chair and even a taxidermy chicken. In a similar vein, Ai’s installations have featured everything from bicycles to backpacks to steel bars pulled from the wreckage of buildings that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
Controversially, both Rauschenberg and Ai have also destroyed others’ art to make their own. One of Rauschenberg’s most famous works is “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, which, as the title suggests, is a drawing by Dutch artist Willem de Kooning that Rauschenberg erased and then framed, presenting the now blank sheet of paper as a new work of art. In a similar vein, Ai has destroyed antique Han-dynasty vases as a comment on commodification and consumerism in China today.
Song Dong was 19 years old and studying oil painting when Rauschenberg opened his “ROCI China” exhibition in Beijing. He remembers visiting the show with his wife Yin Xiuzhen, who’s also an artist, and has regularly cited Rauschenberg as an inspiration ever since.
Like Rauschenberg, Song often incorporates real-life doors, windows and mirrors into his large installations.
Most famous for creating ephemeral art out of gunpowder and fireworks, Cai Guo-Qiang is yet another leading Chinese artist who has cited Rauschenberg as an inspiration. Some critics have compared Cai’s large gunpowder paintings, which can measure several metres wide, with Rauschenberg’s large Booster print, which is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Robert Rauschenberg: Vydocks runs from September 19 to November 2 at Pace, 12/F H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central; +852 2528 0792; pacegallery.com