Anthropologist explores China’s changing art scene in ‘Experimental Beijing’

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On a two-year stint teaching English in Beijing, Sasha Welland got her first glimpse of contemporary Chinese art.

Not the antiquities so common in Western museums of Asian art, or the scroll paintings or ceramics or Buddhist sculptures, explains Welland, an associate professor in the University of Washington departments of anthropology and gender, women and sexuality studies. Rather, the art of China that was well underway at that point in the early 1990s was of a distinctly provocative style, gaining international attention. But the women artists, active and no less avant-garde than the men, were missing the limelight.

So when Welland returned a decade later to begin researching a book – Experimental Beijing, published in March by Duke University Press – she threw herself into the art world, talking with students and teachers, amateurs and professionals.  Her goal, she said, was to examine how contemporary Chinese art had vaulted onto the world stage, as well as the gender politics behind the scenes.

“People would tell me I had to focus on one or the other, but they’re interlocking. You can’t pull them apart,” she said. “It’s not Chinese art systems alone that sidelined women; it’s how Chinese art went global that contributed to the marginalization of women.

“But that’s not the story Western museum curators or audiences want to feel they’ve contributed to. It challenges the feel-good idea that including non-Western artists in exhibits and bringing their work to wider audiences automatically promotes artistic freedom.”

UW News talked to Welland about her book, and what she learned in putting it together.

How did some of the artists you met shed light on the changing role of art in China?

The generation of artists that I focus the book on straddles two moments of art production. They went through one kind of training, then with the advent of what was called “reform and opening,” some started experimenting with making art in very different ways.

These artists were born from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, which meant most were trained in the Chinese art academy system. One of the foundational missions of this system was to produce an anticolonial, socialist vision of modern China: art that served the people. One of Mao Zedong’s controversial but influential positions was that art could shift people’s consciousness toward revolutionary ends. This generation mastered the socialist-realist style of painting, and one hallmark of art education at the time was going down to the countryside to depict peasants and workers as heroic contributors to the nation. In the 1980s, the art system started to shift in what became known as the “culture fever” moment. As political control relaxed, artists had more opportunities to look toward art practice outside of China. Some moved away from easel painting to conceptual, installation and performance art. After the June 4, 1989, crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, there was a cultural chill. But as the 1990s progressed so did the push in China toward globalization. By 2001, when Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Olympics, artists became important players in showing the world that China was contemporary. Once-“dissident” artists were suddenly called upon by the state to represent China’s global cultural face.

In your book, you talk about how only male artists were perceived as “avant-garde,” even though women were making plenty of dynamic, controversial art. What did you learn about gender politics?

After the crackdown in 1989, there was growing interest in art being produced in China. It began in Hong Kong and expanded to Japan, Europe and the U.S. Exhibit titles were often some variation of “Chinese Avant-Garde,” and a lot of the artists gaining attention were men seen as “dissident” and representative of some reform-era ethos. Women were making art, but it wasn’t nearly as widely recognized or circulated. Those first exhibits produced a pretty masculinist assertion of what it meant to be “avant-garde” and really influenced how Chinese contemporary art got taken up by the world. The network behind how those exhibits traveled was largely male.

In terms of how women were represented in art, in the 1960s and 1970s, the imagery was of strong and powerful women: women riding tractors, fixing electrical lines, looking red, bright and shining. But that didn’t necessarily mean women had such stature themselves within the art world. A lot of those works were made by male artists, an interesting contradiction of that moment. Market reform in the 1980s and 1990s brought a new of wave of commercial imagery that sexualized women. You went from women riding tractors to women wearing swimsuits and selling cosmetics. Amid shifting representations of masculinity and femininity, sexualized imagery became a version of “we’re not oppressed,” and male artists producing it became “avant-garde.”

Describe a work that resonated with you.

Lei Yan provides an example of the kinds of experimental art produced by women who

Sasha Su-Ling Welland
Sasha Su-Ling Welland

came up through the academy system, and how their gendered avant-garde expressions weren’t legible to a western audience. She got her art training by having entered the People’s Liberation Army as a teenager, so she had decades of training as a military artist; she designed the daily blackboard announcements, did medical illustrations for hospitals and of course propaganda work. She also served at the front of the Sino-Vietnamese War. In her 50s and 60s, retired from the military, Lei became a really interesting experimental artist, deconstructing the political images she was trained to do for all of those years.

She created a piece called “Unnamed Tomb,” part of a larger body of work in which she takes various icons of socialism and revolution, freezes them in blocks of ice, then photographs them. In this case, she froze her military uniform – you know it’s a female soldier’s uniform because of its distinctive red lapels – in what looks like a tombstone and erected it so that it eventually will melt away into the landscape. She’s memorializing the new kind of public role that women were given through symbolic imagery and the actual recruitment of them into factories and the military, and she’s also mourning the loss of life she witnessed as part of various campaigns of modern industrial nationalism. It’s a piece that doesn’t make sense to many Western eyes, but it is a subtle gender inquiry into how she became a solider and an artist, and unresolved tensions within categories like “art soldier” or “woman artist.”

What was your biggest challenge in this project?

Lei Yan, “Unnamed Tomb,” 2006. Installation.Courtesy of the artist
Lei Yan, “Unnamed Tomb,” 2006. Installation.Courtesy of the artist

This wasn’t a challenge, per se, but it’s something that stands out to me: I’m really happy I am an anthropologist, because for anthropologists, everybody’s story matters. If I’d gone in more attuned to the art scene, it would have been really easy to get taken up by how exciting everything was and to follow the key players, but by being an ethnographer, I was just interested in people who were pursuing art. In addition to interviews with artists and gallerists, I talked to retired amateur artists, and to people who worked at the Cultural Bureau decades ago. I went every Saturday to draw with children at the state-supported Children’s Center, to see how the arts were being taught now. I went to art academies and talked to teachers and students about what they made of all the cultural changes happening. I interpreted for foreign curators doing studio tours and for U.S. feminist artist Judy Chicago in China. I also used my own aggravations with the art world and its valuations – at often being asked, for example, which artist’s girlfriend I was – to seek out and give women who were making their own art their conceptual and creative due.

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To see examples of artworks, visit the Experimental Beijing website. For more information, contact Welland at swelland@uw.edu or 206-221-4725.

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