Ideological Clean Slate – China and the New Generation

‘Cenozoic’ – a geological term referring to a new era where mammals prevail. It comes from Greek kainos + zōion, meaning ‘new animals’, because the extinction of many other organisms allowed mammals to greatly diversify and populate during that period.

Perhaps it was this annihilation of the old and the birth of the new that critic Yin Jinan had in mind when he coined the term xin sheng dai (the New Generation) to describe a group of Beijing-based artists born in the 1960s. Their departure from the then predominant mode of contemporary art was evidenced in the ‘China/Avant-Garde’ exhibition. Held in Beijing in early 1989, the exhibition symbolized the watershed of Chinese contemporary art, where metaphysical and conceptual practice gave way to a more academic, realistic approach, concerning less with the grand questions of humanity and more with the stories of ordinary people.

A truck full of ‘mingong’, or migrant workers, travelling across Beijing in 1996. Liu Xiaodong (C)

It was in 1991, in the ‘New Generation Art’ exhibition held in the China History Museum that the tension between the academic tradition of these artists and the official line of historical narrativity was laid bare. At the centre of the this debate was the collective negation of a conceptual take on art shared by the New Generation artists, who, growing up witnessing the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution but having had not participated in it, could afford a ‘spiritual independence’ in their observation of everyday lives. Born out of the academic tradition, these artists display a level of technical mastery that has enabled them to depict their subjects realistically, both in terms of form and psychology.

A superb example is Liu Xiaodong’s Disobeying the Rules (1996). At first look all I could see in the work was a cynically realistic representation of the people in new China – a time when ideological collapse met with economic boom. I am confronted by the work’s conflictual sentiments towards the subjects – a herd of social underdogs, naked except for their hats, sitting amongst LPG canisters in a pickup truck and wearing what seems to me grimace of the mob on their face. This is a striking image that at once speaks of the empathy of the observer and the elitist vantage point of the painter, its brimful irony gets even more potent when I consider its proto-images – two photographs taken by Liu in 1996 – one depicts a truck filled with people and the other with pigs. The resultant work is a scathing commentary on the social condition of the times.

‘Pig’ Liu Xiaodong (C)

But more remarkable is the restraint the work shows in endowing any historical importance to the subject matter. There is no glorification of the worker class, no didactic message, only a sense of amusing absurdity and of self-mockery. When read against the title ‘disobeying the rules’, one cannot help but question what rules these little people have disobeyed: the LPG canisters? Or the nakedness?

Perhaps in its ultimate self-referentiality Liu is referring to himself, and the work’s emotional disengagement and ideological absence, projected onto the naked bodies in the painting. These ‘physical clean slates’, if I may say so, serve to remind the audience of the reality of real lives that the New Generation artists champion, which, being completely free from conceptual baggage of the past, would allow contemporary art in China to start anew and flourish, heralding the Cenozoic era of its own.

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