Richard Kraus looks at two documentaries on Chinese art by Lydia Chen
In her spellbinding 1993 documentary Inner Visions, Lydia Chen interviewed three struggling, idealistic young Chinese artists. Twenty-five years later, the same profilees are back in Chen’s latest film, Art in Smog, to discuss their careers again – this time as mature artists who worked hard to find their places in China’s now prosperous arts scene. Chen’s long-term relationship with them is unique, and makes for two very special documentaries which anyone who cares about the evolution of Chinese art over the past quarter century should watch.
The film opens with footage from Chen’s earlier film. In 1991 Xia Xiaowan was an intense young painter, with a firm jaw and an artist’s ponytail. In 2016, he has not only lost the pony tail, but has gone grey, becoming the very picture of a successful artist in today’s China. Deeply concerned for the fate of his nation after decades of political campaigns and headlong economic growth, Xia’s humane skepticism and alarmed commentary repeatedly calls to mind a modern Goya, whose intensity he shares. Xia experiments with new techniques, including paintings made on stacked sheets of glass, which produces a holographic effect that serves his exploration of body shapes. Expensive media is a ready symbol of a prosperity that has raised China’s standard of living for artists who were not expecting it.After the 1993 film came out, Xia Xiaowan married an arts student, Chen Hui. Chen quietly but firmly discusses the problems of marriage to a successful older artist, even one who has strongly supported her very different art. Within the male-dominated art world, Chen’s paintings speak to women’s perspectives, and have shifted to address China’s headlong rush into the market. Perhaps because she has struggled to assert her independence, she recalls rough times and the contrast with her current prosperity.
Su Xinping also offers an interesting match to Xia Xiaowan. Su’s early work featured unsettling lithographs of animals and enclosures, which partly refer to his Inner Mongolian roots, but also offered a critique of society’s constraints in the aftermath of the failed 1989 political protests. Twenty-five years later, his most recent works feature bleak landscapes, nearly barren of humanity. As a young man, he was eloquent about the need for tranquility in his work, a goal that continues to elude him. Now he comments ruefully on how slow he was to understand that art has a market.
Su is interesting also for his leadership role in China’s arts establishment, where he is a Vice-President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. For most of his life, Su resisted overtures to join the Communist Party. Now he is about to join so that he may be more effective in his job as an administrator; unless Su becomes a Party member, he cannot take part in important discussions within the Academy’s Party Committee. Viewers are invited to wonder how this will impact his art – while also perhaps wondering how the Party may be impacted by recruiting such members.
The fourth artist profiled is Mushi. As a young artist, he left Chongqing to seek his fortune in Beijing. Without the formal academic training and cosmopolitan connections of Xia Xiaowan and Su Xinping, he had a hard time, eventually returning to Chongqing, where he has become a successful dealer in antiquities, and a serious Buddhist. He lives a comfortable life, painting what he wishes without regard to the market. Mushi is critical to the film, lest we imagine China’s art world to be one-way elevator to success. All of these artists have benefited from China’s rise to prosperity, the development of a domestic art market and the interest of foreign collectors and institutions in new Chinese art. But some have been better able to ride this wave than others.
As a foil to the four older painters, Lydia Chen also introduces us to Cui Cancan, a young curator who is organizing exhibitions for Xia Xiaowan and Ai Weiwei. Cui is brash and voluble; what the older artists painfully regard as social and political instability he treats as business as normal. Lacking their emotional and psychological burdens, he is comfortable with rapid change – his occupation did not even exist in China when Chen made her first film in 1993.
In contrast to Cui’s comfort, the older artists feel their work has been shaped by unending political and economic commotion. To some, the market brings prosperity and a limited degree of order. But chasing the perceived tastes of collectors is a mixed blessing. Even with money and connections, life in smoggy Beijing can be difficult. The artists themselves are amiable, direct and serious in discussing their lives in China’s changing art world. Along the way, Lydia Chen shows us hundred of paintings, often stunning in their diversity and technical achievement. The big questions about making art in an authoritarian society tugg at our consciousness, as we see how these artists adapt to China’s economic and political realities. ∎