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Avant Garde, En Garde! The foresight of experimental art in pre-Tiananmen China

-Tabitha Rubens

On February 4th, 1989, two pistol shots were fired in the National Art Museum of Beijing. The target was an installation piece created by 26 year-old Xiao Lu, an art student from Hangzhou. Xiao Lu herself had pulled the trigger. The bullets shattered her own reflection in a mirror serving as the centrepiece of her artwork, Dialogue, an installation which consisted of two aluminium telephone booths containing the silhouettes of a woman and a man, a red telephone receiver dangling on a cord between them. The gallery was evacuated, and the exhibition in which the installation piece had featured, China/Avant-Garde, came to an end within two hours of its opening. Xiao Lu fled the scene and later turned herself in to the authorities.


The case of the gallery gunshots came at a pivotal time; the exhibition opened less than four months before the Tiananmen Square protests. It had been intended to celebrate artistic freedom, its opening embedded with optimism. Xiao Lu's Dialogue installation stood in the East Gallery on the first floor of the museum, a position described by the exhibition’s curator, Gao Minglu, as “the most visible location of all”; it was a gateway to the other works. When Xiao Lu fired her pistol, the entire gallery descended into chaos and the optimism and sense of possibility cultivated by the exhibition was compromised.


Xiao Lu, Dialogue (1989) (image: www.tate.org.uk)


The China/Avant-garde exhibition in which Xiao Lu was exhibiting was a collection of artists using their work to comment on and criticise Chinese society. Essentially, contemporary artists were testing the newly set boundaries of artistic freedom. It is important to note that 1980s China was starkly different from the China of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution saw immeasurable socio-political upheaval. Artists of this decade were afforded far more creative freedom. Challenging CCP authority remained strictly off limits, and art exhibitions were largely controlled by the party; yet, as the decade drew to a close, hopes were high for an artistic landscape defined by individual expression. Such bold experimentation would have been impossible a few years earlier, and would be impossible once again just a few months later.


The product of three years of planning, the exhibition was a declaration of Chinese artistic modernity, a legitimation of experimental art forms, and a link to the international art world.

Throughout the decade, Chinese experimental avant-garde artists sought to engage with the public sphere, which was inherently politicised. The government maintained control over the display and spread of artworks, and had banned private group exhibitions in the early 1980s. Despite this, new art groups were keen to establish 'artistic democracy', and sought complete freedom over their own creative expression. The ‘85 Art Wave Movement involved experimental groups building on Western concepts of the avant garde to create public performances and exhibitions. The 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Gallery would bring these public performances into an official space, offering legitimacy and a visible platform for the contributing artists.


The exhibition promised to be a seminal one in the world of contemporary Chinese art. The product of three years of planning, this exhibition was a declaration of Chinese artistic modernity, a legitimation of experimental art forms, and a link to the international art world; it was also the largest display of contemporary art since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 - Xiao Lu's infamous Dialogue was one of over 200 works. The National Gallery façade was adorned with vast flags bearing the traffic sign for ‘No U-turns’, making a bold statement that there would be no ‘turning back’ from the new direction of contemporary art. The exhibition was thus inextricably tied to the accelerating activism emblematic of early 1989.


Art as ‘spectacle’ was a theme that ran across all three floors of the National Gallery, with popular participation consistently seen as a necessary element of the show. It was simultaneously unified and eclectic, compared by video artist Zhang Peili to a "farmer's market" while the art historian Wu Hung has labelled it a "single coherent work of art unto itself". The oddity of the collection cultivated a revolutionary - if surreal - atmosphere, one which reflected the wider optimism of the late 1980s, before the Tiananmen incident. One notable piece was Wu Shanzhuan’s Selling Shrimp, which quite literally consisted of a stall selling frozen blocks of raw shrimp bought in Shanghai to the exhibition audience. This ‘artwork’ was a comment on the tendency of art museums, critics, and ‘high culture’ to turn artists into salesmen peddling commercial goods, as well as a questioning of the boundaries of art as a medium. In a similar vein, the artist Li Shan spent the brief exhibition run perched behind a stretch of scarlet fabric, calmly washing his toes in a basin decorated by images of Ronald Reagan - he appropriately titled this performance piece Foot-Washing.


When Xiao Lu shot at her own installation, she drew the spotlight from the other exhibiting artists. Her actions were largely frowned upon by the art world, since they scuppered the efforts of China’s most promising experimental artists. China/Avant Garde had fundamentally promoted democracy; its closure was a blow to the artists involved, curtailing the sense of fearlessness that had been rooted within the exhibition. The exhibition reopened on February 17th, only to close yet again just two days later: anonymous letters had been sent to the museum, the Beijing Public Security Bureau, local government officials threatening to plant explosives in the gallery if the exhibition continued. It was later revealed that these letters had also been the work of an artist, Liu Anping, in a move to bolster the already buzzing publicity and social commentary surrounding the exhibition. The exhibition never regained its initial momentum; its artwork would forever be overshadowed by its premature and repeated closures.

Despite its transience, the China/Avant Garde exhibition has remained an important historical event. It came at a critical moment in Chinese artistic and political history, and encapsulated the zeitgeist of the time.

The gunshots which Xiao Lu fired at her own artwork resonated deeply with political protestors and cultural commentators alike. In fact, for Xiao Lu the gunshots were social, rather than political statements. She had planned the stunt as a manifestation of her own womanhood and a representation of her inability to communicate with men. She did not connect the stunt with a “grand narrative”, but rather with her own personal emotional state. However, following the events that took place at Tiananmen Square shortly afterwards, the stunt took on heavy retrospective significance, particularly due to the close proximity of the gallery to the square. The failure of dialogue between students and the Chinese Communist Party caused the artwork to be viewed in a new light as a harbinger of the bloodshed of June 4th.


Despite its transience, the China/Avant Garde exhibition has remained an important historical event. It came at a critical moment in Chinese artistic and political history, and encapsulated the zeitgeist of the time. Xiao Lu’s bullets came to be known as "the first gunshots of Tiananmen." Though Xiao Lu initially described her stunt as a “purely artistic incident”, she later embraced the political value of the artwork, conceding that reinterpretation and contextualisation are a major part of art-making over which the artist has limited control. Moverover, the daring experimentalism, dramatic acts of violence and abrupt closure of the exhibition demonstrate the undeniable link between contemporary Chinese art in the late 20th century, and the course taken by Chinese politics and modern social history. Xiao Lu's bullets were embedded with foresight, even if that said foresight was entirely unintended by the young artist.




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