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Melissa Chiu on ‘Generational Ruptures’ in Chinese Contemporary Art

Dr. Melissa Chiu gave a lecture titled “Art + Politics in Chinese Contemporary Art” as a part of the Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series on November 27th, traveling the few blocks between the IFA and her role as Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs at Asia Society. Chiu has published many books and articles within the field of Chinese contemporary art as well as the broader topic of Asian Contemporary Art. Her full lecture can be accessed via the IFA’s Vimeo page.

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This year the Silberberg Lecture Series is focusing on “Violence as a matter of disciplinary concern.” Violence is a recurring theme within the history of art and its various manifestations help set the tone for the understanding of a period or a particular artist precisely because it is a thread of humanity that can be represented with such variety. Chiu’s lecture thus was an inquiry into the theme of violence in contemporary Chinese art.

Like Chiu’s book, Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know, her lecture took a simplified approach to the topic and was geared towards people who have little background or knowledge of Chinese contemporary art or China. As an introduction to the topic, it traced a broad overview of the theme of violence in Chinese Contemporary Art and its historical context, arguing that depictions of violence remain mostly an undercurrent in Chinese contemporary art.

Her title, “Art + Politics in Chinese Contemporary Art,” hinted at the way in which Politics can be directly or indirectly related to violence within Chinese art and society. Obviously this is not the only connection to be made when speaking about violence within Chinese Contemporary Art, but it is a strong place to start. Chiu choose the cultural context of the Cultural Revolution as her departure point, ensuring that her audience had at least some awareness of that traumatic period for many Chinese families and the widespread cultural destruction that occurred in the name of progress by “destroying the four olds.”

The Cultural Revolution is just one of many violent events in the last fifty years for China. By organizing her lecture chronologically and centering it on the aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution, Chiu brought up the concept of “generational ruptures.”

And that is perhaps the most interesting issue brought up by her lecture. China has been changing so rapidly as a country and has experienced so many significant political, cultural, material and artistic transitions that its people have had very distinct childhood, adolescent and adult life experiences. While there have naturally been some constants to a childhood in China, knowing the generation to which a person belongs can provide rich insight.

Artistically this plays out very clearly. For artists it can give you insight into their training, international experience, cultural and historical awareness and the issues that they wrestle with through their artwork. With groups of artists coming of age simultaneously, their works naturally have dialogue with each other. Connections can be made to specific cultural events and the way their generation interacted with these events.

The difference in generational experiences has also affected the art world in China through its role in the Chinese artistic diaspora. The artistic landscape and the international character of Chinese contemporary art is shaped by the move away from China by many artists who have risen to prominence and their subsequent return to China and the art world there. A following blog post will look further at the internationalism of contemporary Chinese art.

During the question-and-answer session, Chiu became more specific, highlighting the lack of recent historical awareness of different generations and delving deeper into thornier issues such as violence in Chinese art. While she had argued for the artistic aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution, Chiu acknowledged that many Chinese young people have little to no awareness of its history by recounting a story from her recent visit to the only museum in China dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, which opened in Shantou city, Guangdong province, in 2005. While in the museum, she overheard a group of teenagers ignorantly ask, “What is this?” This history is not being taught in the schools and unless the older generations are talking about it, the younger generation can easily remain ignorant. This is where art across generations can come in and speak to the silences of their recorded history in China. Art can stand in remembrance and give testimony to all types of violence.

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