I’ve been in Beijing three months now, focusing on renewing connections with my main subjects. Since 1991 when I first filmed them, the academy-trained artists Xia Xiaowan and Su Xinping have become successful figures in the Chinese contemporary art world. They each had major retrospective shows this October—Su Xinping at Guangdong Museum of Art and Xia Xiaowan at Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. In both exhibitions, the curators wished to demonstrate the continuity of the artists’ personalities and artistic explorations already evident in their early work from the 1980s and ‘90s. I was happy to see many “old friends,” the paintings and prints I admired years ago when producing Inner Visions,: Avant-Garde Art in China. The old works were juxtaposed to major new works, just in time for my research on the artists’ changes, responses, and maturation over time.
Su Xinping’s Solo Exhibit at Guangdong Museum of Art
Xia Xiaowan’s Solo Exhibit at Beijing Minsheng Art Museum
Two other main subjects, Mushi and Heiyang, did not become famous artists. In 1991, they were talented self-taught painters from Sichuan, empassioned with modern art, who had migrated to Beijing to make their mark on China’s vibrant art world. Lacking the advantages of academy training and the social network of Beijing’s prestigious art circles, they struggled on the periphery as contemporary Chinese art boomed on the international art scene.
Past and Present with Mushi in Chongqing
One of the pair, Mushi, eventually moved back to Chongqing and became a businessman dealing in antique furniture. He abandoned life as a painter during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and he turned a hobby—searching for quality antiques in Beijing’s flea markets—into a potential business. Consumer appreciation for antiques grew along with vast increases in infrastructure and wealth in Chongqing in the 2000s. Now, with the additional success of a furniture-design business run by his wife, Mushi is able to live a leisurely life. He has resumed painting, this time purely for enjoyment, without the need to sell his works. He lives his life surrounded by fine antiques, listening to high-quality classical music (on vinyl records), enjoying imported cigars, sipping aged teas, and seeking simple contentment, not fame.
Heiyang’s Old Home
Mushi’s childhood friend Heiyang remained in Beijing and held onto his dream of becoming a successful painter. With hard work and frugal living, he has been able to maintain a quiet life as an artist. He lives in Songzhuang, a large artists’ town east of Beijing. He does not consider himself successful and says he no longer seeks fame. Rather, he prefers to read Buddhist teachings, practice calligraphy, and share thoughtful articles and images with friends on WeChat. He is hesitant to be involved in social activities and has suggested that he would not like to participate in the documentary. We shall see.