I’ve been working quietly on my “Art and Smog” documentary project since returning from China this summer. I had an amazing nine months reconnecting with my main characters from 25 years ago. The societal pursuit of material advantages and profit, and the competition for survival, has overshadowed their earlier ideals of an honest and caring humanity. Their art reveals the confusions, pressures, fears, and need for refuge that they feel. Their words and images speak not only to their felt experience in China but also to the pains many people in the world experience today, even in the United States.
I’m thinking of changing my film title to “Art in Smog” instead of “Art and Smog.”
What I’m hearing from my subjects is that they feel themselves in a haze, trying to go somewhere, but not seeing clearly where to go. I take their statements of personal mental ambiguity as a metaphor for China’s dilemma as a nation, or even the world’s dilemma as a global society. By interviewing artists and looking at their works, I’m trying to find my own clarity on “What is art?” Why is art compelling, fascinating, and thought provoking at this moment?
Last month I visited Nanjing and spent an afternoon with painter Guan Ce. He was active in the 1985 avant-garde art movement in China and recently exhibited in London’s Saatchi Gallery in a show curated by Gary Xu. Thanks to Gary for making the introduction for me and to Guan Ce for meeting me on short notice.
Guan Ce’s studio was on the 2nd floor of an automobile parts factory not far from the newly developed residential district where he lives and teaches. He showed me some mixed media paintings on paper that he had recently finished….he kept them casually in a large cardboard folder on the floor. He opened the folder for me and then went to get water to make tea.
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. Continue reading
September marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new season of work. Just in the last two weeks, I’ve attended a slew of art exhibit openings, begun conversations with old friends and new contacts, and noticed plenty of good art.
People do complain about the over-commercialization of the art world. I hear how market demands stunt the development of young talent and how the messy involvement of many different interests—sponsors, investors, curators, paid critics, entrepreneurs, the state, the academy, the gallery, the crowds—muddle artists’ visions. Nothing is simple or clean. There are tons and tons of art to see. And, tucked away between the atrocious items, there’s always something that deserves a second look.