Art in Smog

Art in Smog profiles four artists and a curator in China. Three main characters—Su Xinping,  Xia Xiaowan, and Mushi—were first interviewed in 1991 for my earlier documentary Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. The new film explores how twenty-five years of unprecedented economic growth have affected the artists’ lives and their work. China’s contemporary art world is a microcosm of the larger society, and the voices of the artists evoke the complexity and ambiguity of social issues today.

The “smog” in the title refers to Beijing city, to the sooty skies after two decades of rapid modernization, and to the stressful psychological environment in which the artists strive to find a path. The scope of their lives has expanded tremendously, but wealth, globalism, issues of cultural identity, and the insecurity of current status are “smog” that cloud the mind. The documentary explores how artists navigate and innovate in their challenging environment.

The three original main characters grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, became inspired by the flood of foreign books suddenly available in the 1980s, and sought a “modern” life where their individual, internal visions would define their art. This individualism made them “avant-garde” in view of Chinese tradition and socialist ideals.  In 1991, after an exuberant avant-garde art exhibition in Beijing in 1989, followed by the shock of the Tiananmen suppression, the artists were quietly pursuing their art, not knowing what to expect for the future.

Luxury hotel and cars waiting for their clients.

Luxury hotel and cars waiting for their clients.

Now, two decades later, Beijing has become a megalopolis with idiosyncratic skyscrapers overhead, automobiles densely jammed on every ring road, incredible wealth for the well-connected, floods of information on social media and the Internet, the world’s business on the doorstep, and minimal interference from the state on art, especially if it drives the economy. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but how does that mesh with the artistic soul?

This painting was hanging behind Su Xinping's desk, when I visited his studio in October 2014. I wonder if it might be a self-portrait?

Su Xinping, self-portrait, 2010

Su Xinping was a young lecturer in 1991 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), producing exquisite black-and-white lithographs inspired by scenes from his native Inner Mongolia. His early prints evoked loneliness, hope, illusion, terror, and fatigue. Since then, he has become tremendously successful on the international art market—with works sold by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams—and has also risen in the academy to become vice-president of CAFA. He is now in charge of shaping the education of China’s next generation of elite artists. What have his works evoked over the past two decades? Has wealth and fame changed him? What is his vision for the next generation of artists? Is his interior world still his key inspiration? How does he handle his busy official position? What can we learn from him about art, bureaucracy, and survival?

Xia Xiaowan, who used to love social gatherings and was deeply interested in expressing humanity and life struggles in his art, has also become enormously successful on the international art market. He says he wishes everyone would leave him alone, referring to business contacts who make demands on his time. He also says he has no particular social message in his art….that he is only interested in pure form. Can this be true? What is his thinking on the development of forms? How does he manage his professional life with his inner drive to paint and draw what he feels? What are his external and internal challenges?

The third main character was actually a pair of vagabond artists. Heiyang and Mushi were two young painters from Sichuan who promoted themselves under the group name “Blue Belly.”  They migrated illegally to Beijing in the early 1990s to join the modern art scene. Heiyang stayed on painting in Beijing all these years, surviving modestly. Mushi returned to Sichuan and became an antiques dealer to make a living. Art in Smog visits Mushi in Chongqing to ask how he has managed his life, and what about his art?

In addition to revisiting these three artists, the film introduces Xia Xiaowan’s wife Chen Hui, who ponders her situation as a female painter in a male-dominated arena, and curator Cui Cancan, who exudes the no-holds-barred energy of the younger generation.

The public impact will be to raise questions about the essence of art and to explore the spiritual challenges in a consumerist society, a politically constrained environment, and a globally competitive world. How do the artists’ lives and works enhance our understanding of tensions in China, and the world, today?

2 thoughts on “Art in Smog

  1. Lydia this is so interesting! I totally remember the three artists from the original Inner Visions. It’s so fascinating to revisit 24 (!!) years later. Can’t wait to read your blog posts. Can you post updates on FB too?

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