Art in Smog

“Art in Smog” (working title) will profile several visual artists in Beijing, including three painters first interviewed in 1991 for my earlier documentary Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. This follow-up story will explore how twenty-five years of unprecedented economic growth in China have affected the artists’ lives and their work. China’s contemporary art world is a microcosm of the larger society, and the voices of artists and commenters will 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 will explore 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. Several years later, I learned from Heiyang that his friend Mushi had returned to their hometown in Chongqing and gotten married. Heiyang has stayed on painting in Beijing all these years. One part of the documentary will be to reconnect with Heiyang and possibly even to go to Chongqing to find his old pal Mushi. How have the past 25 years treated these unofficial artists, and did they achieve the better life they sought?


Old men carrying birdcages used to cross this road to go to the park, before it became the Airport Expressway.
The airport expressway in Beijing, which used to be a neighborhood street easily crossed by old men carrying birdcages to the park. Now they have a long trek on the overpass.

In addition to revisiting these three artists, we will interview cultural critics, younger artists, gallery owners, scholars, and other players in the Chinese contemporary art world. We will find women in the arts to speak about their situation in this male-dominated arena.

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. Does East vs. West matter? Do wealth and fame matter? Is there a cultural identity that Chinese artists need to hold onto or resist? How do the artists’ lives and works enhance our understanding of tensions in China, and the world, today?

This landscape is desolate, apocalyptic, and yet wishful in some way. I wondered if this is the artist's inner world?
This landscape by Su Xinping is desolate, apocalyptic, and yet wishful in some way.

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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