“The Phoenix Years”: Celebrating Chinese Artists’ Persistence

The entrance to the 798 Art District in Beijing (Photo: The T List)

“In China you never expect anything to last for very long.”

The words are those of multimedia artist Cao Fei, spoken in a late chapter of Madeleine O’Dea’s illuminating and exhilarating new history, The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China (Pegasus, 2017). Cao Fei is relatively young — not yet 40 — but her words have authority. Life has indeed seemed rough, unpredictable and seemingly patternless for the Chinese artistic community since the founding of the People’s Republic by the Communist party in 1949. But perhaps there is a certain insidious ebb and flow at work. As O’Dea explains:

If you wanted to portray the history of the People’s Republic of China with a diagram, one way to do it would be to draw a waveform across the page, a series of peaks and troughs, like the image on an oscilloscope Each peak would be a period of freedom and openness, each trough a crackdown – often a savage one – by the government.

O’Dea, an Australian journalist, has lived in China sporadically since 1986. At first, working for Australian Financial Review, she largely covered economic matters. Later she served as a producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Along the way she wrote about Chinese culture for a variety of publications and became an expert on contemporary Chinese visual arts. She has known personally several of the talents profiled in this book. She has followed their careers, as the prospects for a satisfying creative life have flickered from bad to good and back to bad again.

Madeleine O’Dea. Photo: Nick Brightman.

After the regimented rule of Chairman Mao Zedong ended (with his death in 1976), a period of reform ensued. This was the era of “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping. In 1978-79, artists enjoyed a particularly refreshing (if brief) taste of freedom, with the appearance of “Democracy Wall” in Beijing. Reform was soon stalled, however, by a government campaign against western influences. Deng’s loosened grip nevertheless helped spur enormous economic growth, attracting artists to the capital city, which bustled and expanded. In June of 1989, however, came disaster: the massacre by the Chinese army of hundreds of demonstrators and bystanders near Tiananmen Square. The artistic sector of the society, like all of China, was shaken to its core. In the 28 years since that catastrophe, prospects for artists in the country have continued to oscillate.

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O’Dea claims that the Tiananmen Square horror (which has been officially dis-remembered by Chinese society) created a divide as deep as the one separating pre–World War II from the postwar years. Perhaps a more meaningful analogy for contemporary American readers would be the “before and after” divide that came with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. O’Dea, not surprisingly, uses the Tiananmen tragedy as a division of sorts for the two halves of her book. The chapter on the events leading up to and describing the massacre is fascinating, but we read with a sickening feeling of apprehension as the demonstrators’ optimism and bravado give way to dashed hopes and, finally, to chaos and carnage. O’Dea’s writing here is measured, but also assured, elegant and involving.

Cao Fei. Photo: Judy Wenjuan Zhou.

The artists whose lives and careers are described in this book come from an array of geographical areas and backgrounds. O’Dea presents the biography of painter and conceptual artist Guo Jian in significant detail. Born in southern China, he fought as a young man in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, took artistic training in Beijing in the mid-1980s, and became a hunger striker at Tiananmen in 1989. Another conceptual artist, Gonkar Gyatso, has challenged himself throughout his career to come to terms with his Tibetan heritage. The expertise of Cao Fei, a considerably younger artist than Guo and Gonkar, is in documentary film and video. One of her major creations is an online installation called RMB City, a virtual quasi-Beijing in which Tiananmen Square is transformed into a swimming pool, and the image of Mao near Tiananmen gate has been replaced with the head of a giant panda.

But the artist featured most prominently in the book is Huang Rui, a Beijing-born conceptual and performance artist. Born in 1952, Huang Rui has lived through nearly the entirety of the People’s Republic’s history. He designed the cover of the first issue of the underground literary magazine Today in 1978 and was one of the curators of the groundbreaking 1979 and 1980 exhibitions of a group of artists known as “The Stars.” These ambitious and idealistic upstarts, O’Dea writes, “reveled in the official no-go areas of [Chinese] art: the personal not the political, the realistic not the rosy, the experimental, not the traditional.” The “Stars” name was meant to be ironic, as the artists were unheralded at the time. But the name was also adopted as a sly comment on Mao, who had always been associated in state-approved art with the sun and sunlight. As Huang Rui wryly observed: “Only when the sun has set can you see the stars.”

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The differences these artists have made to their world may seem small, but they are not nothing.

Some of these artists looked directly to the West for inspiration. Early in his career Huang painted his own version of Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” which he’d seen reproduced in an old book. And he was enlivened by techniques on view in an exhibit of 19th-century French landscape painting that appeared at the National Art Museum of China in 1979. Gonkar Gyatso was deeply inspired by the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer, which made their way to China in the early 1980s. He later found epiphany in Charles Saatchi’s notorious “Sensation” exhibit, which he viewed while self-exiled in London.

Now, it seems, there’s been a turning of the tables. Those of us in the West — Americans in particular — may find inspiration these days in the examples of the artists that O’Dea celebrates.

Cover image: Guo Jian’s “The Day Before I Went Away.”

After the election of Donald Trump last year, I felt that the term “resistance” (a word used in the subtitle of O’Dea’s book) was perhaps a bit too over-the-top for what was needed to block the anticipated attempts to curtail our freedoms. At the same time, I shared a sort of despondency with artists and admirers of artists: a sense that paintings, sculptures, plays, novels and films were frivolous weapons with which to challenge the New Abnormal.

I now believe I was wrong about the “resistance” business. What’s transpired since Jan. 20 of this year appears to have compromised our way of life and our rule of law with a ferocity that only the most pessimistic among us had envisioned. Stopping the Trump machine will take “resistance” and then some. But, after reading The Phoenix Years, I think I was wrong also about the “art is a useless weapon” business.

The artists in The Phoenix Years have continued to ply their trades through decades of repression, relieved only by tantalizing glimpses of potential personal and artistic freedom. Some of these artists were jailed and/or exiled. Others — like Gonkar Gyatso — left the country voluntarily (though he returned to his homeland in 2015). Their perseverance, their need to continue expressing themselves in an environment where freedom of expression may never bloom fully in their lifetimes, is more than merely exemplary. The differences these artists have made to their world may seem small, but they are not nothing.

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Currently, the Chinese people are enduring yet another “trough” on the oscilloscope, with the regime of the dissent-stifling President Xi Jinping. Still, China’s artists manage to keep going, whether on their own soil or abroad. O’Dea, for her part, seems cautiously optimistic. She believes that a high level of social control is “out of step” with what the country has become: “China is now simply too diverse, complex and vibrant to be able to tolerate autocracy in the long term.”

Late in his career, Huang Rui spent long periods of time living abroad, in Japan. But he, like Gonkar, is now back in China. He lives and works in the 798 Art District of his native Beijing; it’s a gallery-filled enclave of sorts for artists. Remaining with him in the district is a public statue that greatly inspired O’Dea when she first saw it in 2004. She writes:

It is a bronze of a model worker, legs akimbo, arm thrust forward in a traditional propaganda pose. But the extended fist, instead of wielding a hammer, brandishes an artist’s paintbrush.