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Where EAST meets the Northwest

VIBRANT ART SCENE. China Power: Art Now After Mao, a documentary offering a look at the vibrant art scene in Beijing and Shanghai that has emerged since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1979, screens October 10 and 11 at Portland’s Whitsell Auditorium. (Photos courtesy of the Northwest Film Center)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #39 (October 6, 2009), page 9.

Documentary tracks progress and setbacks of China’s contemporary art scene

China Power: Art Now After Mao

Directed by Pia Getty

Produced and distributed by Pia Getty Films

Showing October 10 and 11 at

Portland’s Whitsell Auditorium

By Allison Voigts

On a hot day in Shanghai last summer, I ducked into a decrepit mansion in the French Concession just as a thunderstorm was breaking. Having spent a disappointing morning at the Shanghai Art Museum, where panel after panel of earnest world citizens smiled down from the "One World, One Dream" exhibit, I was looking for the 140sqm Gallery, which had recently opened a show with the promising title "Naked." Secreted away past clotheslines and rickety stairs (the building also houses apartments), the gallery featured a titillating series of paintings by Shanghai artist Li Haifeng in which luscious green and fuchsia plants erupt with sexual images.

Though stunted by decades of repression, there is no doubt China’s contemporary art scene is emerging rapidly as attitudes toward art and restrictions on artists become more permissive. A new documentary, China Power: Art Now After Mao, offers a look at the art scenes in Beijing and Shanghai since the Cultural Revolution and particularly in the past 10 years.

Who defines contemporary art in China? What role does the Communist government play? Does international fame threaten the artists’ creativity? While China Power provides no definitive answers to these questions, it examines history and current trends through interviews with Chinese curators and critics, international collectors, and more than a dozen Chinese artists.

In 1979, soon after the Cultural Revolution ended, a group of 23 artists known as "The Star Group" gathered at the railings outside Beijing’s National Gallery to display the first exhibit of personal, non-propaganda artwork in 30 years. The group, which included now well-known artist Ai Weiwei (a designer of the Bird’s Nest stadium), inspired the formation of other contemporary art colonies, like the Xiamen Dadaists, in the 1980s.

China’s first avant-garde exhibit in 1989 started with a bang, literally, when one of the artists symbolically fired a gun at her own work. "China/Avant-garde" was shut down immediately. A few months later, the Tiananmen Square violence occurred, and contemporary art disappeared from China almost overnight.

However, foreign diplomats and ambassadors opened their doors to Chinese artists, allowing them to exhibit and sell their art overseas. Works that combined images from the Cultural Revolution with pop art style became popular with foreign collectors, as did paintings in the style of Cynical Realism. Artists such as Zhang Xiaogang — who paints blank-faced, doll-like families — and Yue Minjun — who paints laughing, sinister self-portraits — proliferated. Paintings by either artist are highly sought in overseas markets, often fetching more than $2 million at auctions.

But critics argue the commercial success of China’s first generation of contemporary artists has resulted in a production line of art that lacks new influences. Some artists, including Zhao Bandi, the "Panda Artist," tirelessly promote themselves in the media, even performing state-endorsed public service announcements.

At the end of the film, we meet a number of young artists, including Qiu Anxiong, who creates ink cartoons inside the cramped Shanghai apartment he shares with his family. Qiu paints sequences of scenes in traditional ink, painstakingly photographs each variation, and strings them together to create moving images. Critics are looking to this younger generation of artists who have not yet achieved worldwide acclaim to lay the foundation for the future of China’s art scene.

China Power: Art Now After Mao screens at 4:30pm October 10 and 11 at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum, located at 1219 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. For more information, call (503) 221-1156 or visit <www.nwfilm.org>.