Three Worlds:
What Trajectories Do They Project?

Eugene Wang

fig. 1, Han Huang (723-787), Five Oxen, (8th century, undated).

1. Three Works: Three World

Two decades ago, in 1993, Johnson Chang Tsong-Zung and Li Xianting curated the exhibition ‘China’s New Art, Post-1989’, which opened in Hong Kong in January of that year. The Chang / Li collaboration amounted to a dream team: Chang with his bilingual international cosmopolitanism, and Li with his leadership in the Chinese contemporary art world. They complemented each other through the unique perspective each of them brought. The chosen locale of Hong Kong was also significant. It was a perfect conduit, a portal for China to reach out to the world, and the world to access China. The timing was also fortuitous. After more than a decade of development, Chinese contemporary art had finally acquired a ‘history’. The 1993 exhibition was a milestone in that it proffered to the world a compelling art historical master narrative for Chinese contemporary art. The core of the narrative is a story of transition from the 1980s to the 1990s, and the year 1989 was a compelling divide. The set of momentous events that occurred in 1989 – the end of Communism on a global scale, the tragic events in Tiananmen Square, the closing of the ‘China /Avant-garde’ experimental art exhibition in Beijing, and so forth – decidedly marked the end of a long and tumultuous decade. The 1990s saw China take on a new direction, jumping on the fast track towards the global market economy.

Thus a neat storyline presents itself. The 1980s was a decade of post-Mao thawing, marked by a breaking away from the prison-house of dogma, a new, forward-looking drive, and the emergence of a utopian aspiration toward a future of modernisation. The artistic language of the 1980s – both of the experimental and increasingly of the academic art worlds – was largely modeled upon Euro-American Modernism. The avant-gardist fervour and stance – artists’ self-appointed mission of leading the unenlightened masses out of darkness into a liberated state – came to a crushing end in the realities of 1989.

By contrast, the artistic landscape of the 1990s was marked by artists’ retreat into their private worlds, coinciding with the new reality of the China’s ‘opening-up,’ i.e., the market economy that made artists’ presumed autonomy hard to sustain. Artists felt unmoored. There was a growing distrust of the highminded stance of the 1980s, and also of a modernist visual idiom explicitly derivative of the Euro-American models. Some artists turned to ‘indigenous’ resources, in particular, the earthy ‘homespun’ rusticity of Maoist Revolutionary Realism. The revival (and reinterpretation) of the Maoist legacy that began to take shape in the early 1990s was itself a double-edged sword. Settling for a deliberate dumbing-down stance, it was a calculated gesture in contradistinction to the lofty idealism of the 80s. Meanwhile, the emergence of a new kind of tongue-in-cheek ‘realism’ and the calibrated cheesiness of the so-called Kitsch or ‘Gaudy Art’ (yansu) movement simultaneously mocked and simulated the bad taste of the growing nouveau-riche who were fattening on the new economy. That this potential or intended critical stance itself turned in reality into a marketing strategy to profit from what it purported to critique is one of the ironies of art caught in the headlights of the global market. 

What happened next? The developments of the 2000s await a new narrative whose telling is more than a decade overdue. It would be a long story – something that cannot be accomplished here. Suffice it to say that the oppositional dynamics – i.e., the 80s-into-90s and 80s-vs-90s – do not quite extend to the twentyfirst century. No matter how we slice it, the story of the 2000s is one of resignation to the dominance of consumerism and the global economy. It is hard to keep a straight face fretting over the choice between sustaining high-minded modernising striving and reckoning with the new consumerist reality, or critiquing consumerism while profiting from this critical stance. This change of landscape means the demise of the 1990s modus operandi predicated on the tongue-in-cheek return to a Maoist idiom. Among the notable trends in the 2000s is the growing interest in exploring China’s ‘real’ traditions, that is, not the Maoist-brand Socialist-Realist tradition, but the pre-Mao, Republican-era tradition and the pre-modern tradition. The revived interest in traditional ink painting, ceramics and furniture are indicators of this trend.

It is just at this juncture that Chang Tsong-Zung and his collaborators, in this case the scholars Gao Shiming and Johan Hartle, intervene again, asking the provocative question: how do we navigate the contemporary Chinese art world caught in a triangular relationship, i.e., the relationship of three artworlds – the traditional, the Maoist-Socialist, and the post-Socialist present?

The use of the term ‘worlds’ is felicitous: It resonates well with philosophers’ preoccupation with ‘possible worlds.’ Rehearsing the whole philosophical speculation on ‘possible worlds’ is beyond the call of duty here. Yet there are at least some lessons we can extrapolate from this body of discourse. The idea of ‘possible worlds’ gets us thinking about determinism, necessity, inevitability, the questions of ‘what might have been,’ and ‘what could have been.’ A possible world is a particular state of affairs in relation to many alternative states. Like a chess game, it is a move in relation to a set of other moves; and it itself results from a series of other moves. It implies numerous other shadowy, possible, or ‘could-have-been’ moves. Things don’t have to be this way; but they happen to be this way. So ‘possible worlds’ reminds us that a slightly different move would have resulted in altogether different trajectories.

So what is to be gained by talking about artworlds as possible worlds? It is apparent that the threeworld scheme uses a socio-political taxonomy as a starting point. It highlights art’s embeddedness in an intermediate state or grid of multiple worlds, for which the three-world scheme is a convenient short-hand taxonomy. To the extent that the scheme also recalls a three-phase chronology that China has gone through, we have a good set of reference points or timeframes to measure the evolving states of artistic models. The three worlds may have their distinct traits. The art produced in these worlds / phases may wear a world-specific or period-specific label. The artistic models arising from these worlds, however, exhibit a double stance. They display certain stable and enduring structural properties that transcend temporal and ideological contexts. Meanwhile, they are also evolving states of affairs and trajectories. As they wind their way through different phases, they mutate, adapt to new environments, and take on new traits. It is interesting therefore to follow their trajectories and observe how these structural properties behave in different contexts, and what it is about them that allows them at once to transcend contexts and adapt to new circumstances. 

Let me take this opportunity to illustrate my point through a group of three particular artworks:

(1) Han Huang,
Five Oxen (8th century) (fig. 1)

(2) Song Ling,
Meaningless Choice? No. 2 (1986) (fig. 2)

(3) Gong Lilong and Wang Xingwei,
Corn Harvest (1992) (fig. 3)

fig. 3, Gong Lilong (b. 1953) and Wang Xingwei (b. 1969), Corn Harvest, 1992.