LI ZHENHUA: Understanding the Public and the Chinese Contemporary

What is the public?
The concept of the public only exists in relation to the private. We are talking about the public that is represented through squares, restaurants, train stations, and other types of public spaces. This is a concept based on space, power, and the idea of sharing responsibilities. It is primarily a prediction and a keyword, inseparable from an apparent agenda.

Since 1949, several typical expressions have been used to describe the interrelation between ideology and reality. These include the masses, the people, the liberation army soldier, the student and so on. All these words were used only to convey this ideology of the public. None has ever represented any individual being, but they have served only as a replacement for identity – especially class and political identity. Institutional changes led to the collapse of this semiotic system. This transition was of tremendous significance, and its traces even withdrew from government propaganda. Instead, terms like people, public, friends came to represent certain groups for a certain time. While they have lost their former apparent political class indication, these terms have turned into impalpable representations of a continuously changing mass politic.

Already before the introduction of communism to China, there had been a period of constant rising and falling of great revolutions. China was in a special state of transition from feudal to civil society, mimicking revolutionary practices from Europe and the former Soviet Union. Public speeches (impromptu performances) advanced the notion of democracy, generated the impulse for the people’s awakening, and created the preconditions for revolution and insurrection.

All of that was different from the Chinese people’s former understanding of the public, the private, feudalism, democracy, dictatorship, etc. As many scholars have pointed out, under the circumstances in China back then, the concept of the nation state was only gradually understood and accepted. Neither did it have any characteristics nor did it target any special group of people, but rather it became only vaguely visible when an iniquitous incident occurred. Under those circumstances, any person or party who had understood prevailing social reality could have used the absence of the public to create any kind of common ideology.

The public discussed here is a constructed one. Similar people have a similar understanding of society. Through learning and observing, society, indeed even the world, can be understood and the more abundant such knowledge, the greater the potential to become open-minded. As a construct, the public can be traced back to the Chinese Communist revolution, whose propaganda and broadcasts are perfect practical examples of the concept.

The Long March (October 1934 – October 1936) is the best evidence for this kind of understanding. This revolutionary route was a necessity. It was not taken by choice, however, but created an even more expansive public space. Before, the public sphere was often confined to the class struggle between education and urbanity; moreover, it was always under Soviet influence, but ultimately these struggles ended in failure.

The revolutionary base, created through the Long March, and the vast revolutionary masses by far exceeded the number of residents in the cities. This also established mass mobilization as a main strategy of the revolution and consolidated the leadership position of Mao Zedong. One could argue that the Communist Party’s propaganda strategies and methods still have an immediate effect. Whether they concern foreign affairs policies or the regimentation of internal information, they are all under strong control and supervision. Since that time, propaganda has turned into an instrument of the government, seizing hold of all kinds of cultural forms, and gradually infiltrating every aspect of the Chinese people’s understanding of the world and society.

Between 1900 and 1949, the public sphere for urban intellectual movements was also created. Through the writings, publications, and speeches of those intellectuals, modern culture and knowledge started to spread. For a certain period, China found itself in a special state, a need awakened for independence and individuality, civil rights and the freedom of speech. Liang Qichao (1873–1929) took the first step [1]. Based on his knowledge of the world, he started to compare times of change and the inevitable transformations in China with those occurring globally. These considerations were evoked through the elite intellectual class’ reflections on the change of dynasties, but also through his newspaper publishing work during his stay in Japan, as well as through his later employment as a teacher.

The next step was taken with the release of the first edition of Ta Kung Pao on 17 June 1902 [2]. Further, the popularization of movies and many other cultural forms in the early 1920s showed for one thing that the level of freedom in China had reached an unprecedented state, for another that with this circulation and popularization of European and American technology, a post-industrial, globalized appearance of the world was created.

After 1949, attention should be directed towards the newly created public sphere called the square. Traditionally, people gathered at commercial and law enforcement areas, like East and West markets, and the execution ground. Only later did China come under the influence of Soviet Union and pursue the establishment of an industrial civilization.

The expansion of Tian’anmen Square after 1949 and the demolition of Beijing are very much connected to this understanding: traditional architecture has to be reconstructed in accordance with political needs and the image of an industrial civilization. The dismantling of Beijing’s city wall just provided the huge mass foundation for this top- down demand. Mao Zedong once said, standing on top of Tian’anmen Gate, “I wish I could see a forest of chimneys in front of me” (Wang, 2003, 2011). I shall not scrutinize this statement here; however, this comment perfectly illustrates the collision of different world views and values, as well as the conflicting perception of culture, tradition, and heritage. This can be considered as the emergence of the two coexisting and intertwined main threads of Chinese contemporary culture and public space.

Public can be seen here as a result that has transformed exterior space while starting out from knowledge.

Public Space
‘Everything that belongs to the people, should be the concept of public space’ – this understanding applied to the public issue that was caused by the exhibition of the Stars Group (1979—1980) and the subsequent demonstrations on Tian’anmen Square (Zhu 2007).

Important public incidents have occurred continuously on Tian’anmen Square. However, one like the May 4th Movement, which was eternalized by its carving of the People’s Hero onto the Monument has never occurred again. Most of the other incidents are preserved solely on photographic and cinematographic images. This raises the question whether this space, which belongs to the people, has been substituted by political and economic needs?

The china/Avant-Garde exhibition in the National Art Museum in 1989 was the final breakthrough for contemporary art, the moment where it stepped completely out of the traditional public sphere [3]. After 1989, the public sphere showed an even stronger bi-directional development towards politicization and privatization. Due to the government’s withdrawal from mass movements and through its effective controls and restrictions, the public sphere only showed political needs or private needs that were sanctioned by the government. One effect this had on the art scene were government-commissioned exhibitions, which included many shows of foreign artists, and the renting of exhibitions spaces for economic reasons.

Curiously, Andy Warhol came to China in 1982 and visited the Great Wall; in 1985 Robert Rauschenberg had an exhibition at the National Art Museum; in 1993 Gilbert and George also exhibited there, as well as Henry Moore in 2000. The latter’s works were also shown in Beijing’s Jingshan Park among other locations. In 2004, the British artist Antony Gormley chose the outside of the National Museum, this new historical building adjacent to Tian’anmen Square, to set up his symbolic sculpture made of a pile of packing boxes, which resulted in the curators being interrogated and to its forced removal after a couple of hours.

In the early 1990s, contemporary artists continued their struggle in rural or urban rural areas. Beijing’s Yuan- mingyuan Artist Village served as an important meeting place from the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s [4]. Cultural events usually took place either there or in the later Songzhuang Artist Village or in the East Village [5]. Art performances, documentaries, and exhibitions attracted small, uniquely mixed groups, some of whom came from the cultural elite while others included passersby and government spies. As a rule, spectators were restricted to less than one hundred and any kind of reporting was forbidden. These restrictions lasted until after the year 2000.

The evolution of the cultural public sphere is driven by the economy. Starting in the 1990s, art galleries gradually came into fashion in Beijing and Shanghai. In 1991, Brian Wallace, a student from Australia, made the beginning with Red Gate, Beijing’s first art gallery. In 1996, Lorenz Helbling opened shangART, Shanghai’s first gallery. These galleries shared some similarities in the mid-90s: for economic and cultural reasons, both established their exhibition spaces in hotel lobbies and showed modern and contemporary Chinese artworks. Planted into a more international and upscale environment, these public spheres more or less hovered above the city.

China’s contemporary and modern art developed correspondingly to this circumstance, starting with the Stars Group movement of the 70s, the subsequent nationwide 1985 New Wave art movement, and ending with the china/Avant-Garde exhibition in the National Art Museum in 1989. The Stars Group’s only demands were a critical analysis of the fine arts and of the individual, as well as the need for art’s independence, whereas the exhibition in 1989 dealt exclusively with the conflict between political and individual interests and with the dangers of what was officially called the ‘liberalization of the bourgeoisie’.

In the 1990s, a certain degree of disorder was prevailing; artists’ living spaces mostly also served as exhibition spaces. After the year 2000, with the emergence of the Internet, an even more comprehensive cultural policy was implemented. President Jiang Zemin advanced the notion that the cultural industry furthered the self-determination and internationalization of cultural events like the Shanghai Biennale of 2000, which provided an excellent example for the mixing of international curators and local culture. The first Guangzhou Triennale in 2002 solidified the history of experimental art for one thing; for another, it raised the question of the growing internationalization of Chinese contemporary art. This discussion had already started in the 1980s. Its main focus had been the translation of the name of an exhibition: china contemporary Art/contemporary chinese Art, that is, two different concepts and denotations, blurred by the English language. Even today, this controversial issue is still being discussed in Chinese art publications.

After 2003, the creative industries saw an even more extensive promotion by the government. As part of this strategy, many premises became available to be used as galleries, studios, private museums, companies, and so forth; culture turned into a product and started to drift away from its former ideology. This development was not only triggered by the government, but also by the people: political resistance completely disappeared from the scene, most conflicts concentrated on profit and relations, and political manifestos or cries for spiritual and physical freedom were no longer heard of.

In 2005, at the first China Blogger Conference, public communities started to come alive online. The mere fact that this conference took place demonstrated the significance
of these communities. A new kind of public space was created, one which differed from the physical world and whose existence was restricted to virtual space.

Since the creation of public space through the interlinking of private spheres, a consistency of concepts between physical space and cyberspace has come into being. Through its convenience and technological power, cyberspace has already become China’s most important private – but at the same time also most public – space today; it is moreover also the most extensive sphere of information exchange.

Of course, this has also brought a series of prohibitions and the development of subsequent wall climbing techniques (ways of bypassing the state firewall). Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and other public websites from the West, but also some private Chinese blogs, are all affected by official censorship. Furthermore, it also concerns the search for certain sensitive keywords.

More and more people are growing aware of the necessity to bypass censorship, and wall climbing was probably one of the most important topics in 2009 and 2010. Consequently, VPNs have become the major information disclosure tool for netizens.

Unofficial art movements and unofficial fields of art
Misunderstandings about Chinese contemporary art, within and beyond China, have occurred for two opposing reasons: one is the opinion that its development is completely separate from other cultural currents. It is indeed growing increasingly stronger. However, mainstream culture continues to be dominated by curious and traditional painting styles. Contemporary art is still only emerging in China; after all, starting from the Stars Group in 1979, its history spans little more than 30 years. The other opinion is that Chinese contemporary art only adopted frameworks of Western culture; indeed, the influence of modern and contemporary Western culture cannot be ignored, so that consequently any overlapping would be a natural consequence. As mentioned, scholars have already been discussing these relations and parallels since the times of Liang Qichao.

Fine arts education broke apart after 1949. It was built on the foundations of the Soviet educational system, which means that besides the influence of traditional art, the roots of Chinese contemporary art are still located in the former Soviet Union.

From 1979 until today, contemporary art has been dealing with the questions of the independent transformation of Chinese art and with how to sinicize foreign ideas and art forms. Of course, the latter requires a deeper understanding of contemporary Chinese thinking, as well as the expertise of cultural scientists. Nevertheless, I shall try to answer the former question by considering some prominent events in the development of contemporary culture, as well as some geographical changes. For the moment, I shall call this the development of unofficial art in China.

Stars Group (1979 — 1980)
The Stars Group was an affiliation of friends that concentrated mostly on painting and drawings. Its greatest contribution was an exhibition in a small park, next to the National Art Museum, which is rather hard to find today. The members of the Stars were: Ai Weiwei, Bo Yun, Huang Rui, Li Shuang, Ma Desheng, Mao Lizi, Qu Leilei, Shao Fei, Wang Keping, Yan Li, Yang Yiping, and Zhong Acheng.

To a certain extent, this event was a sequel to the cultural needs developed during the Cultural Revolution. It started with the Democracy Wall on Xidan Street and Jintian (Today) magazine, as well as the convergence of the people’s call for democracy and the intellectual’s demand for free thought [6]. The Stars were born out of this situation. They eventually entered the art museums and institutions hosting official exhibitions, and even gained the approval of the cultural ministry back then. However, most of its members left China soon after.

For the occasion of their retrospective exhibition, curated by Zhuzhu in 2007, a special issue of Gentian Magazine was published. In Jintian: The stars Group, most of its members recounted this chapter of the group’s history.

85 New Wave (1980—1990) [7]
Reality diverges slightly from the accounts of the former curators and organizers. The china/Avant-Garde exhibition in the National Art Museum included over 200 Chinese artists from different groups, like the Northern Art Group founded in 1985 by Wang Guangyi, Shu Qun, Ren Jian and Liu Yan among others, or the southern Artists salon, or indeed Xiamen Dada. Other participants were artists or groups from the organizers’ social circles.

The 85 New Wave can be seen as an extensive mass movement, initiated through the people, intellectuals, and students. It no longer bore any kind of relation to the Cultural Revolution. As more information on modern and contemporary art was obtained from abroad, cultural ideologies and activities experienced an unprecedented development. The 85 New Wave was a potent and democratic movement, a huge cul- tural trend that had sprung up in all provinces and cities. It concluded with Tang Song and Xiao Lu’s perfor-mance

Two Gunshots Fired at the Installation: A Dialogue, which marked the end of the china/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989 (Berghuis, 2006). Its effect was not only the termination of communication between the people and the government, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the subsequent student movements.

At the exhibition entitled ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art’, curated by Fei Dawei at the end of 2007, the movement was described as follows:

“The 85 New Wave was one of the most important art movements in China’s 20th century art history, it created a new era, defeated the instrumentalism and monism of art and made the first step for China’s contemporary art. Many groundbreaking works were also created during this period […].”

The exhibition took place at the UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art). Eighteen years have passed since its exhibition at the National Art Museum in 1989. However, if we compare the locations, the former represents the sacred halls of China’s institutionalized art, whereas the latter is a private gallery in Beijing’s 798 art district opened by Guy Ullens and his wife.

Shanghai Biennale and Guangzhou Triennale (1996—2010)
The first Shanghai Biennale took place in 1996. Until the second, it tried to cut into Chinese contemporary art, but the effect was only very minimal. Neither exhibition is mentioned in official reports. Most people learned about the Biennale in 2000. Because of its international team of curators and artists, its record-breaking expansive exhibition space and media coverage, contemporary art reached a level of extreme publicity. This directly influenced the sudden increase of biennales across the country: one after another Chengdu, Guizhou, Nanjing, and Guangzhou all held biennales or triennales. The Guangzhou Triennale, which started in 2002, is especially noteworthy as it made the greatest contribution to improving the image of experimental art.

The absence of Western curators from the 2010 Shanghai Biennale aligns to a certain extent with predicated future trends. But the transfer of Wang Huangsheng from the Guangdong Museum of Art to the CAFA Art Museum (Museum of China Central Academy of Fine Arts) might spell the end of the Guangzhou Triennale. At the same time, however, biennales and triennales across the country are continuously being founded and disappearing again, so no clear tendency is visible. Moreover, these developments directly affect the government’s understanding of contemporary art.

Yuanmingyuan, Songzhuang, East Village, 798 Art Zone, Caochangdi, and other art districts (1984—2010)
Yuanmingyuan artist village came into being in 1984, providing a home to several hundred art pioneers. Especially after 1989, this area developed into a meeting place for artists, poets, writers, stage and documentary directors, until the forced eviction of the whole area in 1995. Afterwards most of the artists scattered around Beijing and moved to places like Huajiadi, Songzhuang, Mudanyuan, Tongxian, just to name a few.

Around 1993, the East Village, which was located in today’s Eastern part of the Third Ring Road, turned into an important location for performance art (see Annex). Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan’s live performance Dialogue with Gilbert and George in 1993 foreboded for one thing Chinese contemporary art’s future relation to the world; for another,
it showed in a certain sense a continuity with the china/ Avant-Garde of 1989, as both took place in the National Art Museum, that is, the sacred halls of Chinese institutionalized art. Unfortunately, the East Village only existed for two years before it was banned by the government.

As for Songzhuang, due to its remote location, which is an estimated 30 minute drive from the district town of Tongzhou, the two thousand resident artists have managed to create a stable working and living environment that still exists today.

798 was discovered in 2002, whereupon artists gradually started to move there. In 2003, it was almost demolished due to reconstruction plans of the local administration. From 2003 to 2006, while continuously accommodating artists and galleries, the question of the area’s future demolition and renovation were still on the table. In 2008, 798 became a government promoted trendy art district, which eventually turned into an important location for the official creative industry. Only thereafter was its existence secured.

With the opening of UCCA in 2007, people took notice of the arrival of foreign funds, while at the same time Chinese contemporary art reached its second peak upon entering the auction markets. Through its location next to Huajiadi art district and the CAFA, 798 naturally expanded in a northeastern direction, assimilating the villages and creating today’s Caochangdi and Huantie (circular railway) art districts and also a bit further away, the Feijiacun Artist Village, as well as the 1 Art Base and Beijing 318 Art Garden among others [8].

All these art districts, studios, galleries, and private museums provided enough exhibition space, technical and financial support for Chinese contemporary art. Through the relocation affair in 2010, the legitimization issue of public space became apparent again. The present conflict is different than the previous one, which focused on ideoogy, political antagonism, and violent government interference. This time, the demolition and relocation that Caochangdi is facing, is a double attack led by the local village government and by the economy of relocations.

Public Media
This was only a rough summary of events. Many more incidents and locations where significant changes occurred were left unmentioned. But let us return to the issues of the public and of public art, which were among the necessary conditions and foundations influencing the development of public media.

After the public distribution of information, the most important breakthrough since the year 2000 have been the economic innovations in contemporary art that came with the globalized economy. The transformation of contemporary art and its artists’ identity started at that moment. After the year 2000, public art and the country’s development were completely aligned. The frequent exhibitions of contemporary art and its continuous advance into public space created different reactions among the people and the government. For example, the Post-sensibility movement, which came into fashion in 1999, developed two tendencies, one focusing on space and media, the other on flesh and corpses [9]. This immediately met with general criticism and official investigations, and ultimately with a government ban on performance art. This was all due to the dissemination of information – a greater public had fallen into the sufferings of contemporary art.

Since the upcoming of new media education, the effect has become even more extensive: the interest in computers, science, or interdisciplinary studies has reached an unprecedented level, whether in art academies or among the wider population. The already overloaded government websites were no longer able to answer the public’s needs. With the continuous rise of private websites and blogs, information dissemination multiplied rapidly. Similar to the practices of Western artists in the 1960s, who used television to directly broadcast performances or videos to the public, the Internet in China has assumed the functions of an exhibition platform and broadcasting tool.

Traditional forms of media like newspapers, magazines, and TV are also facing the end of their functions as mouth pieces of the government. They are undergoing transformation into individual cooperations. In response to the public demand for news and information, a blurred area of the public media has arisen.

In the 1980s, when people like Wen Pulin were working for China Central Television (CCTV), a lot of visual material of Chinese contemporary art was produced [10]. This is a perfect example of how private interest inside an official organ can affect its future transition. Chinese contemporary art is just becoming an extensive field, permeating all areas of culture and life. A recent article in Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po criticizing contemporary art (“Has contemporary art turned into nothing but hot air?”) has also demonstrated how contemporary art is turning into mainstream culture [11].

The annual Chinese Blogger Conference in 2005 can be seen as a turning point of the people’s voice through economic and technological development. Every subsequent public
event has had its own media appearance, widely discussed online, thereby creating a vast community of information exchange. Since the advent of information diversity, everybody has assumed the power of being a medium.

The above-mentioned prohibitions and wall climbing are part of this newly created sphere. Today, social media has become the synonym for public media. This area also concerns the progress of hardware (mobile phones, PCs, TV, internet, etc.), as well as software (3G, blogs, podcasts, etc.). Public media will replace the former one-way and single-track systems of information dissemination, and turn into today’s communication network and information pool. The enormous amounts of data that were shared via mobile phones or PCs will slowly become the main sources of information and news.

Official public art and city construction
Opposite above-mentioned unofficial art stands official, mainstream art. There is nothing curious about this, as we are all surrounded by it.

The standardization of culture after 1949 meant that only eight Model Plays (there were some additions later) existed during the Cultural Revolution. Performances combined many different art forms (ballet, Peking Opera, theatre, Pingju Opera, classical music, folk music, etc.) and were thoroughly public products in every aspect. Even though these works were broadcast only for a short period, they have become eternal monuments, mental brand marks, something that will never be forgotten by any Chinese alive back then.

The most important event in 1972 was the visit of US president Nixon, which is known today as the icebreaking event. It had an immediate impact on the Chinese people’s understanding of the world. Before, China and its knowledge base only existed as part of the communist camp.But through this event the country surfaced as an individual entity. This paved the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan later in 1972, for the establishment of Sino-US relations, and ultimately for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.

The April 5 Tian’anmen Incident in 1976 was a reaction to Premier Zhou Enlai’s death and the people’s anger against the Gang of Four. It was centered around the Tian’anmen Monument, the most significant memorial since the founding of the Republic.

The economic reforms in 1978 could not have been implemented without Deng Xiaoping’s rectification in 1975. The reforms and the Stars Group movement of 1979 can be seen as the beginning of an open relationship between culture and politics, brought about by a certain kind of self-awareness within the government and the people.

The 1980s were a period of economic development, with both coastal areas and the inland undergoing development and construction. Stadiums, hotels, restaurants, and apartment
buildings enjoyed the biggest popularity. By Mayor Chen Xitong’s decree in 1983, all buildings in Beijing started to receive a green, antique-looking roof, which can be considered as a highlight of modern architecture history. This action, as well as the demolition of Beijing’s city wall after the founding of the Republic, served to fulfill political needs.

The end of 1980s and the beginning of 1990s were characterized by an atmosphere of repression. Most people chose silence as a countermeasure. In the 1990s, the Chinese economy was affected by the Asian financial crisis and came to a standstill. This caused a short period of distress for economy-driven, futuristic cities that had been built from the ground, like Shenzhen or Shanghai’s Pudong district. The 1990s were also the beginning of the government’s emphasis on the cultural industry, and they marked the start of city beautification campaigns. Many monuments were created and all of them had wonderful motifs. But no other city than Guangzhou found a sculpture that better represented its city culture than the stone sculpture of the Five Goats [12]. Yet the masses of old leader statues were still occupying too much public space; until today, flower beds and roundabouts in folkloristic styles still dominate public space.

Since the year 2000, the cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai have been hosting massive actions to improve their image. On 13th July 2001, Beijing was awarded the
Olympic Games, and started a worldwide design competition for the Olympic stadiums. After the Games, they all have become important landmark buildings and public culture venues. The Shanghai Expo 2010 used Beijing’s experience to make the most of its own event. All the buildings were temporary, only the China pavilion was kept. Furthermore,
the CCTV Headquarter, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and the Shanghai Tower came into being. These colossal and unique architecture projects were already designed as landmarks
and media centers. While they are still connected to politics, they are also inseparable from business and culture.

This essay has attempted to depict the changes in China’s public and public culture in the past 100 years. I hope to have provided the reader with a rough idea, despite the limited space available. Public = people’s need = standardization of political culture = media can be seen as a summary of the meaning of the term public in China from 1949 to 1978; this is a one-way, vertical process, which responds to popular desires and party expectations. After 1978, whether political or popular needs, many more factors came into play. Public art is a vertical need of the government, a political need to reconstruct cities. As soon as the media and information distribution by the people came to life, the public’s legitimacy and totality faced questioning and rejection. This led to the emergence of an even bigger information network, which then turned into an online public sphere. This phenomenon took an immediate effect on the formation of the public and of public art. Today, the public can be created for three different reasons: 1.political needs; 2.personal benefit; 3. media event. Coincidentally, these aspects are also shaping today’s contemporary art.

Both domestic and international transitions have led to an overall variation and diversification of public awareness in the course of the globalization process, and are slowly helping to overcome national borders and boundaries. By way of comparisons, conversions and exchange, more public issues will be raised, like the environment question, youth education, unemployment, the emergence of migrant workers, the dangers of coal mines, and many more.

There is also the concept of concealment, which has always existed within tradition and culture. This has not ceased existing despite revolutions and reforms, but has become an integral part of China’s cultural heritage and the back- bone of the elite and intellectuals. Its traces can be found today in the structures of ancient buildings, gardens, and paintings.

Returning to the issue of ideology issue, if China’s politics and public both belong to this domain, then it also concerns modern and contemporary art. Chinese artists have always had a pragmatic attitude towards this issue, as the famous final line in the film version of the novel The Miraculous Pigtail nicely illustrates: ‘The pigtail is gone, but the spirit is still here’ (Feng 1984). This clearly shows a non-compromising inner nature, while being able to adapt to reform and revolution. Here, we need to discuss the re-thinking of culture, a question already to be found in the writings of Joseph Needham (1900—1995):

“First, why did modern science only develop in Europe, but not in Chinese (or Indian)
civilisations? Second, why was the Chinese civilization between 100 B.C until 1500 A.D. so much more effective than Europe in applying mankind’s natural knowledge to its practical needs?”

So what does China’s current public environment and spirit look like? Everything that I have mentioned above needs to be considered to answer this question. Since we are living in a multifaceted era with many networks, all the events that took place before have a subtle butterfly effect on our world today. Never before has anything superseded the rules of a society within an existing ideology in such a short time. Ideological transition is the first step towards universal change. Those ideologies that are gradually dying away will cause a shift within the external world, from its buildings to its aesthetics.

After the creation of sharism, the ideology of sharing constructed by the public, what will a world look like where information is completely disclosed? [13]. Will China, after its official entry into the WTO, be affected by the next financial crisis? Also, have the problems and morality constraints that arise from sharing led to the construction of self-imposed limits? How should we consider matters in such a complicated situation? Of course, these issues are already part of the ideology of contemporary art. What, we may ask, is not public today? Knowledge is like a speedboat: I am in the boat, looking at the sea, sometimes looking up at the stars.

What might be more important than all of this is perhaps simply forgetting to explain the concepts of public, contemporary, politics, sharing, and so on, or at least to stop using these memorized, simple words with some kind of preassigned values. Extremes can lead to the emergence of violence, but then every person is also empowered to have violent thoughts. When a person has mastered the power of writing and reading, books will also turn into power. Precisely that is part of the public.

Thus, Xu Tan justifiably asks: ‘Knowledge is power, is power power?’ (Xu Tan, 1998).

The Ai Weiwei incident that started with his investigations about Wenchuan has to be mentioned here as well [14]. Ai Weiwei’s main interest lies in the information disclosure
of the government, which led to him being beaten up and hospitalized (during the Frankfurt Book Fair) this time. This incident created a great stir and was widely reported by major German, French, British, and US media stations. However, Ai Weiwei’s blog was the sole information source (as his blog was censored in China, as well as all other reports on this incident), which resulted in a biased news coverage.

Wikileaks suffered a similar fate in that the disclosure of oversensitive information led to continuous bans and transfers.

All this leaves me confused about the credibility of information. I wonder about the reasons for the bans and censorship, as well as the reality created by all these

Furthermore, there are many different aspects of the public that would allow us to come closer to reality. These, however, would also make it impossible for us to cope with this multifold, parallel reality.

Special thanks to Mao Xianghui, Zheng lianjie and Xu Tan for their contribution to this article.

Li Zhenhua

[1] Liang Qichao was a Chinese scholar, journalist, philosopher, and reformist during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). He inspired Chinese scholars with his writings and reform movements.

[2] Ta Kung Pao, founded 1902 in Tianjing, was one of the most important news- papers during Republican China. It was re-issued in Hong Kong in 1948, and is the oldest active Chinese language paper today.

[3] See:; http://goldsen. library.cornell. edu/special/wen. php.

[4] See: http://www. yszx/12380.html; http://www.cnarts. cn/yszx/12381. html.

[5] Since 1993, many international and domestic artists have moved to Xiaobao Village, located in Song- zhuang, Beijing. Today, it has turned into a think tank of artists and is known as Xiaobao Artist Village. For further infor- mation on the East Village, see: http://www. mediawiki/index. php/East_Village_ Beijing_北京东村.

[6] The Democracy Wall was a long brick wall on Xidan Street, Beijing. It became the focus for demo- cratic dissent and is considered the starting point for China’s democracy movement. The short period of demo- cratization is known as the “Beijing Spring”. Jintian (Today) Magazine, co- founded in 1978 by Bei Dao in Beijing, is the centre of the Misty Poets movement, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Banned in 1980, it has been reissued again since 1990 under the name Jintian Wenxue Zazhi (Today Literature Maga- zine), see: http://

[7] On the 85 New Wave, see http:// http://www.artspeakchina. org/mediawiki/ index.php. The New Wave Movement of the mid-1980s was a continuation of the past era. It was based almost entirely on the theories, conceptual ideas, and visions of Western modernism. It consisted of regional, folklo- ristic art groupings that mobilized a national modernist art movement on an unprecedented scale. Some of the noteworthy groups with a certain kind of continu- ity, size, and theoretical approach were the Northern Art Group, the Jiangsu Neo-Primitivism Group, the Red Brigade (Nanjing), the Pond Society (Hangzhou), Xiamen Dada, Tribe·Tribe (Wuhan), and the Southwest Art Research Group.

[8] See the Beijing Art Zone map at http://www.ionly. info3/200708291/ 1635091.html.

[9] See: http://www.

[10] See: http://wason. library.cornell. edu/Wen/archive. php.

[11] See: http://arts. 20101229/n278569 649.shtml.

[12] Designed by Yin Jichang and others in 1959 to perpetuate the goat as Guang- zhou’s city symbol, this is an artwork full of poetic grace.

[13] See:

[14] Ai Weiwei launched an independent investigation into the death of more than 5,000 school children after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. See: http://www.nytimes. com/roomfordebate/ 2011/04/11/ ai-weiwei-and-the- artists-role- in-china/how-ai- weiwei-challenges- the-political- order.

Berghuis, Thomas J. (2006). Performance Art in china. Timezone 8, Hong Kong; play_vol_aid252_en. html or http://www. volume2issue2/ image100/feature/ feature1.htm.

Feng, Jicai (1984). The Miraculous Pigtail. Chinese Literature Press, Beijing.

Wang, Jun (2003). cheng Ji. Sanlian Shudian, Beijing.

Wang, Jun (2011). beijing Record. World Scientific Publishing Company, Singapore.

Zhu Zhu (ed.) (2007). Jintian: Xing Xing Hua Hui Zhuan Hao (Today: stars Group special edition). Vol. 79, Jintian Wenxue Zazhi She, Beijing. http://www. mediawiki/index. php/The_Stars_ Group_星星画会/zh.

This article was originally published in 023Issue # 11/11: PublIc Issues (p.17-25) 

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