Three leading artists explore the complex notion of a multi-ethnic national identity in post-globalization China
While I was writing this article, in February 2018, the artist Zhao Yao received permission to rent the iconic Workers’ Stadium in north-eastern Beijing for one day in May. His intention was to show an abstract composition on fabric, measuring 116 × 86 m, which was produced in 2016 and initially displayed 5,000 m above sea level on a mountainside in Qinghai province on the Tibetan Plateau. Independently, last October, Zhao Zhao brought a camel and its keeper from the far western region of Xinjiang to Tang Contemporary Art in Beijing. His exhibition, ‘Desert Camel’, was a coda to the major work Project Taklamakan (2015–16), for which the artist transported a functioning refrigerator to the middle of the Taklamakan Desert. Zhuang Hui, meanwhile, has been visiting the Qilian Mountains in Gansu province for the past seven years, exploring the geography and culture of the region through photography, video and installation. All three artists live and work in Beijing, yet have spent years working on projects relating to the far west of China, a region loaded with historical and political contention.
Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang collectively form the great western flank of modern China. Consisting largely of impassable mountains and inhospitable deserts, these vast regions represent about 40 percent of the country’s landmass but house only four percent of its population. Areas of vital strategic importance to modern China, they are also home to peoples with their own ethnic and cultural identities, which frequently clash with Beijing’s objectives. Consequently, it has been an important part of modern Chinese politics to develop the notion of a multi-ethnic national consciousness.
Artists have played a vital role in aiding this objective when it comes to Tibet. Ever since the days of the first Chinese Republic, artists have developed an idealized way of depicting the plateau and its people – all the more so in the face of ongoing political tensions since Tibet’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s. Since then, Chinese artists have looked to Tibet to provide them with a metaphorical representation of themselves as a pure and spiritual people who shun ideological hubris and materialistic desire.
The Western Regions (Xinjiang and Gansu) have shaped national identity in a very different way: as the conduit for China’s contact with the rest of the globe. The Silk Road was perhaps the world’s first taste of globalization, as its network of trade routes disseminated ideas and goods across continents. Contemporary China aims to revive the Silk Road as both idea and actuality through President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced in 2013, the awkwardly titled BRI is a massive infrastructure and investment scheme spanning the entire Eurasian continent. Its aim is to put China at the centre of a trading network that will stretch from Australia to East Africa to Scandinavia, covering more than 60 countries (equivalent to 65 percent of the world’s population, three quarters of global energy resources and 40 percent of global GDP as of 2017) and assuring China’s economic and geopolitical dominance in the region as well as on the international stage.
This venture has already started to make ripples in the art world. Earlier this year, the exhibition ‘Frontier: Re-assessment of Post-Globalizational Politics’, curated by Lu Mingjun at OCAT Shanghai, looked at artists working in China’s peripheries and suggested that curators need to look at Chinese art from a different perspective. At the same time, the ‘Belt and Road’ series of exhibitions at the China Art Museum in Shanghai gave an official take on how the PRC is using the initiative to promote its own version of soft power.
Zhao Yao was born and raised in Chengdu – a major city in Sichuan province, 80 km east of the Tibetan Plateau – and, as such, grew up exposed to Tibetan culture. The idea for the artist’s ambitious outdoor project began in 2012, when he took seven paintings to the Moye Temple in Qinghai province to be blessed by its resident rinpoche (living Buddha) for his show ‘Spirit Above All’ at Pace London. At that time, the rinpoche was in the process of making the world’s largest embroidered thangka painting for devotional display on the mountainside near the monastery. This was a ritual familiar to Zhao, seen during his previous travels to the region. It occurred to him that his own abstract geometric works could be similarly enlarged and displayed. The rinpoche liked the idea, seeing it as an opportunity to expose his community to a contemporary cultural perspective.
Shortly after Zhao transported his giant painting to the monastery, more than 100 rinpoches, between 2,000 and 3,000 lamas and monks, and at least 100,000 devotees gathered in nearby Nangqian County for a major annual Dharma assembly. Lamas at the Moye Temple agreed to take Zhao’s rolled-up work, titled Spirit Above All (after his 2012 exhibition), to the Dharma assembly to be blessed. The rinpoches performed a ritual for the piece, lavishing it with spiritual energy. Treating it like a devotional thangka, over 150 lamas and villagers then helped to carry the work up the mountainside. Over the course of the winter, ten local households took turns to care for it, sending family members up the mountain every two or three days to check for problems or damage. The work spent more than five months exposed to the elements. During this time, it was covered in snow and battered by strong winter winds, but survived thanks to the diligence of local villagers.
The aim of Zhao Zhao’s equally ambitious Project Taklamakan was to place a refrigerator filled with local Xinjiang beer in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, power it from the nearest town, 100 kilometres away, and enjoy a cold one. The Taklamakan Desert used to be the primary obstacle for travellers to navigate on the Silk Road and its intermittent incorporation into the Chinese empire, beginning under the Han dynasty, was essential to control the trade routes that skirted its edges. Though it now finds itself once more at the centre of China’s commercial and diplomatic policy, Xinjiang is one of the PRC’s most impoverished regions. This has fuelled racial tensions between local Uighurs – the ethnically Turkic Muslims who have historically comprised the majority of the region’s population – and Han Chinese. Since skirmishes in the capital of Urumqi in 2009, which left more than 150 people dead, Xinjiang has become a taboo subject for discussion, with internal media coverage of the region reduced to the bare minimum.
Zhao took a team of 30 engineers and workers, 100 km of four-core cable and a refrigerator to Xinjiang for a project that cost nearly 3,000,000 RMB (around GB£340,000). In light of the vast scale of investment in the BRI, Zhao’s irreverence was palpable. However, more than a glib parody of the geopolitical games being played in the region, Project Taklamakan represented an intensely personal return to roots. Though Han Chinese, Zhao was born and raised in Xinjiang, as was his father before him. The artist’s epic journey into the desert took him back to his hometown for the first time after ten years of living in Beijing.
For Zhuang Hui, spending extended periods of time in his native land has become an important part of his creative process. The artist came to prominence as a leading conceptual photographer in the late 1990s. In his most celebrated series, he organized for entire schools, hospitals and even army units to leave their posts in order to be photographed in the style of the large group portraits popular during Chairman Mao’s era. However, after years of living in China’s vast capital, Zhuang felt drawn to the mountains of his childhood in Gansu province. He has been travelling there annually since 2011 as a way of re-orienting his creative process. To facilitate this, in 2014 the artist took large-scale installation works that had been languishing in his warehouse and exhibited them in the middle of the Gobi Desert, leaving them there to fade into oblivion. It was as if he realized he had to break literally and symbolically with his past output in order to clear space for new ideas and feelings to take root.
However, by leaving his past works in the desert, Zhuang was also evoking an important part of the Western Regions’ history: exile. As the most remote outpost of the Chinese empire, the Western Regions was always the preferred destination for rulers to banish out-of-favour subjects. The works Zhuang produced between 2014 and 2017 culminated in a solo show at Galleria Continua in March last year, which he believes to be only the beginning of his explorations of the region. (Full disclosure: I curated the exhibition, which was titled ‘Qilian Range’.)
Art and ideology have always been intertwined in recent Chinese art history and, as the Chinese contemporary art world becomes increasingly Western in outlook, the question of Chinese artistic identity becomes more complex. Zhao Yao, Zhao Zhao and Zhuang Hui may not consciously be making work about their origins; nevertheless, producing major projects in the places where they grew up would suggest that these artists are looking to their roots to find ideas and inspiration. On one level, there is an element of searching for authenticity in the exotic or untouched, which places these artists in a long Chinese art-historical tradition of exploring the nation’s peripheries in order to examine notions of identity – ethnic, national and personal. On another level, Chinese contemporary artists have perhaps been hampered by the restrictions (in size and budget) of the commercial gallery system and market economics that have dominated the country’s art scene over the past decade. The sheer scale and emptiness of China’s great western frontier provides an antidote to and escape from the claustrophobic urban density of cities such as Beijing, as well as the confines of the studio and white cube.
This escape into the ‘wild west’ has both coincided with and been facilitated by China’s expanding geopolitical ambitions, which have funnelled transport infrastructure into otherwise remote regions. In a one-party state, where government policy is so powerful that it impacts the very foundations of society, art is perhaps inescapably a barometer of the wider socio-political climate. We have seen this reflected in recent Chinese art history, from the idealism of the early opening-up period of the 1980s to the commercialism of the ’90s and the 2000s. What that means for China’s sense of its own identity, or identities, and the role artists might play in shaping this is not yet clear; what is sure is that change is coming.
Zhuang Hui is based in Beijing, China. This year, he has a solo show at New Century Art Foundation, Shanghai, China, and is included in group exhibitions at FM Centro per L’Arte Contemporanea, Milan, Italy, The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm, Germany, and the Yinchuan Biennale, China.
Zhao Yao is based in Beijing, China. Recent solo shows include: Beijing Commune (2016) and Pace Gallery, Hong Kong (2015). His fabric work Spirit Above All will be on view at Beijing Workers’ Stadium from 18 May.
Zhao Zhao is based in Beijing, China. In 2017, he had a solo exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing. In 2018, his work was included in the group exhibition ‘One Way or Another’ at Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, USA.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Roots and Routes.
Main image: Zhuang Hui, Qilian Range – 11, 2015, (detail), inkjet colour print, 88 x 110 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua, Beijing; photograph: Lian Dongya
First published in Issue 194