Despite the absence of Ai Weiwei, Germany's massive eight-city exhibition of Chinese art has plenty to criticize. Both established and little-known contemporary artists take consumerism and cultural destruction to task.
There's never before been an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art of this magnitude: Eight cities, nine museums, 120 artists, 500 works.
For audiences in Germany, the question is on the tip of their tongues: Just how much influence did Chinese officials play in the making of "China 8," which opens to the public on May 14 and runs through September?
Exhibition initiator Walter Smerling, director of the Küppersmühle Museum of Modern Art and chairman of the Foundation for Art and Culture in Bonn, is quite familiar with the question of Chinese state involvement. He says his partner in China was Fan Di'an, president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, who has been involved in numerous international museum projects and is a respected curator for modern Chinese art.
Smerling and his team say they visited the ateliers of more than 200 artists in China, whom they selected without assistance from the government. Among them are photographers and video artists, sculptors and painters. The visits were arranged without official restrictions.
According to Smerling, prominent Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was at the top of the list of possible curators. Ai Weiwei is particularly well known in Germany after leaving an impression at the Documenta in Kassel in 2007. In China, however, he has been persecuted for speaking out against the government.
Ai Weiwei turned down the opportunity, says Smerling, although apparently no objections were made by the Chinese ministry of culture.
Commenting on consumerist China
Nevertheless, there's still plenty of room for critical stances in the exhibition. Nearly all of the works on show were created around the turn of the millennium and comment on modern-day China's autocratic turbo-capitalism. Urbanization, the loss of everyday culture, environmental pollution, estrangement, loneliness: These effects of developments in China are key motifs taken up by the artists in a wide variety of expressions.
Fang Lijun, for example, presents in the Lehmbruck Museum a wall made of ceramic Mao bibles which is threatening to collapse. The work offers multiple political interpretations. It touches on China's past cultural revolution, the fascination that Maoism held and still holds for many Chinese, and the role of the Communist Party - a taboo issue in itself.
Fang and five other artists at "China 8" were present back in 1993 for the "China Avant-garde" exhibition in Berlin, the first larger show of modern Chinese art to take place outside of China. Until then, he had only been known to a few insiders. His pictures of bright pink faces were shoking in China and surprise for the public abroad.
"China Avant-garde" took place just a few years after the crushing of China's democratic movement in 1989, which silenced the traditionally political voice of poetry. Visual art was taking its place in shaping society, and moved with surprising velocity from the underground to becoming a recognized cultural form.
Collectors in Hong Kong quickly recognized that there was money to be made and little risk to be taken - and not much has changed since then. Modern art is seen in China as a good investment and a status symbol.
Art enjoys the freedom that makes exhibitions like "China 8" possible - as long as it doesn't, as in the works of Ai Weiwei, become too explicit.
Passing the baton to a new generation
In the meantime, Fang and most of the artists from that "first" generation have become part of the elite international art scene and sell their works for millions of euros. An early piece by cynical realist Yue Minjun, a painting of distorted laughing faces, went for $7 million at a Christie's auction in 2008. These artists are cosmopolitan and tend to maintain studios not only in Beijing or Shanghai, but also in New York, Vienna or Pairs.
The "China 8" exhibition across Germany's Rhine and Ruhr regions shows, in addition to the established names, a series of younger, lesser known artists: There's "Visionary Hope," a large-scale mural by Yuan Yuan (born in 1984) on display in the Osthaus Museum in Hagen, and a video installation in the Glaskasten Marl sculpture museum. And the artist collective MADAHA, also among the younger representatives, focuses on consumption and spectacles.
Art photographers Eason Tsang Ka Wai and South Ho Siu Nam are among the 13 artists from Hong Kong who are a bit disconcerted that they've been lumped together with mainland China in the show. Their works can be seen in Museum Folkwang in Essen.
The exhibition, insurance and transport of the artwork and the artists were funded entirely by foundations and sponsors which include Deutsche Bahn train service and Dusseldorf airport. Clearly, interest in the Chinese market and promoting tourism were motivating factors.
For visitors who don't have time to visit all eight cities, an exhibition in the Forum NRW in Dusseldorf provides an overview, from the conceptual work of Ding Yi, who's been painting checks in small grids for decades to counteract the bustle of society, to Shen Fan's light sculptures and Wang Qingsong's large-scale photos of prostrating rear ends.