Book Review: ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989 by Paul Gladston


發佈時間:20 Feb 2017


‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989 by Paul Gladston

‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989 by Paul Gladston



In 2013, Prof. Paul Gladston (University of Nottingham) published ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989, an English art history monograph focuses on the originality of contemporary Chinese art. There are a few publications about the avant-garde art groups in the 1980s China, for instance The ’85 Movement (2 volumes) by Gao Minglu, A History of Modern Chinese Art, 1979-1989 by Lu Peng and Yi Dan, as well as New Tide of Painting published by Zhang Qiang as early as in 1988; however Gladston’s was the only western monograph that discussed specifically about issues of the ’85 New Wave groups in China. Although Gladston was not a participant nor a witness to the Chinese avant-garde movement in the 1980s unlike the aforementioned Chinese scholars, his vision had a much more global and post-modernist scope that successfully provides another perspective in interpreting its history.


Format, Narrative and Interview:

The format of this book is specific and unique. It comprises of two parts: the first part gives the reader an introduction of the trajectory of Chinese art in a culture context since 1911 when the Republic was founded, and explains relationship between social consciousness of contemporaneity and Chinese art; while the second part introduces four representative art groups in the 1980s: The Stars, The North Art Group, The Pond Association and Xiamen Dada. In interpreting the four case studies, Gladston took a new approach by combining an introduction and in-depth interviews discussing the avant-garde-ness of Chinese art.


Such an approach is distinctly from Gao Minglu, Lu Peng and Zhang Qiang’s publications. The ’85 Movement edited by Gao and his colleagues collected tremendous source of material, and gave a comprehensive analysis, divided into two volumes, a collection of historical resources and a history thesis. In the thesis volume, the editors emphasised on a crucial issue of the ’85 – historical shift – with a total (quasi) philosophic framework. This colossal book not only employed various scientific methods, such as large data statistics, regional divisions, cross fields synthetic framing, but also followed traditional Chinese official history writing methods (with the format of biography 传, document 书, narrative 志, timetable 表, and so forth). While Lu Peng’s book interpreted history thematically, with narratives, quotes and comments, in the format of Chronicles; Zhang Qiang’s book introduced the history by commenting on each individual group. Whereas Gladston provided a narrative with comments for each group as well as his interviews with different artists. Through a dialogue of artists’ retelling their stories, Gladston strategically revealed some critical issues that had not been fully considered by previous research.


Allegedly, compiling contemporary Chinese art in the format of interview is very popular, for example, The Situation of Chinese Avant-Garde by the Gao Brothers and China Talks: Interviews with 32 Contemporary Artists by Jerome Sans (the director of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art when he published the book). However these interviews focused on the timeliness of present issues, while historical discourse only took a very small part. Meanwhile Gladston’s utilised history as a fulcrum, he aimed at representing and discussing history through conversations with artists and witnesses, and in hope of revealing some unresolved historical aspects.


Gladston called this approach “critical history deconstruction”. He believes that history cannot be fully represented, as in recollecting history, historians inevitably have to face various degrees of limitations, for example lack of materials, authenticating evidence and witnesses, and the inaccuracy caused by the conflicts and mutual benefits between the individual and the collective. Therefore, Gladston identified himself as a cultural critic rather than an art historian. This self identification directly reflects upon his publication with regard to the format and the content.


Questioning and relocating “modernity” and “avant-garde-ness” :

In representing the trajectory of Chinese art in the 1980s, Gladston was fully aware of the relationship between Chinese special institutional/political structure (system 体制) and the art groups. If the system had not advocated “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom”, “Liberate Your Thinking”, “Enlightenment” and “Humanist Enthusiasm”, the so called “avant-garde” groups would never have expected to emerge from the underworld to the official, and have the cushion space in which negotiation with the official government would be viable.[1] Without the support if the national or provincial artists’ associations, museums and art publications, at least from The Stars to the ’85 groups, all would have emerged in entirely different forms, potentially far from the historical occurrences, or may even have never transpired. When Gladston explored the historical circumstances, he first and foremost argued the “modernity” of the art groups in the 1980s, and further pointed out that these “avant-garde” groups are very different from the post-modernist art waves that struggled against the established power structure of art in the West.


Although there were many obstacles in the course of modernisation of Chinese art in style, taste and ideology, there were many instances of back and forth. Nevertheless Gladston asserted that “contemporary Chinese art is simply a belated extension of Western modernism/postmodernism”. Meanwhile he stressed that the effects of Western cultural translation inevitably refracted contemporary Chinese art in relation to localised circumstances. Moreover, Gladston believed it is possible to “view contemporary Chinese art as part of a genealogy of multidirectional cultural re-contextualisations and re-motivations that effectively deconstruct the notion that there is any sort of categorical distinction between the visual culture of China and that of the West”.[2]


It was interesting to note that the Gao Brothers in comparing the historical milieus of Chinese and Western art concluded that in the 21st century, Chinese art could still serve avant-garde-ness that was mutualised in the West since the 1970s. For them, avant-garde-ness meant “cultural challenge that stimulates social revival”.[3] In examining the case of Rauschenberg’s exhibition in China in 1985 which had provoked strong reaction from Chinese artists to be aware of Postmodernism, Li Peilei pointed out that Rauschenberg’s influence in China was far greater than in the contemporary West, because China was not familiar with multiple media collages that became prevalent in the 1960s in the West.[4] Such a notion corresponds Gladston’s assertion about the belated-ness of Chinese art trajectory.


On a certain level Gladston’s opinion accords that of the Gao Brothers, namely Chinese “avant-garde” art in the 1980s was within the historical framework of modernisation, in other words, an extension of China’s response to the challenge set by Western colonialism since the Opium War. Such a cultural game accompanies the course of China’s modernisation; therefore if the art groups in the 1980s were to be restructured into a larger scale of cultural-historical scope, the “avant-garde-ness” of them indeed appeared to be controversial. That is the reason why Gladston used quotation marks in referring to “avant-garde” groups, as it clarifies his critical stance in historicising it.


Dialogue and the Right to Speech:

A significant proportion of the book comprised of the interviews that Gladston did with the artists. Throughout the conversations with different artists from each group, he attempted to reveal the intensions and strategies of dialogues between the interviewer and the interviewees. Even though the dialogues were presented objectively in texts, Gladston gave the reader the liberty of judging the conversational phenomenon. Through the dialogues, it became apparent that each group had differences and similarities in organisation, there were also compatibility and arguments between the individual and the collective. More importantly, these conversations reflected some real aspects of historical circumstances. For example, artists dedicated most of their interactions to discussing their everyday lives rather than art theory or aims, which was very understandable and expected. Furthermore, each individual artist had different intensions when joining the groups. Making exhibitions and conferences enhanced the solidarity of the groups which was one of the de-structuralist cues that Gladston wished to present to the reader.


Consequently this book was aimed at a Western audience, Gladston specifically explained Chinese cultural technique terms (Confucius, Chan Buddhist and Daoist canons) in the endnotes. Such an arrangement enables the reader to have a comfortable and guided navigation in engaging this unfamiliar field.



When compared with books on the same topic this monograph has a unique characteristic, by using no more than 200 pages it has successfully outlined the trajectory of Chinese art in the 1980s. More importantly, the author constantly inserted critical arguments about the issue of “avant-garde-ness” and different artists responded in different ways, this reflected the complexity and diversity of history. In making a book that deconstructs history, Gladston, without a doubt, has succeeded.


However, it must be addressed that there were more Chinese art groups in the 1980s than the four that the book exemplified, and more significantly Life-Stream groups (labelled by Gao Minglu formed the duality of the ’85 with Reason-Wave groups) were entirely neglected. The Southwest Art Group, which was the leading group in the Life-Stream, could well demonstrate how the original autonomous art associations shifted into semi-official ones. And this is a key in exploring the shifting nature of the ’85 New Wave. Furthermore, even though other groups had less influence on the Chinese art scene in the 1990s, they did shed light on probing the promotional power structure of Chinese “avant-garde” art. In other words, what was the reason that only few groups among dozens were selected to represent history, gained attention, and eventually shape art history?


Fortunately, Glabston has already taken those issues into consideration after the publication, it is foreseeable he would make deeper and further arguments. Although some arguments were absent from the book, Gladston’s writing strategy serves well in stimulating the reader’s critical thinking and this was precisely what he aimed for: to destruct a phenomenon and give the right to speech and judgment to the reader.

[1] Paul Gladston, 2013, ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989, Intellect, p. 19.

[2] Gladston, ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-1989, p. 25.

[3] Gao Brothers, 2002, The Situation of Chinese Avant-Garde Art, Jiangsu People’s Press, p. 34. [高氏兄弟:《中國前衛藝術狀況》,江蘇人民出版社2002年]

[4] 李培蕾:《現代與後現代藝術的反思》,江西美術出版社2008年,第118頁。






誠然以訪談形式編寫中國當代藝術非常普遍,比如高氏兄弟的《中國前衛藝術狀況》以及前尤倫斯當代藝術中心館長傑羅姆•桑斯(Jerome Sans)的《對話中國:傑羅姆•桑斯與32位當代藝術家訪談》等。但這些訪談更註重時效性,而歷史性的討論只是其中的一個方面。葛思諦的書則基於歷史出發,以還原和探討歷史為目的,通過與藝術家/歷史當事人的對話,揭示歷史的側面。

有趣的是,高氏兄弟通過中西方藝術史語境的比較,認為中國藝術在21世紀初仍然具備西方在1970年代以後就消解了的前衛性,因為前衛性即通過文化挑戰促進社會復興。 勞申伯(Robert Rauschenberg)1985年在中國的展覽激發了當時中國藝術家對後現代主義的認識,李培蕾指出勞申伯在中國得到的反響要遠遠超出同期的西方,因為中國對早於1960年代就出現的綜合材料多媒體瓶貼並不了解。 這與葛思諦所指出中國藝術發展的滯後性相呼應。









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