article for arts broadsheet RealTime
by Linda Wallace
due for publication October 6 1998



In June this year I travelled into the hallucination that is contemporary China. A China before the skies opened up and flooded vast areas of the country, leaving thousands of dead and millions homeless.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of China, and the Dragon king rules the waterways. The question then is, in a culture where Mao and the cultural revolution did not succeed in eradicating the animistic superstitions of the masses, what then to make of the floods? Why this great punishment? Is it just, as the state admits, a result of rampant upstream logging -- or, as the people may wonder, are there deeper, more malevolent forces at work.....

In the new China, one which mouths the language of multiculturalism while reducing ethnic identities to collections of national dress in museums (as independence movements erupt around the country), an artist from Beijing makes a subtle performance work about Tibet. He stands in a river in the occupied zone and stamps the water with the Chinese character for Water. The river flows on. He categorically states “no, this work is not political”.

Nowhere have I seen such manic development as in Shanghai. Knock it down and build it up hotels, tower blocks, multilevel flyovers,  immense, lurid billboards -- as architect Rem Koolhaas would say, these are growing cities of exacerbated difference....

The media/information landscape is also changing rapidly though there is not the homogenised televisual barrage which has so affected the rest of the world. Chinese ads and nascent home shopping channels are kind-of flashy and quaint. However, there is no doubt that the internet will completely transform the future China. Three years ago there were only 30,000 users now there are more than one million (the user-base of Australia).

In June there was the Clinton visit. I locked into CNN and Chinese state television/newspapers around meetings with (mainly) video artists. There was the day of the third repeat on state TV showing Clinton taking tough questions on the US position on Taiwan, human rights and US wealth disparity from students at Beijing University -- party members and believers. Unused as they are at being able to confront their leaders in such a manner, it demonstrated to Chinese young people what was possible within the staged televisual antics of western-style politics. Clearly Clinton loves the joust. He charms them. He says during the visit that yes, Tibet is part of China, as is Taiwan.


The artistic landscape is one divided into ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ artists. The artists I met and whose work shows on the international art circuit are mainly the latter. They are supported with neither a wage nor State recognition. Another entire issue is how the western art circuit itself constructs contemporary practice in China (nothing is hotter at present than a Chinese video installation artist etc). This nexus is a myriad of complex issues.

The non-officials (as opposed perhaps to ‘artofficials’) are making work inside the flux of huge national economic, technological and ideological change -- a landscape of endless contradictions -- as are artists everywhere.

Living conditions are generally pretty basic. I visited one artist who exhibits regularly on the international art circuit, with video and installation works of sophisticated fragility and wit, who lives in traditional ‘courtyard’ housing and shares a collective pit toilet where at least six other people could go at once. No secrets here.
Another artist, Zhao Bandi, made a ‘light work’ for the Biennale of Sydney at the MCA which reads “MY HEART IS TREMBLING”.  At his home in Beijing he showed a work which, at the end of an intense day of discussions and meetings, ambushed my friend and I with what appeared to be stark simplicity.

It was night street-scene crowded with neons: brand names and logos. Everything in the image looked normal, but he had substituted one of the neons with the slogan, NEVER FORGET CLASS STRUGGLE. It was so strong, we were excited and talkative, as if it were a heavy irony.  I noticed however that the artist, the translator and curator Mr Huang Du were very quiet, circumspect almost, and kind-of sad.

The reason soon became clear. They were at school at the tail end of the cultural revolution and the beginning of 'open door'. This slogan was one which they would have written as children in their notebooks over and over again, repeating it and others like it, drumming into their collective psyche.

It was an compelling moment.  It demonstrated the complexity of (reading) images constructed now in unofficially capitalist China by non-official artists -- working as they are, by the way, in a socialist country which is growing faster than the ex-socialist, capitalist countries of the former eastern bloc. At least for the time being.

Curator and critic Huang Du writes “ ...This effect evokes certain confusion and restlessness. Due to the fact that we are living in an ever-changing world of space and vision teemed with foreign advertisements, movie products and urban buildings, these exterior cultural distinctions driven by floating international capital no doubt expand the ideology of consumption and intensify the connection between internationalism and regionalism.”

Huang Du speaks about Chinese artists exhibiting “individualism with Chinese characteristics”. Exactly what are these “Chinese characteristics”  as China itself goes global and the diaspora evolves curious hybrids?


Unlike the west, where media artists often come to the practice from a diversity of backgrounds (media, film, computer engineering etc), in China many of the artists I met using video are classically trained, many in painting.

While some of the artschools may be tooling up for computer production, much of this work is for graphic art/design training. So not only are there very few opportunities to show contemporary video and installation work, there is very little access to equipment, and production costs are exorbitant.

As a result I didn’t see much video work which made use of fancy software and whammo video effects.

I don’t think this aspect of the reality of production (coupled with the contemporary Chinese media landscape) can be overstated in terms of how it has affected the work which is produced. Many of the video tapes are unedited -- they are straight ‘records’ of events, a production constraint which works in parallel with a conceptual desire to construct ‘pure moments in time’.

Now that’s not to say that all the work is like this. There were videos which were edited and ‘effected’,  but these tended to come from the few artists with media backgrounds and influences. And they tended to be the younger artists.

So over and over I saw videos which were (performative) events in real time.

The video works often push what is possible with the kind of technology available, creating novel setups. Two video artists in Australia for the Biennale typify this approach. The work of Hangzhou artist Zhang Peili is a kind of streaming-video cubism -- multi-monitor works giving a range of perspectives in real time on the same event, for example repeatedly throwing a ball into the air and catching it, or the three-monitor work we will see, ‘Eating’.

Beijing artist Zhu Jia also uses camera ‘point of view’. In one work the camera is attached to the bicycle wheel as it rides through Beijing -- round and round the image goes, slowing down and speeding up with the traffic flow/s.

Zhu Jia’s video for the Biennale, out on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour, is of a dying, flapping fish. The video is looped so that the fish is dying over and over again, still flip/flapping. Contrary to a western desire for closure and some kind of ‘statement’,  Zhu Jia does not give us an ending. Instead the work speaks more to the circularity of things: endlessness, through floods and famine, dungeons and dragons, life and lives, on and on....

 video image: artist, Zhu Jia

Linda Wallace was a guest of the Australian Embassy in Beijing.

From October 15--24 at Gallery 4A in Sydney’s Chinatown, Huang Du has curated a show featuring the work of Li Yongbin, Cai Guo Qiang and Zhang Peili.