‘China’ on Display for European Audiences? The Making of an Early Travelling Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art: China Avantgarde (Berlin/1993)
Exhibitions have always been at the heart of the modern art world. They are contested sites, where the joint forces of the art objects, their social agents, and institutional spaces temporarily intersect and provide a visual arrangement to specific audiences, whose interpretations feed back into the discourse on art. From this perspective, “contemporary Chinese art,” both as phenomenon and discursive category referring to specific dimensions of artistic production in China post-1979, was mediated through various exhibitions that took place in the People’s Republic of China. After 1989, exhibitions of artworks from the PRC in European and North American museums significantly contributed to the broadening of Western knowledge about this artistic production. Since then, the two strains of exhibition activities grew while becoming increasingly entangled and the discursive category of “contemporary Chinese art” has gone global.
This paper reviews the beginnings of this complex process by investigating the conditions that configured the first large group exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from the PRC in Europe after 1979: the travelling group show China Avantgarde, which opened in Berlin in early 1993.
The first part of the paper explores the wider historical conditions that impacted on the exhibition by contextualizing the event in relation to two important, if very different forerunners: the 1989 shows Zhongguo xiandai yishu zhan. China/Avantgarde in Beijing and Magiciens de la terre in Paris.Yet the important entanglements between the respective curatorial concepts, affiliated art discourses, and the agents involved are also analysed. Constituting a specific network of mediators, mediating factors, and mediating institutions, these forerunners influenced the making of China Avantgarde in Berlin three years later.
The second part of the paper discusses the Berlin exhibition in detail. It argues that the title reflects the contested use of the discursive categories “avant-garde” and “modern art” in Beijing and Berlin at the time, which helped translate and thereby shape a certain image of contemporary Chinese art beyond the actual artworks on display. Of paricular interes are the concerns of the European curators, who had to overcome various political, logistic, as well as conceptual challenges when selecting artists and artworks. Examining the catalogue as an instance where diverging strategies of how to present artworks from thePRC become visible, the paper argues that China Avantgarde was not so much a clear-cut, singular, and–by now–canonical event, but formed as well as informed a complex canonizing process that is still relevant today.