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On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the Westexplored recent Chinese art from a perspective rarely presented in the West. Featuring experimental work from the 1980’s through 2004 by 12 of China’s leading avant-garde artists, it explored the Chinese artists’ position in a West-centric global art world, and China’s political situation in regard to the West. The exhibition aimed to replace old assumptions concerning China’s contemporary art with a fresh appreciation of its form and substance and of its interconnectedness with the international art world.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Davis Museum had commissioned Chinese artist Xu Bing to realize a site-specific lobby installation titled “Any Opinions?”. A key figure in the Chinese New Wave movement, Xu Bing gained international recognition for his iconic and monumental installation A Book from the Sky (1988). His playful, probing and often politically controversial work earned him the MacArthur Award in 1999. “Any Opinions?” addresses his fascination with words, calligraphy, the evolution of language and the juxtaposition of eastern and western culture, and was on view from February 15 through June 3, 2006.
“China’s avant-garde artists are doubly marginal. They are marginalized in their own country, and China’s art is considered marginal by the international art community,” explains Britta Erickson, independent scholar, guest curator of On the Edge, and one of the leading Western authorities on Chinese contemporary art. “This has given many Chinese artists — whether living in China or the West — a heightened appreciation of their tenuous situation. The result is the creation of a large body of bold experimental works dissecting the artist’s position in the art world and China’s position in the world.”
Art and politics are inseparable. Chinese artists now in their forties learned this during their adolescence when Mao’s theories on art shaped the visual landscape. Younger Chinese artists have become obsessed with a blend of art and politics — cultural politics — focusing on the positioning of Chinese art within the global art scene. Artist Zhou Tiehai stated, “The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post Cold War era.”
Just as wealthy nations have controlled trade barriers, tariffs, and other international trade mechanisms to promote their own interests, Western curators and critics have controlled the standards for what is deemed “world class” art. Some of China’s best artists have reacted to this by producing bitingly humorous pieces commenting on the situation. On the Edge included the most important of these works.
Artists represented in the exhibition included Hong Hao, Huang Yong Ping, Qiu Zhijie, Sui Jianguo, Wang Du, Xing Danwen, Xu Bing, Yan Lei, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhang Hongtu, Zhang Huan, and Zhou Tiehai, with works in a full range of materials, including oil, airbrush, photography, resin, installation, and video. The West, an interactive CD-ROM by Beijing-based artist Qiu Zhijie, allowed visitors to explore Chinese ideas of the West, ranging from ridiculous or shocking popular misconceptions, to historical views. MacArthur award winner Xu Bing has created a classroom—included in the exhibition—where visitors could learn to write Square Word Calligraphy, a method of writing English words as square graphs resembling Chinese characters.
On The Edge was curated by Britta Lee Erickson. The Davis Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art and Exhibitions, Anja Chávez, curated the Xu Bing: “Any Opinions?” installation. The exhibition was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, edited by Erickson, which encompasses an introduction to the major themes and development of Chinese art from the late 1980s, and a focused examination of the individual artists and works in the exhibition.
On the Edge was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The exhibition and catalogue are made possible in large part through the generosity of Karen Christensen; an anonymous donor; the Shenson Exhibitions Fund; the Center for East Asian Studies, the Office of the Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University; The Christensen Fund; the J. Sanford and Constance Miller Fund; Linda and Tony Meier; Rex Vaughan; Jean-Marc Decrop; and Eloisa and Chris Haudenschild.
Former Curator of Contemporary Art