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"On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West"

Talk at Stanford University, USA Author: Zhou Tiehai 2006

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great honor to be here at Standford University to talk with you about "Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West". My original subject was "How Western People Support/Influence Contemporary Chinese Art” but I prefer to talk about the subject rather broadly.

Recently I have spent quite some time thinking about a few interrelated issues, like what is the 'essence' of  contemporary art (当代艺术本身); what is the current system (运做机制) of the contemporary Chinese art market; and what is my own situation now as a contemporary Chinese artist etc.

Mankind has evolved rapidly from the agricultural, to the industrial to today's IT dominated civilization (文明). I truly believe that art will stand at the forefront of the future development of the human history.

Contemporary art expresses wisdom (智慧), a very encompassing wisdom. Such wisdom exists in the East as well as in the West. But why did contemporary art in China only start to happen in the 1980's?

I think it is because only since the 1980's, contemporary artists in China began to be exposed to their counterparties in the West, to gallery people, curators, journalists and collectors etc.From then on, that is under the influence of the western system, contemporary art in China mushroomed following the mould of the western art system.

In 1996, I made a movie about the situation of the time when the Chinese artists got for the first time in touch with their counterparties in the West.

The movie is 9 minutes long, it is called "Will", or in Chinese 'bixu', what means literally 'we must'.

WE MUST build our own airports, WE MUST visit the foreign doctors, WE MUST become art tour guides, WE MUST establish contacts with the godfathers of art etc. I think the video "Will" reflects very well the situation of the contemporary artists in China at that time. Please play the movie: =================================

Looking at Chinese contemporary art over a period of 20 years, that is since I started to do my first works in 1986, I can only describe the situations today as grave, as '动弹不得', what means, "can't move".

It can not simply be said, that the result of the influence of the Western art system on Chinese contemporary art is good or bad. It is obvious that China at the moment lacks a system to sustain and develop contemporary art and is also not able to create a good own model. But I want to emphasis that I don't think that the current system or model is a failure, or can be categorized as east or west. I am not interested in this kind of questions.

I am interested in the question, if through further development of our civilization, we will be able to still the human hunger for freedom and liberalization of the self. Can we really cure the wide-spread depression common to both poor and wealthy societies in today's world? Depression. Depression is such a common phenomena.

In my own artistic development, I encountered this feeling of "can't move" in 2000.  

Realizing that the western art world, how developed it ever is, can not bring solutions to important problems, I started to look at the Chinese art world.

In my art, I call works related to the western  'civilization' (that is works with western images) "Placebo"("安慰药"), works with eastern images "Tonic"("补品").

Both of them, 'Placebo' as well as 'Tonic', are for the purpose to cure.  
We can not say that one is better than the other; or that one is higher, the other is lower.In today's contemporary Chinese art world, we seem to be hopeless entangled in this two civilizations, moving back and forth between eastern and western things.

How to jump out of this confinement to solve the essential needs of mankind?

As an artist, I can not stop challenging myself to try to answer the question, how to find a way to satisfy the human pursuit for freedom, beyond the normal wisdom of human civilization?  How can we focus back to the original meaning of contemporary art, that is, how to realize the constant denying and the pursuit of freedom which art means?

So far, I do not think we have a solution for such questions.

Thank you.

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