Where Jianghu Began: the Demimonde of Art in China

Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art  (798 Art Zone, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing) , May 24–August 10, 2014

Jianghu, literally “rivers and lakes”, can be applied broadly within the genre of Chinese wuxia novels— novels set in times of antiquity, in times of gallant warriors and rebellious martial artists—to refer to this demimonde of misfits who rejected systems of authority and chose to live outside of social confines and rules. As the saying goes, “Wherever there are people, there is jianghu”. There is no “beginning” to jianghu, nor is there a place—jianghu is a state of mind. In the bohemian world of jianghu there are gratitude and grievances, cause and effect and fate, chivalry and kindness, loyal subjects, simmering uprisings, as well as solitude—jianghu has its own rules and its own faults. Hard is it to pinpoint exactly what jianghu is, fluid and unstable as it is. But then this describes the concept itself as well: the cultivation of countless possibilities and conditions for existence. Jianghu appears as both the enemy and reflection of the orthodox; it at times resists and at other times obscures. Of course, jianghu can equally imply that philistine, small-minded spirit (jianghu qi; lit. “the jianghu spirit”), that way of getting on with petty cliques and factions. Jianghu points to the drifts and the flows outside the official system, an institution beyond institutions. Presently, the exhibition at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing, “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names”, tells the story of a small demimonde of art misfits, a jianghu in microcosm which emerged on Mainland China during the 1990s.

Though the 1990s marked the start of China’s unabated materialism and consumerism, there was a real energy everywhere—even if such optimism cannot help but be rather blind and superficial. New policies brought in foreign investment, spurred the development of “special economic zones”, and encouraged the overall growth of all kinds of systems—a backdrop for the 1990s as a “flexible” age awash in miracles and possibilities. Individual fortunes were in complete flux, and one would commonly hear stories of so-and-so who had up and left a life of drinking tea, playing cards, and spitting sunflower seeds to head south where, within a few years, they would have developed a tremendously successful business and become some big boss. This particular strain of self-confidence and desire would swell to bursting—which cannot help but remind one of that line from an 80s movie, “Greed is good.”

Hans van Dijk, “Untitled”, color photography, ca. 1991-1992 (courtesy Andreas Schmid and the Hans van Dijk family).
Ding Yi, “Appearance of Crosses 1997-B21-B24″, chalk and charcoal on corrugated paper, 260 x 80 cm (4 pieces), 1997. Part of the UCCA exhibition “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names”.
丁乙,《十示1997-B21-B24》,粉笔,木炭,瓦楞纸,260 x 80 厘米(x 4 副),1997。选自UCCA展览“戴汉志:5000个名字”。
Zheng Guogu, “10000 Customers (16)”, c-print, 76 x 106 cm, 2005. Part of the UCCA exhibition “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names”.
郑国谷,《10000个客户》 (16),2005。选自UCCA展览“戴汉志:5000个名字”。

In the past, Chinese painters, sculptors, singers, dancers were lumped together as “art and literary workers” (wenyi gongzuozhe), while their domain would be referred to as the “art and literary field” (wenyi jie). Yet beginning in the early 90s, art graduates, young lecturers, and other art workers in China gradually began to break beyond their old circles, where they suddenly discovered the international market along with the larger stage that existed outside the official system in China. Urban youth in the 90s mostly had dreams of making it outside the state system, and young artists were no exception. A few savvy young artists saw the hope—the hope that just maybe they wouldn’t have to serve the system or worry about what looks the lead cadres (lingdao) gave them. The measure of success was not just “serving the people” (wei renmin fuwu)—was it after all not better to serve the renminbi (lit. the “people’s currency”)? Amid such undeniable temptation, people quickly realized a point: money≈freedom. Artists did not need to just toil for the magnificent objective of the “people’s artist”; being an artist became an independent profession. But all of this had presuppositions: you had to know how to deal with the international art world, to understand its rules—and more importantly, to understand how to wield those rules. Before the spread of the internet, at a time when it was hard to go abroad, there was a need for someone to show the way, to provide information and direction. The focus of this retrospective exhibition, Hans van Dijk (dubbed in Chinese as “the Elder Hans” to distinguish him from “the Younger Hans”, Hans Ulrich Obrist), was precisely that teacher.

Hans van Dijk and Ai Weiwei in CAAW, Caochangdi, 2001 (Photographer unknown).

Hans van Dijk (born in the Netherlands; 1946–2002) came from a background of studying art, and his particular interest in Ming-era furniture brought him to China in order to learn the language. He first lived in Nanjing, and then relocated to Beijing, where he was a long-term resident until shortly before his death in 2002. He made contact with emerging avant-garde artists at a time when there were few foreign residents in Beijing in touch with local artists (though he was certainly not the only one). It was during this period that van Dijk founded the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy, and with others founded the China Art Archive and Warehouse (CAAW), thus introducing contemporary Chinese art to Europe. Van Dijk helped artists exhibit, gain media exposure, and created opportunities for their work to be collected.

Unlike many later curators and theorists who indiscriminately applied set philosophies and theories from the West on Chinese art, van Dijk’s work focused on fieldwork such as the discovery, documentation, packaging, and curation of art (for instance, the exhibition title “5000 Names” comes from a project he had left uncompleted—a dictionary of the names of 5000 Chinese artists along with brief introductions). He rejected theoretical work that would have confined him to his studio, and instead explored nearly every area around Beijing possibly connected with art. He was unequivocally clear in an essay where he stated, “The difference between art theory and art is that the former relies upon the juggling of texts and compositions, whereas the latter is the action that is taking place before our very eyes. Thus, the problems of art theory are not problems of art.” (“Art Theory Is Not Art”, Jiangsu Art Monthly, Vol. 7, 1997; text by Hans Van Dijk, with the Chinese translation by Leng Lin). This is not to say, however, that he was not interested in those at the forefront of Chinese art theory; he had, after all, translated Li Xiaoshan’s seminal essay “My Opinion on Chinese Contemporary Painting” (original text in Jiangsu Art Monthly, Vol. 7, 1985) into German in January 1986, which he then published in Europe.

In this exhibition, aside from the huge numbers of documents, manuscripts, publications, there are also classic photographs and works, along with documentation, which make up this “history of contemporary Chinese art”, incredibly brief as it may be. These artists all cooperated closely with van Dijk or else were researched by him. Examples include Wu Shanzhuan’s “Today No Water” (from the Red Humor series, begun in 1986), Yu Youhan’s painting “Talking with Hunan Peasants” (1990), Zhang Peili’s video work “Water—Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai” (1991), Liu Anping and Zhao Shaoruo’s photograph “Correct Behavior!” (1994), and a photograph of Zhao Bandi’s performance “Moon Flight” (1994), as well as paintings by Ding Yi, Zhang Enli, Wang Xingwei, among others.

Erika Kiffl, “Untitled (Hans van Dijk visiting the studio of Zeng Fanzhi)”, black and white photography, 1995 (courtesy the photographer Erika Kiffl).

Perhaps more important still, though, is how the exhibition describes the occasional chafing between the artists who would become well-established on the one hand and the international art system on the other. This provides insights into the desire for success that spurred their long-term undertakings. In a 1992 letter sent to his friend and collaborator, Andreas Schmid, van Dijk recounted how the actions of a Hong Kong businessman who had wanted to purchase a piece before the opening of an exhibition confused and complicated the artist’s procedures: “It is slimy to buy things before the exhibition even opens. The artist will feel obligated to sell at a lower price because they will worry about losing their place in the exhibition otherwise. Additionally, the artists we select can easily sell their works for 2 or 3 thousand marks or even higher. They are no longer poor artists who worry about every penny and discount. Since 1988, there has been an art market…. Artists are now more concerned with being recognized by the international art world, and won’t just sell their work to anyone. Up till now they had believed our exhibitions could give them opportunities.”

Moreover, telling details revealed how Chinese artists at the time were ambiguous about certain basic concepts. The process of honing and developing their understanding of “contemporary art” could be seen. The observant viewer will notice how the usage of the word “contemporary” by certain artists during the 90s betrays a fuzzy understanding of the concept—often confusingly using the older term “modern art” to refer to what would otherwise be called “contemporary art”. For instance, the Chinese title of the exhibition held outside the National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989 was literally “Exhibition of Chinese Modern Art” (though the official English translation was, of course, “CHINA/AVANT-GARDE”). Tang Song, a participating artist who along with Xiao Lu was temporarily detained by the police after their infamous “shooting incident”, wrote the following to van Dijk after their release: “Many curious people came to see me. A guard and a detainee with a 35-year sentence demanded I explain this so-called modern art, and I did a few performances for them…” (Texts taken from Tang Song’s exhibited writings). Strictly speaking, using “modern” to mean “contemporary” was no small issue, nor was it a simple confusion between concepts; rather, it inadvertently revealed a set value system. In the specific context of China, the initial significance of “contemporary art” arose from a mistaken concept of the rebelliousness of the “avant-garde” within the concept of “modernism”. Van Dijk believed herein lay the value of art, and thus the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy began promoting and encouraging Chinese art with “avant-garde” characteristics at the time. The consultancy’s 1994 URARC (Ubu Roi Art Research Committee) report presented a “new standard for international avant-garde artists”, and according to four principles grouped the seemingly divergent works of artists like Ding Yi, Chen Danqing, Qiu Zhijie, Wang Yin, among others, into the larger category of the “avant-garde”.

Duan Jianyu, “Eight and Four-Fifths”, oil on canvas, 180 x 140 cm, 1998. Part of the UCCA exhibition “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names”.
段建宇,《八又四分之五》,布上油画,180 x 140厘米,1998。选自UCCA展览“戴汉志:5000个名字”。

In the past two years, there has been at least one other exhibition with a nod to Hans van Dijk: in March 2013, Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing held Tang Song’s solo exhibition “Elegy—In Memory of Hans van Dijk”. The exhibition explored how this jianghu, this misfit world of “contemporary art”, began. So whatever other significance this exhibition has, the key point is how it offers us an opportunity to revisit a critical moment. It allows us to see how art now has veered its original intention, and also lets us observe how artists came, passed, and went away from this demimonde of jianghu. The existence of jianghu certainly references the mainstream. The relationship of the two is not “either/or” but reciprocal. This perhaps is how jianghu is subtle—as it can repeatedly infiltrate and permeate the mainstream (while of course there are times when they become identical).

Heroes appear regardless of their backgrounds: spectacular accomplishments here could be had even for those not of privilege. Jianghu has always been there, perhaps, even though it is now difficult to see how it will continue forever. Within jianghu, this world of wanderers and misfits, when troubles arise there is a spirit of honor, a criticality that heals; of course, there are also feuding outlaws who part ways out of self-interest, along with those who always adopt a position of resistance, who in their helplessness points their sword at this “circle” which allowed for their very success.

However, the actual fact is that with the vast majority of artists in this exhibition, the present cannot be compared to the past. They are transforming themselves, and transforming this world of jianghu with them. At the end of the exhibition, viewers pass by a screen showing a recording of van Dijk’s memorial service, leaving room for an emotional moment of reflection for a person and his time. A sudden clarity comes: some things have disappeared, some things have changed, but some things can only exist within jianghu, this wandering world of artists and misfits.

Outside the exhibition, the skies blushed darkly.

Hans van Dijk, “Untitled (China location unknown)”, color photography, ca. 1991-1992 (courtesy Andreas Schmid and the Hans van Dijk family).

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