What are we to make of a show that calls itself Art of Change: New Directions from China? I don’t think it’s worth discussing new directions in the context of Chinese art – there were no old directions, either. Chinese art has never had any clear orientation. Yes, the artists in this exhibition, which opened at the Hayward gallery in London last week, have struggled against the limitations imposed by the Chinese state more stridently than others. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is just another attempt to introduce western audiences to so-called “contemporary Chinese art”. How can you have a show of “contemporary Chinese art” that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues?
I am very familiar with the work of most of the artists in the show. Their work is certainly Chinese but, overall, the show casts no critical eye. It is like a restaurant in Chinatown that sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork. People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.
Widespread state control over art and culture has left no room for freedom of expression in the country. For more than 60 years, anyone with a dissenting opinion has been suppressed. Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement. There is no larger context. Its only purpose is to charm viewers with its ambiguity.