The first Armory Show in 1913 introduced European avant-garde painting and sculpture to the American public. Roughly a century later the New York fair has chosen contemporary works from China to be its focus. Sixteen galleries will travel to New York from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong next week and about half of them will be bringing the work of a young generation.
This year’s curator for the Focus section is Philip Tinari. Formerly the Chief Editor of LEAP magazine, Tinari is currently Director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a non-profit organisation in Beijing. For Tinari, the shared commercial nature of exhibitions in China and his curatorial effort at the Armory is not irrelevant. On navigating the combined terrain of culture and commerce, Tinari explains, “in a fair you are putting the artists on show, but also the galleries, and by extension the whole system for contemporary art in China. You feel you have some kind of honesty in reflecting the vibrant scene on the ground in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong now. That was what really drew me to the project.”
Tinari sees the opportunity to feature Chinese galleries at the Armory in terms of time and context. For him, the most interesting aspect of this exhibition format “is that people go and are there in real time… and are able to see the work in a way that doesn’t happen as quickly in other channels.” Whilst the 1990s was a period of vital cultural exchange and Chinese creativity in New York he remarks that in the last few years “New York has been slower to see the developments on the ground in China...[This is] a nice chance to put those out there and say, ‘Here, have a look’…It’s about including things that lie somewhat outside the New York purview of contemporary Chinese art.”
Liang Shuo, Fit NO.8, Mixed Media, 303 x 144 x 303 cm, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Yang Gallery, Beijing. At the Armory Show, Focus: China.
The Chinese galleries who will attend the fair represent both emerging art and more specific moments from the history of the field. Around half are giving solo presentations by young artists from what has been deemed the “ON|OFF” generation, named after a fifty-strong exhibition at UCCA in 2013. The rest will show the work of two to four more mature artists that hint at different trends or moments from the thirty-five-year development of contemporary Chinese art. Tinari aims to strike a curatorial balance between these two aspects: “I hope that different threads will be visible, from socialist realism and its academic systems to various avant-garde movements that happened after different points in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, to the advent of real-time, present work.”
In what promises to be an energetic show of work, a common thread amongst the younger artists – for example Li Shurui, He Xiangyu, Zhao Yao, Zhao Zhao, Xu Qu and Lu Pingyuan – is, in Tinari’s description, “art that speaks to a Chinese situation and conditions, but doesn’t actually look Chinese on the surface.” He feels this is a defining method for the current generation. From the more mature camp, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery (Hong Kong) will show abstract paintings by Huang Rui and Wang Keping; both were founding members of “The Stars,” a group of radical artists who first broke with official culture in 1979, hanging their work on the fence outside the National Art Museum in Beijing. In a nod to the experimental New Analyst group (active in the late ’80s and early ’90s) and the later Post-Sense Sensibility movement, American gallerist and long-term Beijing resident, Meg Maggio of Pékin Fine Arts, will bring Chen Shaoxiong, Wang Luyan, Zhao Liang to New York.
Zhao Yao, A Painting of Thought I -305 ; Courtesy of the artist and Beijing Commune, Beijing. At The Armory Show, Focus China.
In addition to Tinari’s exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, the artist commissioned to design the Armory’s visual identity is Xu Zhen, a selection revealing the heart of Tinari’s curatorial vision. “Yes,” he agrees, “this was a strategic choice. I see him as a bridge between the 1990s Avant-Garde and the younger generation which became known more in the 2000s.” Xu hails from Shanghai, and is arguably the most provocative Chinese artist at work now. Having dissolved his identity in a “company” called MadeIn in 2009, Xu works conceptually, toying with the societal, political and market systems that surround him. In response to the suggestion that nowadays it can feel less as if art fairs represent artists than the other way around, Tinari remarks, “most entertaining for me is that this artist also becomes – or their work becomes – the branding for the fair…” Xu’s Under Heaven series, for example, explores the commodification of art. Reflecting on Xu Zhen as apt for this year’s Armory Focus on China, the curator concludes, “He’s an artist who will not come away feeling as if his work has been exploited.”
(Image on top: Double Fly Art Center, Save the World, 2012, Screenshot; courtesy of the artists and Space Station, Beijing. At the Armory Show, Focus China.)