The politics of abstraction tread a very fine line. The style can be considered as a rejection of the illusions of representation in favor of a more direct engagement with perception, material and form; or, it can be perceived to be a rescinding of responsibility from making clearly defined statements. Breaking Away, Boers-Li Gallery’s second major group show since decamping to 798, presents a variety of approaches to abstraction by Chinese artists and thereby demonstrates the persisting attraction of the approach. While presenting a fine selection of works picking up and over the traditions of abstraction, as an unintended consequence Breaking Away also makes problematic the relationship between historical and contemporary work within the gallery context in the current art environment in Beijing.
My “take-home” impression of Breaking Away was that Boers-Li’s approach to exhibition-making had adopted the tone of a museum show through its use of historical contextualization. This proves to be a useful method of creating interest and accessibility for the show, as well as differentiating the Gallery from the run-of-the-mill inhabitants of 798. This is not the first time Boers-Li has displayed this tendency – their first show on opening their new space in 798, Out Of The Box, was similarly a survey show of Chinese art, concentrating on video, with a similar claim to authenticity through a presentation which I like to think gained museum-like status from its historical breadth. Although two swallows do not necessarily make a spring, it’s possible that this choice of format, along with their move to 798, represents a deepening of the focus for the Gallery.
Interpreting the use of abstraction in China during the ‘80s, the press release highlights how '…abstract or non-figurative art became a "space" for free and unlimited thinking and acting by blocking out social-political realities and their sometimes ironic artistic representations.' The text goes on to describe how the contemporary artists in the exhibition came to appreciate this approach:
Abstract artists of the 1980s generation were confronted with a post-89 political reality that found artistic answers in a pamphleteering and ironic realism marked by clear statements, but the current generation has come to realize that such statements have lost their sincerity and meaning through indefinite repetition.
Looking at the form of the installation at Boers-Li, the use of historical context is very deliberate. The inclusion of pieces of early Chinese abstraction by Huang Rui (Infinite Space 1979), Zhang Wei (EXPE10 1981, A1 1982), Zhao Gang (Untitled 1988–90) and a later example by Ding Yi (Appearance of Crosses 1997), makes the case for a historical reading of all the works in the show. Huang Rui’s Infinite Space is especially significant for the additional information added by the Gallery to the wall label – an addition that no other work in the show is privileged to receive. The label proclaims, albeit with some hesitance, that this piece is 'what seems to be the first abstract oil painting in China.'
In this show and Out Of The Box, Boers-Li Gallery adopt what I like to think of as museum-like features of historical context, yet they obviously have very different goals – I think it is interesting to ask whether this presents any conflicts of interest.
When a commercial gallery takes on museum-like qualities, it is surely doing so for a reason. The most obvious justification would be to legitimize its presentations intellectually and as a result within the market. A problem with this approach would be when this presentation is taken at face value. I may be overstating the case, but I think it is important to remember that Breaking Away is a display created by a commercial gallery and is ultimately about sales, where the veneer of knowledge and history is at best hand-in-hand with this goal (at worst, subsumed to it).
Which isn’t to say this show has no value outside of the market – just as a museum show is in no way divorced from the market itself. Beyond any concerns over market-influence, the efforts of Boers-Li Gallery to broaden its shows with additional relevant works and information serve a valuable and praiseworthy purpose, filling as they do a gap where museums—traditionally sites away from the market—are conspicuously absent or compromised in Beijing.
It’s impressive that Boers-Li Gallery would take the effort to put on a show like this. Maybe they are uniquely placed to draw on a set of resources that only they, as a commercial gallery, have. However the lack of transparency within the commercial environment suggests an open understanding of the works in a broader context may be problematic: maybe what we end up understanding is simply how these artists sit in the commercial environment.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Boers-Li Gallery and the artists.)