Imagine individuals with the strength to negate dogma and perceive the confusing layers that eschew one’s ability to analyse and question structures of power. From a western voice equipped with, at best, a highly mediated knowledge of China and its internal events; this worryingly might still be its pervasive reality. It is certainly a veritable interpretation of its contemporary art. Uli Sigg’s unique collection of Chinese Art provides this brief insight, and is currently being displayed in Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery for the first and only time in the UK. All of the works - through their very existence under a noticeably oppressive state - are unified by a polemic of self-expression.
The photographs and films of ‘The Stars Group’ protests in 1979 Beijing are a great place to start. This collective of young artists dissatisfied with a lack of artistic expression and denied an official exhibition space, acted by hanging works upon the railings and floors outside Beijing’s City Hall, which at the time was limited to depict what some might call socialist propaganda. This gives the visitor an introduction into the type of context and environment in which each artwork was made.
Pre-empted by another defiant collective the ‘No Name roup; the rapid emergence of contemporary art in China correlates with industrialisation and modernity, but largely imbues a highly politicised reaction to a lack of freedom of artistic expression. A microcosm of this is apparent in Geng Jianyi’s ‘The Second Situation’ (1987), bound inexorably in a reactionary facial reflex. The quadriptych comprises of self-portraits in which the artist is laughing manically at the reason for his previous artwork’s rejection from an esteemed prize - because it did not convey a ‘positive’ message. Laughter as an exterior reflex of the body may produce a tone that invokes joy, yet can also act as a contemptuous vehicle to deplore. This is a highly conceptual piece of institutional critique, even Duchampian in its reflexivity.
Later, Duchamp’s optical disks are directly referenced in Huang Yong Ping’s ‘Six Small Turntables’ (1988) and it transpires that knowledge of the Frenchman’s canonical work began to permeate China at this point. For any art historian, this exhibition is a feast. In only two decades the country’s art output progresses through Dada, institutional critique, conceptual art, performance art, video art and many other categorisations.
Zhang Huan’s ‘Family Tree’ (2000) is the most striking work in the collection. Composed of nine photographic portraits, biographical detail of Huan’s relatives is written into his face with black ink. Progressively the language becomes indiscernible until the final image where the artist’s skin is utterly eclipsed. The calmness or indifference in the inaugural shot portrays a powerful silence that collides with the lengthy inscriptions of intimate and personable narratives, eventually coagulating into a muted darkness – a visual representation of pure black which, as is widely known, is not a colour but a lack of. This piece coincided with my recent interest in decadent language, and evoked for me the work of another Chinese artist, Xu Bing, who experiments with the dismantling of language. However, there is something to be said for their differences, for here in ‘Family Tree’ (2000) is a highly venomous work of political dissent, as Huan’s final expression becomes that of palpable anger. More of a discernable commentary than Bing’s holistic realisations, this work’s stark message warns that with the velocity of modernity comes the slow fading of familial (and possibly interpersonal) values (something that Emile Durkheim also noted in the 19th century with the rise of western capitalism). This, it must be said, is my interpretation, but the piece is rich; it requires many readings.
It is fascinating for someone like myself who has been born into a country where individualism is not only abundant, but also duly shoved down your throat every day in an urban-commercial malaise.In the Whitworth, each work’s defiance and striving for freedom of expression is not only a small window into Chinese politics but a poignant reminder of my political context and how the frustrations of capitalism compare to national dogma and censorship.
One really can’t paint a realistic picture of what it is like to inhabit Chinese ‘socialism’ today, though the same might be said by those who actually inhabit the country, left with only a view of a translucent, homogenised power, akin to a Kafkaesque castle. In Britain, it is too easy to camp in a ready-made political polemic (perhaps on a facile line that goes from left to right), and a lot harder to investigate the global implications of discursive governing powers and their real effect. What is astounding to me, and is exemplified in Uli Sigg’s collection, is how art, and retrospectively its reception, is a highly political tool in China and will continue to be into the future.
 One such event, the Tiananmen Square massacre or ‘The June-Fourth Incident’ was exemplary of the government’s violent distain for self expression even in an environment renowned for demonstrations prior to the month long protests. Artist Song Dong makes reference to it in a scintillating performance for photograph called ‘Breathing, Tiananmen Square’ (1996)