I seem to have become an art critic by mistake. Not one to cause a fuss, I’ve gone along with it and reviewed the stunning Moving Beyond – Painting in China 2013 exhibition currently showing in Summerhall, Edinburgh. It features the work of some incredible and scandalously-neglected contemporary Chinese artists (in the West at least) such as He Gong and Liu Guofu. The review, for Studio International, also gave me a bit of scope to talk about how modernism isn’t modern, which is the topic of a long essay I’m writing for the debut issue of Gorse, a very exciting new Irish literary journal soon to be launched by the brilliant Susan Tomaselli. Here’s an excerpt from the Moving Beyond review:
‘In the early 1930s, the poet and editor Ezra Pound coined the phrase that would become the maxim of Modernism: “Make it new.” In actuality, Pound had appropriated it from an archaic Chinese source; a bathtub inscription of a Shang dynasty emperor. Whatever Modernism was, it wasn’t strictly modern. The idea of history as an ever-upward process is largely a western delusion.
Of the many aspects that the exceptional Moving Beyond – Painting in China 2013 exhibition explores, one of the most pertinent is that the past and our relationship to it are much more fluid than we usually think. Being partially a fiction we adapt in the present, the past changes. It also, in its half-forgotten innovations and side-roads, contains the future. As William Faulkner wrote, and these paintings reiterate: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The spectre haunting this exhibition is that of Chairman Mao. This diverse selection of artwork was created in his long, lingering shadow. Yet they were made not simply in defiance of state censorship and the prescribed tradition of Socialist Realist art, but with much more oblique and astute methods and purposes. The relationships of Chinese artists to “the Great Helmsman” are complex as one of Moving Beyond’s curators, the poet Yang Lian, acknowledges: “This so-called Cultural Revolution has not disappeared. Among Chinese artists, at least, it has become ever deeper. The difference is that this shadow was once clearly identified as a catastrophe, a disaster, whereas now it has become a seduction that alluringly fills the air.” The title of the exhibition suggests a breaking-away, a move they achieve by recognising, as Pound did, that the new lies in the very old. It is partly, then, a cartography of rediscovered territory and an exorcism…’ To read on