Glimpses of a Chronology
Yung Ma
Associate Curator, Moving Image, M+

Nineteen seventy-two was the year US President Richard Nixon made his unprecedented visit to China. It was one of those historic moments that signified communist China’s gradual attempt to re-establish contacts with the capitalist west. That same year, with the backing of Rai (Italy’s national radio and television broadcasting organisation), legendary Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni received the greenlight to film and produce a documentary about China and shoot on location.

The resulting film, the iconic Chung Kuo – Cina, is one of the rare non-official visual records of an isolated country in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Its ensuring legacy has been a controversial subject for academic and lay audiences. Some still argue that the film, which was shot with a realist approach, presents a construction of a place through the gaze of a foreigner, thus rendering it unauthentic and inaccurate. But it is difficult to dispute the fact that it offers glimpses into the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people of that era, while also providing a trove of images from a time and a place that was largely otherwise absent.

To open a programme that explores Chinese contemporary art through moving image from the 1970s to the present with Chung Kuo – Cina is fitting. The film sets the tone for a specific context, delineating the historical setting and socio-political grounding that gave rise to Chinese avant-garde (read underground) artistic outputs. We then fast forward to 1989 with Wen Pulin’s Seven Sins, a documentary on seven performances in the groundbreaking exhibition China/Avant-Garde, which changed the face of contemporary art in Beijing. Then, firmly in the 1990s, we move towards the fictional realm with Frozen by Wang Xiaoshuai, an imagined account of the life and work of a performance artist, and an illustration of his commitment to this new art form. From there, we dive further into the lyrical terrain with An Estranged Paradise, an early black-and-white film by Yang Fudong that captures modernised China in a style reminiscent of an old-world literati. We go further into the nineties with three documentaries, during which time globalisation intensified and the Chinese art market experienced substantial growth. In Hu Jie’s Artists of Yuanmingyuan, the ideology of living as a professional contemporary artist clashes with the harsh realities of a modern society, whereas Kan Xuan’s first attempts at documentary in Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies & Delusion and Art For Sale offer an intimate look into the making of two monumental exhibitions in the history of Chinese contemporary art. And, finally, we arrive in the present-day timeframe, which has witnessed the blossoming of artist moving image works. In a nod to the heyday of Hong Kong’s pop music scene, Tao Hui’s The Dusk of Teheran is a simple video piece that transcends the concept of geographical boundaries and time, appropriating cinematic tradition to tackle notions such as feminism and the influence of the Internet. 

By way of a chronological structure, our moving image programme Forty Years is rooted in the idea of revealing certain key backgrounds, moments, and trends of this relatively short yet fascinating (and may I say) niche history. M+ is presenting Forty Years in conjunction with the exhibition M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art. The diverse selections open up further possible readings into this particular history, from perspectives that are at times shifting, contradictory, and aligning all at once.