Two spectres haunt contemporary art today: one is academicism, and the other -- partly its consequence -- redundancy. The latter is more inevitable than the former, but both are prevalent, and annoyingly so. Academicism is revealed in contemporary art's fixation on certain "old" principles and forms repeated to exhaustion among artists, or even within the oeuvres of certain artists. I spotted a definitive sign of contemporary art having finally reached academicism when staying at a hotel in downtown Barcelona four years ago. On the walls of my rooms were examples of what was evidently supposed to be conceptual art. Toned down somewhat, like anything shown in hotel rooms, but fully identifiable. And perhaps less toned down than usual precisely because it was conceptual. These were works on paper, of the type hotel rooms are wont to show, but belonging to the conceptual family instead of the usual watercolour landscape based on figurative art, or the equally frequent abstract works also done very badly with awkward stains. There they were in my hotel room, with their conceptual affiliation. It was not even one of those "concept” or "design" hotels that have recently become more widespread: just a traditional comfortable three-star in an old building with a modernized interior, in the historic quarter of Barcelona.
This example illustrates the point rightly made by independent curator Estrella de Diego from Spain, who recently bewailed the fact that current art looks the same wherever you go. Galleries or museums, all have similar works, or, significantly, works thought to be similar although different1. Repetition as a result of academicism. In some ways indeed, this has always been the case for some art, whatever the period: more in some, less in others. But this does not make the current phenomenon any less annoying.
When this process becomes more acute, people turn elsewhere, to some distant land. In the late nineteenth century, "elsewhere" was Japan. In the late twentieth century, which we are now beginning to leave behind, it was, or is, China. The first Chinese works to be shown at major international biennials at the end of the century were like breaths of fresh air that soon became strong winds at galleries, reviews, fairs and million-dollar auctions. A major exhibition of Chinese art and culture at the New York Guggenheim, when it still had the Soho annex, was a gesture showing openness to art "from the other side", reaffirmed by the 1999 Venice Golden Lion prize being awarded to Cai Guoqiang (who got a Guggenheim solo in 2008). The new arrivals posed a challenge for certain ideas, such as painting being no longer of any use, or figurative art being finally exhausted (once again).
The possibility of something entirely new, the expectation of anti-academicism, flushed into the sclerotic system. Renewal does not come from China alone, for sure, but its art has made an important contribution. In these times of globalization, it means interchange and rapprochement between ideas and values at an unprecedented pace and density. Systems are no longer closed in on themselves and art is no exception. But despite the virtual bridge of the Internet, distances still exist. Language in particular, as the great filter for interpreting the world, also active in contemporary art, fully retains its power to differentiate, especially when it comes to such totally distinct systems as the ideograms of the East and the totally abstract signs used by Western languages. Some contemporary art proposals, such as those based on a system of objects, tend to move closer to one another at all latitudes due to the very nature of their references, whereas others, such as painting, have the ability to show western observers something unusual that requires their perception to work in a different way. On the one hand, this is the case because they refer to experiences that are unknown on our side, such as the reformulation of a whole society and an entire way of life that is now taking place there, which is being watched from here at a distance, with judgment suspended. On the other, because they pose elements of an "old" wondrous imagination that Western rationalism feels must be refuted, although it has not been able to eliminate it.
So there are many attractive features of this event that MASP planned in 2007 as the first step in a broader program to expand the horizons of its exhibitions. The curatorship was offered to Tereza de Arruda, an independent curator from Brazil based in Germany, who is familiar with the Chinese scene. The exhibition now offered to the public is the first sample of Chinese art specially prepared for a Brazilian museum and MASP's first on these lines. Rather than propose models that are of no interest or use in art, this exhibition may contribute by throwing open doors and windows.
In the 1960s, there was an idea abroad that emphasized the proximity of China. Indeed, Marco Belocchio's film La Cina é vicina (1967) profoundly impacted many young people at that time, its Italian title a play of acoustics lost in the translation "China is Near", while conserving the central idea. The film was complex and far from the predictably ideological tract that might be expected from its title and the history of the period. But the idea was clear.Back then we realized that China was not all that near to us, and nor did we even want it to be. Now there is proximity again, but this time in the best sense of the word: artistic proximity.
MASP, Sao Paulo