Socially Engaged Art in Post-89 China

Project: Research

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In 1995, more then twenty artists in Chengdu staged a series of site-specific performances to raise public consciousness on the protection of Funan River. In 2001, four artists – Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, Wen Hui, and Wu Wenguang – organized a dance project in Beijing, where a group of professional dancers worked with over thirty migrant labors to create a powerful dance. In 2010, with the help of thousands of anonymous citizens online, Ai Weiwei produced a sound piece to commemorate the 5,208 students killed in the Sichuan Earthquake two years earlier. Since 2010, Wu Wenguang and a group of young documentary filmmakers have been building a public visual archive to rescue memories of the Great Famine, 1959-1961. These are just a few examples of socially engaged work that Chinese artists have been making since 1989. It is urgent that we recognize the importance of socially engaged art in China so that the narrative on Chinese contemporary art will not be dominated only by the rise of the market.What can socially engaged art teach us about cultural activism and civil participation in China? How do Chinese artists negotiate with the state and the market? How do they conjure publics and counterpublics (Warner, 2005)? How are notions like collaboration (Kester, 2011) and antagonism (Bishop, 2012) activated in the Chinese context? This research project will try to answer these theoretical questions by looking closely at the rich set of works that artists have produced in China since 1989, when the Chinese Communist Party solidified its policy of market-oriented reform coupled with authoritarian political control.As Gladston (2013) points out, although a great deal of writing has been published on Chinese contemporary art, little primary research has been conducted methodically. While the primary goal of this research project is to produce a scholarly book that captures the key moments of Chinese socially engaged art and discusses the aforementioned theoretical issues in depth, the foundation of this project will be an online database of important socially engaged art projects since 1989. Each project will be properly documented, so that the database can also serve as a useful tool for other researchers, students, and interested public. Finally, this project may lead to exhibitions in public museums.This project builds on my previous research on socially engaged art in China. For my doctoral dissertation completed in 2012, I performed detailed analysis on four case studies between 2000 and 2010, and proposed a theoretical framework based on public sphere theory. A book chapter on the Stars event and a journal article on Ai Weiwei’s collaborative sound project have been published (Zheng, 2012a and 2012b), and one article on Wu Wenguang’s Village Documentary Project is under revision for journal publication.This research project will go beyond my previous work in both scope and depth. I plan to interview 20 to 30 artists and collect primary materials on 40 to 60 projects for the database. The book manuscript will fully engage with both existing literature on Chinese contemporary art in relation to civil society (Berghuis, 2007; Wang, 2010; Berry, Lu and Rofel, 2010; Gao, 2011; Glaston, 2013), and global discussions on socially engaged art (Stimson and Sholette, 2007; Kester, 2004 and 2011; Jackson, 2011; De Cauter, De Roo and Vanhaesebrouck, 2011; Bishop, 2004 and 2012; Thompson, 2012). It will be the first book-length study on Chinese socially engaged art. In addition to its academic merit, this project will also contribute to the civil society movement in China.


Project number9048025
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/01/1521/06/18

    Research areas

  • Socially Engaged Art,Chinese Contemporary Art,Cultural Activism,Civil Society,