Table of Contents
Send a Letter
Magazine Staff
Back Issues:
Editors's Notes
Course Work
Class News
Books by Alumni
For the Record
Center Stage
Alumni Gateway
UofC Homepage

In the decade since the Tiananmen uprising, much has changed in the People’s Republic of China—including its art.


A new layer of symbolism was added to Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Four decades earlier, soon after the establishment of the People's Republic of China was declared there, Mao Zedong had called for a new square, "big enough to hold a billion people." By 1959, the plaza in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace was in place, large enough to hold 400,000 participants in celebratory parades presided over by Chairman Mao. At Mao's death in 1976, the square, already the world's biggest, was expanded to hold 600,000, but the largest crowd ever to assemble in the square came in June 1989. After more than a million people calling for democratic reform had thronged into Tiananmen Square, government troops were sent in, killing thousands in an attempt to halt a "counter-revolutionary rebellion."

In the ensuing decade, the winds of both social and economic change have continued to whirl through mainland China. The response of Chinese artists to that change forms the subject of a groundbreaking exhibition organized by Chicago's David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. Curated by Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen distinguished service professor in Chinese art history, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century features the works of 21 artists. Some studied and now teach at China's major art academies. Others are self-taught, independent artists. The works in the exhibition, which opens February 18 and runs through April 18, include paintings, photographs, videos, sculptures, and installations.

Yet Wu Hung, an expert on both ancient and contemporary Chinese art, has not assembled a traditional "survey" of contemporary artists. Rather, Transience focuses on three aspects of a single theme—"Demystification," "Ruins," and "Transience." "Taken together," Wu writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalog, "these three sections look at a changing society increasingly driven by market forces and sliding into an ideological vacuum, yet at the same time rich with possibilities for creating new human values and aesthetic standards."

The artists represented do not share a common political agenda. Yet their works all respond directly, says Wu, to China's current reality, demonstrating what he terms a "domestic turn." The artists—almost all of whom currently live and work in mainland China—are "most fascinated," Wu writes, "by China's transformation: the rapid disappearance of the traditional city and its neighborhoods and the changes in human relationships, lifestyle, taste, and values."

Works in the "Demystification" section challenge and reinterpret cultural symbols from the Great Wall to Chairman Mao, incorporating experiences of real people, including the artists themselves, into essentially iconoclastic works. Providing a counterpoint, the "Ruins" section documents the fascination contemporary Chinese artists have with different types of destruction. In "half-demolished residential buildings, dilapidated public spaces, and ruined human beings," writes Wu, "they find the victims of the economic boom and social restructuring in today's China." The last section, "Transience," offers direct observations and critiques of the new social spaces emerging in China's cities. The new social landscape, notes Wu, includes "changing conceptions of time, place, and human interaction."

Opening with a performance by Beijing-based artist Yin Xiuzhen, Transience is the first temporary exhibition in the Smart's 25-year history to use the Museum's entire exhibition space. (A smaller gallery will document the work of other artists who submitted proposals for the show and a virtual tour on the Smart's web site is planned. ( In July, says Kimerly Rorschach, the Museum's Dana Feitler director, Transience travels to the University of Oregon Art Museum in Eugene and in October to Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art.—M.R.Y.

Table of Contents | Send a Letter | Staff | Editor's Notes | Letters | Investigations | Journal | Class News | Books | Deaths