if you have ever wondered how Chinese contemporary art surfaced so quickly at the dawn of Opening and Reform, you will want to tear yourself away from Art Basel Hong Kong long enough to take in the exhibition at Asia Society entitled Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985. It offers informative glimpses into the art movements Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Star), and Caocao (Grass Society) – art that bridged the gap between the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of the Chinese avant garde of the mid-1990s.
The survey includes more than one hundred artworks, from paintings and sculptures to ephemera and personal items. The works span the decades from the beginning of modernism in the post-Mao era, providing little known insights.
By 1974, art supplies were hard to find, so regional artists created small paintings. During the day they worked as laborers and painted during their spare time. As a group, the Wuming (No Name) artists met secretly until 1979 when they managed to hose the created the first independent exhibition since the start of the Cultural Revolution. The exhibition drew more than two-thousands visitors a day. Eschewing officially sanctioned subject matter, they painted bold images vaguely reminiscent of the French impressionists.
In 1979, a group of twenty-three members of Stars posted their art on a fence outside the institution that is now known as the National Art Museum of China. Breaking free from Socialist Realism, they imitated Today, the unofficial literary magazine. In the vein of John Lennon’s song, every artist shined on, a super star, although whether or not they song was available is unknown. When the exhibition took on a second incarnation in 1980, more than one hundred thousand people visited.
The Grass Society, established in 1979 in Shanghai, included an older generation of artists and many untrained contemporary artists. Their name is taken from grass, which, they said, grows everywhere, like art. It “is so widespread, ordinary, and resilient, yet brings to the world, year after year, luxuriance and hope.”
Despite their near absence from the official narrative of Chinese contemporary arts, these artists broke conceptual, stylistic and thematic ground. Their work indirectly contributed to the explosion of Chinese contemporary art that is now at the center of the art world.
As a follower of Chinese contemporary art, you will profit from the works presented in the Asia Society Hong Kong exhibition. Unofficial Chinese Art: 1975-1985 runs concurrently with Art Basel Hong Kong.
Editor’s Note: Today’s homepage featured image is “Ma Kelu Snow at Wumen Gate,” 1974 Oil on paperboard, 19.5x26cm 馬可魯 午門的雪, 1974 紙板油畫, 19.5×26厘米 Photo courtesy of Professor Kuiyi Shen.