Datong Dazhang

Tue, 29/08/2017 - 01:29 -- eyeline

The posthumous retrospective exhibition of the work of the artist Datong Dazhang at the Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai adds to knowledge of the development of contemporary art in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while projecting a highly questionable curatorial vision of the artist as a prophetic critic of China’s now increasingly globalised art world.

Datong Dazhang (née Zhang Shengquan) was born in 1955 in the city of Datong in the PRC. An unusually tall man at 1.9 metres, he was given the nickname Datong Dazhang (Big Zhang from Datong), which he later adopted as his artist’s name. Towards the end of his life a chronically impoverished Datong Dazhang displayed growing signs of psychological instability and premature physical deterioration. Datong Dazhang committed suicide sometime during new-year’s eve/day 2000 while much of the rest of world celebrated the turn of the new Millennium. He took his life within a small residential apartment, photographs of which show conditions of profoundly abject squalor.

From the early 1980s to his death Datong Dazhang sought to establish himself as a modern/contemporary artist outside official structures, first producing paintings, then conceptual works and performances. In 1987 he became a founding member of the WR Group (WR is an abbreviation of the pinyin wu ren, ‘five people’) that together staged a series of exhibitions in Datong and Beijing. Relatively few of the artworks produced by Datong Dazhang are still in existence and numerous artworks planned by him remained unrealised at the time of his death. The circumstances of Datong Dazhang’s life and death have resulted in a romanticised view of his legacy within the PRC. He has been described as ‘China’s van Gogh’ and to some, at least, has the status of an art world ‘rock star’, akin perhaps to suicidal western pop cultural icons such as Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain.

Promotion of the exhibition of Datong Dazhang’s work at the PSA was relatively low key, testament to the continuing challenge his life and work presents to dominant conservative expectations of the role of the artist and of art in China. Local mainstream reviews of the exhibition have certainly been far less than positive. The exhibition is tucked away on the top floor of the PSA, well away from the immediate public gaze, and there are no promotional banners outside the museum. This combination of critical vilification and ‘in plain sight’ institutional obscurantism will no doubt serve to reinforce Datong Dazhang’s outsider status and confer critical caché on the PSA exhibition’s organisers. Such are the contradictory conditions of the contemporary art world.

The exhibition of Datong Dazhang’s work at the PSA is structured chronologically with a biographical timeline connecting artefacts and documents representing differing phases of his development. The first of the exhibition’s adjoining white cube and black box spaces contains a series of large-scale, predominantly abstract mixed-media paintings, some with palimpsest-like over-writings of words and phrases in English and/or ‘Chinglish’. Although clearly by an untutored hand, these paintings sustain an insistent expressive vitality and, at times, free-form compositional sophistication. In subsequent spaces there are videos and photographs of performances, texts of poems, reconstructions of proposed installations, assemblages and conceptual works, as well as vitrines containing numerous pages taken from notebooks. Among these varied texts and objects is a video of the performance Mourning, staged unofficially at the era-defining China/Avant-garde exhibition at the National Art Museum in Beijing in 1989, shortly before the Tiananmen protests of the same year, and the conceptual work Mail Art, which comprises a series of editions of texts, drawings and photographs mailed to artists and critics across China from the early 1990s. The performance Mourning was intended as a critical intervention by the WR group on what they perceived as a debilitating institutionalisation of modern/contemporary art in China brought about by the staging of China/Avant-garde.

One exits the final space of the exhibition with a sense of having encompassed, with some completeness, the necessary details of Datong Dazhang’s life and work, albeit largely through accumulated fragments, reproductions and secondary representations. The overall tenor of the exhibition is however closer to that of a public information display than an artistic event. Both actual and reconstructed artworks are, by dint of their documentary setting, drained of aesthetic impact. This is particularly the case with reconstructions of artworks proposed by Datong Dazhang in his notes, which have been reproduced more or less clinically and are therefore profoundly lacking in affect.

Datong Dazhang’s exceptionally ‘bohemian’ lifestyle after leaving military service in 1974 (which included a highly challenging inattention to personal hygiene), autodidact status (a norm for many artists of his generation in the PRC), increasing lack of psychological and physical well-being, and early death, are presented in the exhibition as the circumstances of an individual implacably opposed to accepted convention. Assertions of the art-historical worth of Datong Dazhang’s work are made principally on the basis of the artist’s perceived resistance to the disciplining effects, not only of China’s continuing post-socialist political authoritarianism, but in addition the country’s growing alignment with globalised neo-liberalism following the acceptance of Deng Xiaoping’s so-called policy of ‘Opening and Reform’ in 1979. As a supposed foil to these dominant discursive conditions, Datong Dazhang’s actions are upheld as those of an avant-gardist non plus ultra, without significant care either for himself or the material and cultural capital associated with contemporary artistic economies.

This projection of Datong Dazhang as an elemental bohemian is clearly intended to resonate with the supposedly detached standing of the artist-scholar within traditional Chinese culture. The scholar-gentry in general, and in particular the sub-set of that class widely referred to in English as the literati (shi dafu), not only administered the practical workings of China’s imperial government but, from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) onwards, were also upheld as living representatives of a neo-Confucian order based on secular-idealist notions of humanistic altruism, self-cultivation and moral righteousness. As such, China’s scholar-gentry were morally obligated to uphold the stability of the Chinese state and to signal­—often, understandably in the context of an absolute imperialist monarchy, through retreat from public life—any concerns they might have with the direction and administrative conduct of imperial rule. Ink and brush painting, calligraphy and poetry produced by China’s scholar-gentry were—in principle at least—strictly amateur forms, conventionally regarded as aesthetic expressions, not only of the high moral values underpinning the imperial social order, but also the virtuous independence of their makers as defenders of the continuity of China’s civilization-specific identity. The yimin, or scholar who withdraws from the world into nature is an historically well-established figure in relation to the Chinese cultural habitus.

In the context of post-revolutionary China, Datong Dazhang’s suicide is also freighted with existentialist connotations. During the late 1970s and 1980s, existentialist philosophy was widely discussed within progressive art world circles in the PRC as part of a growing wave of ‘Humanist Enthusiasm’ (renwen reqing), accompanying the early implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. While discussion of existentialist philosophy in post-revolutionary China may seem hackneyed from a current western(ised) cultural perspective, within the PRC that discussion acted as a crucial point of reference for the renewed possibility of artistic agency after the suppressive collectivism of the Maoist revolutionary period.

Within the PRC of the late 1970s and 1980s, existentialist philosophy gave ethical credence to a departure from disciplining Maoist socialist-realist conceptions of cultural production, first established through political directives handed down shortly after the founding of New China in 1949, that all art should reflect the reality of the masses and serve the strategic aims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In light of localised readings of existentialist philosophy, unquestioning adherence to Maoist socialist realism was effectively identified as an instance of ‘bad faith’, in opposition to a newly emerging humanist post-revolutionary artistic ‘avant-garde’ (qianwei), which openly sought to combine aspects of critical western(ised) modernism and postmodernism with localised Chinese cultural thought and practice.

Avant-garde artists in China were, as a consequence, discursively empowered to distance their actions from the previously pervasive ideological reach of the CCP, while continuing to uphold the traditional moral-social responsibility of artistic practice in China. The connection between cultural production and existentialist philosophy within the PRC after Mao is exemplified by works such as Zhong Ming’s painting, Sartre – He is Himself (1980) and Wei Guangqing’s performance Suicide Project/Personal Experience of the Simulated Suicide Project Relating to ‘One’ (1988), both of which make reference to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and his upholding of inalienable freedom of human choice in the face of prevailing social and material facticity.

Datong Dazhang is thus presented against this accumulated discursive backdrop as an accusatory revenant: a moral-critical figure in the grand Chinese scholarly tradition and in relation to its modern existentialist revisiting, who intervenes upon the present from the past as an excoriatingly prescient critic of the current entanglement of art in China with the debased spectacle of authoritarian power and international capital. In the view of Wen Pulin, the exhibition’s academic adviser, writing in a PSA handout, Datong Dazhang is ‘a martyr to art and a pure creative spirit who adhered to the independent thinking of a wise man and lonely free soul’ without whose example, he asserts, contemporary art in the PRC would be bereft of any core ethical significance.

The problem with such a characterisation is that it is almost certainly a post-hoc intellectual conceit; a Romantic re-motivational hijacking of fragmentary and, to some extent, decontextualised signifiers in support of a contemporary critical agenda. As a signature curatorial marker of his projected moral-critical status, Datong Dazhang’s performance I See Death (1998)—photographs of which depict the artist as wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth—is made to take on a wider messianic significance, almost certainly unintended by the artist, who was probably more concerned with the immediacy of his own deteriorating health than interjecting critically on future circumstances he could not envisage with absolute clarity.

Datong Dazhang’s work as an artist was in his own lifetime a decided failure in terms of conventional art world aspirations and expectations. An exhibition he staged at a coal yard in Datong in 1995 had no viewers whatsoever and his Mail Art project was largely dismissed by its recipients as the work of a madman. The resurrection of Datong Dazhang’s work at the PSA both trades thematically on that ‘failure’ as an assumed signifier of artistic moral-critical detachment while at the same time paradoxically subverting such signing by inserting it into the very spectacle of which it is supposedly predictively critical. Risibly, the hard-back catalogue accompanying the exhibition—which includes gold-edged pages—has been produced in a limited numbered edition packaged up in the PSA museum shop with a harmonica and a mug (both representing signature belongings of the artist). Would a now sexagenarian Datong Dazhang object? We shall never know for sure. Conceivably with the fragility of age he would have enjoyed both the adulation and the attendant financial benefits.

The probable ‘truth’ is that Datong Dazhang was, like many others of his generation, a profoundly damaged figure, traumatised by his experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution and for his own part incapable of negotiating a social position as an artist within the increasingly demanding and precarious discursive and practical frameworks of post-revolutionary China. What is more, rather than predicatively breaking new ground, many, if not all, of Datong Dazhang’s works are either conspicuously derivative of, or in tune with contemporaneous artistic tendencies in the PRC. Consider, for example, the WR group’s performance work Mourning which is strikingly similar in appearance to an untitled performance by Ding Yi, Qin Yifeng and Zhang Gouliang of three years earlier.

Such bathetic considerations are, however, not generally those of the contemporary globalised art world, irrevocably wedded as it is to hyperbolic market-related spectacle. In short, they do not make for good art world theatrics. What persists, then, is an engaging, informative but, in the final analysis, far from justifiable curatorial mythologising of the life and work of Datong Dazhang, purporting to be the very opposite. A narrative about the man with all his evident doggedness and vulnerabilities, rather than of a supposedly messianic prophet roaming in the wilderness, is surely closer to historical ‘truthfulness’ and a more fitting tribute to the artist and his struggle.

Datong Dazhang, The Fear of Math. Reconstruction. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Photograph Jiang Wenyi.

Datong Dazhang, The Fear of Math. Reconstruction. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Photograph Jiang Wenyi.

Datong Dazhang, Questioning the Weight of Scales. Reconstruction. Images courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Photographs Jiang Wenyi.


Datong Dazhang, Questioning the Weight of Scales. Reconstruction. Images courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Photographs Jiang Wenyi.

Paul Gladston is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures and Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. His book Contemporary Chinese Art: a Critical History was awarded ‘best publication’ at the Art Awards China, 2015.

Lynne Howarth-Gladston is an artist, curator and independent scholar. She has exhibited her painting internationally.