Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2020
Meiqin Wang Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below Routledge Research in Art and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2019. 252 pp.; 16 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $155.00 (9781138314344)

In the past few decades, the global contemporary art world has witnessed a significant revival of interest in the question of art’s social dimensions, including awareness of the public sphere, civic engagement, and participation in politics. This “social turn” has manifested as a critique of institutionalized postmodernism and neoliberal capitalism. The rise of socially engaged art in China has echoed this international art phenomenon. Artists, critics, and researchers are harnessing the power of art to pursue publicness, social criticism, community reconstruction, bottom-up citizen participation, grassroots interests, and social justice. In so doing, they have abandoned a continuing faith in the market-driven logic of Chinese contemporary art; furthermore, they have expanded their interventions into society to include participation in rural reconstruction and urban renewal and engagement with environmental activism, feminist protests, and other civic movements. As “voices from below,” they are participating in the making of a new kind of art history.

Although journal articles and essays have previously treated this art phenomenon, Meiqin Wang’s Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below is the first monograph to do so. This important work examines socially engaged art practices conducted in mainland China by seven art professionals who assume the roles of artists, critics, curators, educators, cultural entrepreneurs, social activists, and so on. The art practices pursued by these professionals highlight creative and constructive challenges to the unjust and unequal status quo in contemporary China while engendering new forms of cultural expression, public space, and civic participation. Wang argues that what shapes the development of Chinese socially engaged art is the rising desire for civic engagement from the bottom up, expressed in forms of “cultural activism, art activism, lifestyle activism, social activism, online activism, environmental activism, etc.” (3). According to her, the potential of these forms of activism contributes to bottom-up engagements as “voices from below.”

The book consists of six cases based on Wang’s ethnographic research in different areas of mainland China. Her primary sources include interviews and participatory observations in marginal communities in metropolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, as well as in poor and remote rural villages in Gansu and Yunnan Provinces. Wang categorizes the six cases into three themes—social criticism, place construction, and personal development. Not only are these themes related to the aesthetic issues of socially engaged art—such as challenging traditional visual elements, media, and viewing systems—but also they touch upon how this type of art engages with a wide range of social issues in China, including ideology criticism, environmental activism, urban regeneration, rural reconstruction, migrant workers, women, and left-behind children in underdeveloped rural regions.

The first part of the book centers on the theme of social criticism—that is, art professionals’ development of new artistic and theoretical discourses to harness art as a means of critically addressing various social, cultural, and environmental problems, and as a means of raising public awareness, stimulating debates, and promoting bottom-up social changes. She focuses on Shanghai-based independent art critic and curator Wang Nanming’s socially engaged curatorial practices and Beijing-based artist Wang Jiuliang’s video artworks Beijing Besieged by Waste and Plastic China. The author’s study of Wang Nanming’s curatorial practices is especially insightful, as she breaks away from conventional visual analyses; instead, she engages in close textual analysis of Wang’s curation and criticism. As the first art critic and curator in China to advocate socially engaged art through curating exhibitions, writing, and making artworks, Wang Nanming has developed the idea of the “socially engaged art exhibition.” He creates sites not only for their aesthetic value but also to enhance discussion of social issues, especially those ignored by the mainstream culture. Through his key writings, the author examines how Wang Nanming’s criticism and curation have helped construct the theoretical, intellectual, and institutional infrastructures of Chinese socially engaged art. The author further argues that Wang Nanming’s curatorial practices demonstrate how exhibitions can be a strategy for social engagement.

The second part of the book shifts its focus to “place construction.” Both in urban neighborhoods and rural regions, such programs aim to revitalize a specific place by conserving traditional architecture, landscapes, handicrafts, and festivals. For instance, Zheng Dazhen, a local artist and curator from Quanzhou, Fujian Province, curated the project Cultural Heritages Carried on by Four People from the 80s and 90s Generation. He invited four local artists who specialize in flute making, puppet making, dough figurines, and lacquer painting—all of which were once common street handicrafts—to perform in situ for the audience of a local cultural festival. The project provided a platform for local residents to experience their traditional arts. Through these cultural activities, the project promoted community involvement in fostering sustainable social, cultural, and economic relations.

Besides Zheng Dazhen’s urban art project in downtown Quanzhou, the author also examines Zuo Jing’s Rural Reconstruction through Art (RRA) movement, including the Bishan Project (known as the first RRA project in China), the Maogong Project, and the Jingmai Mountain Project in Anhui, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces respectively. These projects aim at rebuilding architecture in local styles, designing logos for local industries, publishing local magazines, and promoting local tourism in order to provide individuals with a sense of shared identity. Socially engaged art projects such as these are often the object of government interference; the Bishan Project exemplifies the tension that thus arises between the authoritarian government and China’s civil society. One especially valuable dimension of Wang’s book is her effort to objectively demonstrate this tension by showing both the negative and positive aspects of each project. For example, when discussing the Bishan Project, she does not sidestep the scandal of its closure. Early in the project, Ou Ning, another initiator, attempted to revitalize the Harvestival, which had been a local agricultural festival in the village of Bishan. By reactivating the festival as part of the project, Ou aimed at creating a public platform where people from all over the world could interact and exchange ideas. However, the Harvestival drew attention from local officials because the event was slated to involve several cultural activists from outside mainland China. The Harvestival was canceled in 2012 due to its “negative public influence” (142). This cancellation also initiated disputes in intellectual circles and provoked criticism, which Wang examines in detail to reveal the practical problems of the project.

The theme of personal development is probed in the last part of the book. For Wang, “personal development” refers to the nurturing role that art and cultural activities can play in the lives of all people. She is concerned with the lifelong learning process to which every human being is entitled, as each of us strives to enhance our cognitive skills, improve self-awareness, strengthen self-identity, cultivate potential, and develop practical skills (147). Under this rubric, Wang studies the projects launched by the Beijing-based artist Wen Fang, the Gansu-based art educator Hu Jianqiang, and the Yunnan-based art educator Wang Jun. Their projects take different forms, such as photographing migrant workers, creating collaborative art with rural women, and helping kindergarten students in remote rural villages with art projects. Some of these art workers use art to engage with the lives of marginal groups of ordinary people, raise public awareness, and encourage collective action for problem solving, while others seek to soften the widespread inequality in public education between rural and urban regions. According to Wang, these projects share the ambition to harness art to enhance individuals’ quality of life, even though most of the participants still live below the poverty line.

This significant monograph sketches a vivid portrait of the developing ecosystem of socially engaged art in contemporary China, as well as of the efforts and struggles of the artists and stakeholders involved. The author is concerned not only with how these artistic practices reflect the sociopolitical reality of the country but also with how they address social problems, create new public spaces, facilitate participation, and, consequently, promote the growth of China’s civil society. Wang’s ambitious overview of the bottom-up impulse in contemporary Chinese socially engaged art demonstrates a distinct optimism regarding the progress of China’s liberal democracy and the catalytic role of art. A thoroughgoing theorization of this stratified social sphere, and of the positionality and efficacy of the “below,” is not attempted here. Such a theorization might allow us to ask more pointed questions regarding where this “below” is located and who, exactly, occupies it. It might also allow us to historicize the notion and to understand its complex and ambivalent relationship to the social, political, and cultural vicissitudes inherent to Socialist and Post-Socialist China—where the "below” could refer to the individual body of the citizen, to the collective body of the masses, or to the ever-changing boundary between them. Wang convincingly argues that art provides a privileged view into these political and aesthetic complexities. Her work provides a valuable opening into a new domain of research on Chinese contemporary art.

Yanhua Zhou
Associate Professor, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute; PhD Candidate, University of Arizona