In the West, "Chinese art" has meant Ming vases and bamboo-laden landscape paintings. In recent years, however, a growing avant-garde movement has come into its own in this country. These artists' work crackles with sharp-edged social and personal commentary, and that is considered as original and mature as anything produced in the West.
Still, modern art has no official sanction here. China's capital has no modern art museum. Artists live in conclaves on big-city outskirts, and most Chinese don't know their work, let alone buy it. Exhibits that go abroad - most famously, the 1995 show "Mao Goes Pop" - are organized in the West.
Last week, however, in a sign of a thaw in official circles, an exhibit by 29 young "new media" Chinese artists opened in Berlin - the first-ever major approved show of avant-garde art to travel outside China.
The exhibit features video and computer art, huge installations, and canvases that allude to what one critic calls the "spiritual confusion" of modern, urban China: unsparing photos of the migrant worker gangs that swirl through Asian cities today, video presentations of swimmers gasping for air, a performance piece in which the artist writes an "invisible" diary day after day in water on a stone, to name a few.
The show is considered significant not only for its official nod, but because it introduces a new and sophisticated younger generation of artists, many of whom participated in recent protest exhibits containing controversial "shock art" that brought a crackdown by the Ministry of Culture this summer.
"This is the first time the Chinese government has approved anything like this," says Fan Di'An, co-curator of the show and a dean of the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. "It is the first time the government has allowed a realistic appraisal of the urban world of youth. Many people, including officials, realize art is a reflection of social self-realization. They know that social criticism is a part of the art scene."
Titled "Living in Time," the show opened Sept. 18 at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum, where it will remain through Nov. 18.
Chinese authorities have been leery of the often disturbing and abstract, symbolic nature of modern art since it first appeared 20 years ago in protest exhibits set outside Beijing's National Museum. Under Mao Zedong, art's "purpose" was to glorify images of happy peasants and noble workers. Yet, reforms in the 1980s brought a terrific ferment, a "New Wave" movement. Chinese "discovered" artists such as Picasso and Braque as part of an influx of Western culture and thinking at the time. Critics mostly regard that early work as Western imitation, however, not as original.
A watershed came with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Central Academy of Art was closed. So was "Fine Art in China," the main avant-garde umbrella group. Many artists shut down
their studios, and often their personal lives, for two years or more.
Yet the post-1989 period proved cathartic. By the late '90s, a more diverse and mature expression developed. In January, after visiting the Shanghai Biennale - the first-ever semi-official exhibit of the avant-garde - Art in America magazine editor Robert Vining enthused that was he saw was unexpectedly "dynamic."
Liu Qinghe, one of few painters to appear in Berlin, depicts modern Chinese faces against traditional Chinese backgrounds. "In the '80s, I was caught up, trying to paint like Cézanne and reading Hegel," he says, "But, after the Tiananmen period, I started looking inside myself."
For years, emphasis was placed on what was and wasn't "officially approved" here. Yet today, the lines are again blurring, with the government staking out a position that cracks down on new forms of extreme art, but officially tolerating a wider range of work that previously might be labeled as subversive.
Painter Lu Fen, tall with a quick spreading smile, says that in the mid-'90s he could not show work with military uniforms and depictions of Mao. "But these days, I paint whatever I want," Mr. Lu says. "There's been an explosion of form, everyone going in every direction, and that is the best development that could be expected."
Yet, until last week, officials never approved avant-garde art to travel abroad - feeling it might show "a bad face of China," says one source, or cross lines of taste or politics that would bring down wrath in Communist Party circles.
Eight of the 29 artists going to Berlin, in fact, took part in an exhibit that protested the Shanghai modern art show in January. Called "We Aren't Cooperating," the show was designed partly to exhibit a more radical and extreme side to the current scene here, and also to challenge the official idea that "reform" in modern China is unstintingly positive. Some works used blood, images of surgery, and body parts.
This summer, shortly after Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the Ministry of Culture cracked down on this extreme end of the avant garde - known as "shock art." They applied statutes forbid the showing of "violent, bloody, or obscene" works. Violators could face a three-year prison sentence.
"In the three months after the statutes were publicized, you get a huge increase in works that are bloody, violent, and probably obscene," says Robert Bernell, director of Chinese-art.com, a fine-arts website.
"Some of the artists going to Berlin were part of a controversial show that contributed to a recent crackdown," says Brian Wallace, director of the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. "But now they are in a major exhibition that is part of a Chinese government cultural-exchange program. I've not seen such selections before. This is good strong work, and a sign things are happening."
The Berlin show examines the social climate of a country undergoing change - the pursuit of money, uncertain relationships, alienation, pollution, and a fear of individuality.
The signature piece, by artist Yang Yong, shows migrant urban workers resting on top of pilings for a skyscraper. Migrants are a hot subject here - dusty laborers who come from the country, build the new metropolis' of China, and then are required to leave.
In an Internet art project by Shi Yong titled "You can't clone it, but you can buy it," visitors to Mr. Shi's website "voted" on what an urban Chinese man should look like. The "winner" is a smiling figure with long blond hair wearing sunglasses, a black Mao suit, and carrying a briefcase - a figure part capitalist, part communist. Shi's installation features dozens of identical clay statues of the figure.
Another piece, "2,000 years from now," by Zheng Guo Gu, forges plastic bottles into cast-iron replicas.
Shi Hui took the theme of "scholar's rocks" or miniature mountains that appear in traditional Chinese gardens, but that under Ms. Shi's hand are made of paper - a comment on distance from nature.
Yang Fu Dong, considered a breakout photographer, depicts a man and a woman dancing in the dark. Mr. Yang asks ordinary people to pose as if they are famous actors, and he explores the problem of private space in China.
"These works are sophisticated, intelligent, and highly nuanced," says Dr. Bernell. "The artists are globalized and cosmopolitan, and in tune with any big city in the world. One often hears about China as if it is homogenized. These artists show something else."
"New media" art has jelled in China only in recent years. "In 1996, you had less than 10 video artists in Beijing," says Mr. Fan, the exhibit co-curator, someone known to have advised President Jiang Zemin on art. "Now you have more than 100."
Another first in Berlin will be the installation in a public square of a huge video screen that will repeatedly play a six-hour tape of Chinese video art. According to Fan, cultural ministry officials sat through the entire film, and only requested one change: a toy with a US flag stuck on one side was thought possibly to offend American viewers.