Apr 13

FREE THOUGHT, FREE EXPRESSION AND INDIVIDUALITY IN BEIJING´S STREET ART

mayongfeng , 14:41 , media | 消息 , 评论(0) , 引用(0) , 阅读(718) , Via 本站原创

FREE THOUGHT, FREE EXPRESSION AND INDIVIDUALITY IN BEIJING´S STREET ART

Personal Introduction

By writing this piece I realize it’s a gathering of information, maybe not brought to you in the most appealing way. But in a way that makes sense to me. This writing is background information on the actual product I make. This is a little educational movie about Street art in Beijing. The idea for this movie arose after I spoke with several street art crews in the Netherlands who didn’t knew anything about street art outside the western world. When I started this research I wanted to know how in China the Street Art is shaped and what kind of Western influences were showing in imagery or technics. But after some exploratory research I had to redefine my question because China is way too big to say something about China as a whole. So I redefined my question to: How in Beijing is Street Art shaped and what kind of western influences are showing in imagery or technics. I will try to answer this question on basis of exemplarily artists in Beijing who use the public space as their medium. By trying to show how they work and see themselves as (street) artist. But before I can delve into this topic I felt it necessary to give some background information about the history and position of contemporary art in today’s China and about the phenomenon of street art as a whole. If you are interested in this information as well, you can find this in the attachments.

Introduction

Modern Chinese street art is only a couple of decades old but writing on walls isn’t shocking in a country that has a long history of doing it. Since the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) scholars have carved words into rocks and trees, later they brushed verses onto the walls of monasteries and roadside inns. Mao plastered big red character slogans onto walls across China. After Mao’s death dissidents made their own mark with big character posters at a spot in western Beijing that became famous as the Democracy Wall. The origin of the Democracy Wall is found in the Chinese student democratic movement, wall posters came to symbolize the hopes of the young and reformers within China. Street art was a means to an end for the Chinese underground. It was the power to have a public voice. Their complaints were aired via wallpapers. This form of expression has symbolized the voice of a marginal movement in China since the late 1970s. In December 1979 the Wall was shut down by the government, and the active participants went underground. The democratic Wall was the first time people had peacefully fought for their own rights and ideals. China’s nascent graffiti culture budded alongside the rise of consumerism. An innovative and diverse culture is developing across China. The street art world is keeping their eyes on China and has great expectations because the Chinese artists are trained as designers, graphic designers and in the fine arts. China´s Street Art culture is ranked the youngest in the world, while there are numerous artists replicating a broadly New York style of graffiti only a handful have pushed out into visual arenas of their own.

 

Street Art in Beijing

Today’s streetwise artists know to toe the line of direct confrontation. Although some touch on sensitive issues such as inflation and pollution, they avoid direct censure of the government. Most Chinese street artists draw their inspiration from American hip hop culture, preferring to tag their names in English. The internet has broadened the street into a global neighborhood, and graffiti artists from one city know the work of a fellow spray-painter in a different country. In America graffiti is often associated with poor, disintegrating neighborhoods and is viewed as a tool for the dispossessed to carve out an identity. In China, however, graffiti artists occupy an altogether different space. On the one hand the art is reserved for the emerging middle classes who can afford expensive cans of paint and pricey fines. On the other, graffiti artists are attempting to make Chinese cities – long defined by pervasive politics and, more recently, commercial interests – their own.

In Europe and America graffiti, is intertwined with hip hop culture. But China has its own history. In the 1920s revolutionary slogans and paintings were applied to public spaces to further the communist cause. During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese Communist Party daubed propaganda in red characters on neighborhood walls. And today, in a country that is capitalist in all but name, many interior walls of high-rise apartment blocks are covered in scrawling’s by small businesses advertising their services. One of the most profound crews in Beijing is ABS (Active, Briliant,Segnificant). ABS CREW was founded by four Chinese graffiti artists in 2007 to provide products and services involving graffiti competitions, culture communication, brand cooperation, figure design, exhibitions, and product design. They promote the international communication and cooperation of the graffiti culture and seek for the continuous breakthroughs on the creation of different styles. The crew members work together on certain works of art, but also make individual work ANDC is one of the founders of ABS he saw graffiti for the first time in 2005 when he watched style wars (a documentary from 1983 about the hip-hop culture in New York City). If American graffiti was born in the Ghetto, Chinese graffers hail from the middle classes. As ANDC says In China most people doing graffiti are art students, not gangsters. (http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2014/04/chinas-graffiti-artists) Fellow crew member SEVEN says he doesn’t want to make the city more beautiful, he wants to try to say something in his own way. In China we can’t talk about things, says Seven, so I have to find other ways to show I’m angry. (BBC – Culture – Graffiti tests the limits of free expression in China.pdf)  Graffiti at its very core is a form of revolt, so the action is the message. Like Seven, SCAR sees graffiti as a form of defiance. But he also knows where to draw the line. Artists do not tag anywhere near Tiananmen Square and they are careful to avoid government buildings. They are also cautious in their subject matter. Shui Gui is like his fellow crew members a (former) art student. As a graffiti artist he hides behind the tag NOISE. His background and interests are quite stereotypical for a street artist; hip hop, break dancing, street ball, but he considers himself more a writer than an artist. When he is asked how he sees graffiti in China he says: I want to contribute to culture, I know graffiti in China is not at the level of graffiti in the West, so I have to turn it up and keep improving. (http://www.88mocca.org/blog/?p=322)  When I summarize the motivation and the core of the ABS Crew a striking similarity between these artists can be seen; in the way they want their art to convey a message, but also in their search for their own identity. Now it seems their imagery and motivation still strongly fall back on the traditional Western graffiti culture.

A totally different story and motivation can be found in the artist Zhang Dali. Zhang Dali, also known as 18k and AK-47, is a Chinese artist (trained at the Central Academy of Art and Design) who works in a variety of media. A provocative mix of graffiti, photography, and sculpture, his art highlights the rapid social change that has swept and unsettled China. Zhang Dali has been considered one of the pioneers of Chinese street art. “I stopped spray-painting the Beijing streets in 2006”says Zhang Dali, China’s best known graffiti artist. “Graffiti is the fashion in China these days and has lost its meaning as protest.” (http://www.vice.com/read/zhang-dali-brings-chinese-street-art-to-new-york) Zhang Dali first discovered street art in Italy where he lived for several years after he fled China in July of 1989, after participating in the Tiananmen Square protests (nowadays most commonly known under the name ’89 Democracy Movement). In 1995 he returned to Beijing to live there. Then there where great changings going on and Zhang Dali anticipated on those changings by bringing his arts to the streets. As he puts it: “I wanted my art to enter into the public space. They were demolishing the old Beijing and I was angry about the destruction of old buildings and neighborhoods. Taking my art to the streets was a way to express my opposition.” (http://www.vice.com/read/zhang-dali-brings-chinese-street-art-to-new-york)  Zhang Dali had three tags he worked with a bald man representing himself as well as an abstract person, AK-47 that expresses violence and 18K that symbolized wealth.  These tags were put on walls that were about to be bulldozed. The political implications of the images and their interaction with the cityscape meant that the cops came looking for Zhang Dali many times. Early in his career he was considered a criminal for doing contemporary art; at this point he was classified as one for pointing out the crimes of others. He also began to make documentary photographs of the graffiti works called dialogue and demolition. Dali’s works have been concerned with the vast social and cultural changes that occurred since the initiation of economic reforms in 1980s. His intention was to include documentation about the issues that his work evoked through a dialogue with his audience. Zhang argues: “I believe that humans are the product of their environment. I am concerned about the changes in our living environment that have been imposed by money and power” (http://www.chinaphotoeducation.com/Carol_China/Zhang_Dali.html) He aims to call attention both to the changing character of Chinese society made emblematic in the destruction of long standing neighborhoods and communities, as well as to the increasing alienation linked with rapid modernization and rampant materialism. Zhang feels that the street art was just one period in his career, he still makes very political engaged work but uses different mediums to tell his message. Since 2003 (and still going) he portraits immigrant workers in life size resin sculptures of various postures, the title of this work is Chinese Offspring and is a documentary of social history of a culture in radical development and flux.

Another example of an artist who uses the streets as a platform or medium for his art work is Ma Yongfen. Ma Yongfeng started Forget Art an independent organization of ongoing projects that play with institutions and events (such as exhibitions, art fairs and street performances) and become social interventions in daily life. His work deals with the social realities that surround him in China. The art work Sensibility is under control Beijing (2012) is a large spray painted stenciled graffiti in recycled cardboard that reads sensibility is under control. He tagged this sentence on several walls in Beijing. The signs are meant to be a reflection of the working environment and the strict procedure the workers abide by. The stenciled messages seem to act as a reinterpretation of Mao’s propaganda from industrial and revolutionary times that would be painted on factory walls for workers to see. Yongfengs graffiti raises questions and creates creative thinking about the environment the employees are in. Each sentence explores an aspect of life inside the working environment: the need to adapt to a strict control system, the human desire to evade and dream, the pressure of efficiency and the humor to be able to deal with all this. The walls of Sensibility under Control Beijing hosted a new subtle form of propaganda, the artistic propaganda for independent and creative thinking. Most of his work was painted over but Yongfeng stated that this made the message even stronger. By making this artwork Yongfeng puts himself at risk because the artists who dare to speak their minds against the government are in danger of being prosecuted.

The use of stencils as in the work of Ma Yongfeng isn’t that common in the street art culture in China. In the West the most famous street artists use the stencil technique, but in China this technique is very remote and still evolving. Russell Howze, the writer of Stencil Nation and the webmaster of Stencil Archive, notices that there are stencil artists getting up in China. He made contact with the artist Robbbb who wishes that the English-speaking world could find out more about stencils in China. Robbbb studied at the China Central Academy of Drama and Fine Arts and after his trip to Europe in 2010 he began to make stencil art. He loved this art so much, that when he returned to Beijing he started to make his own stencil-art.  About his own work he says:  I hope to provide you with a unique sense of thinking. (http://allcitystreetart.com/2012/05/31/robbbb-beijing-china/)  ROBBBB creates pieces of art to make people think and to create social exchange. He says “when people are affected by and begin to think as a result of looking at one of my works… that’s the start of an exchange… that’s what gives meaning to my work.”(http://www.visualnews.com/2012/05/05/robbbb-beijing-street-artist/) Robbbb explains that the Mu-ban (the Chinese word for stencil) is embedded in Chinese folklore and history. Paper-cutting is originated in China and has a rich tradition surrounding New Year’s Eve. Were images such as birds, flowers, fish and mythical legends are cut out of paper to decorate the house for good fortune. In China he saw the first stencil art in the 798 Art Zone where these stencils were made by foreign visitors. About his own work he says: my street art works mainly reflect the social phenomena and social problems of today’s China. (Stencilarchive.org/node/1322) Robbbb sees street art in China in an early and crooked stage and hopes it will spread and develop. The final example is the artist DALeast. He is one of the most prolific street artists today, as well as an accomplished painter, sculptor and digital artist. DALeast is one of the biggest names in the international street art scene. He has graffitied around the world spraying huge animals onto buildings in London, New York, Cape Town and Melbourne. He has also participated in many group exhibitions over the years in these countries. DALeast prefers to provoke personal introspection over making grand political statements in his art, although he says he enjoys the political act of marking public buildings.  He began doing graffiti with a crew of street artists in 2007. The crew worked together for four years but were arrested and after that disbanded. His use of animals, he says, reflects the human condition. Animals are like society, but are kind of attached to humans. Some people in China are doing street art against the government, especially the beginners. I don’t have political information in my art, because I think the political in art is just art. (DALeast_ The street artist breaking out of China – Features – Art – The Independent) DALeast finds his inspiration in the way the material revolves and the spiritual reveals itself. He has the ability to create an illusion with the certain combination of lines. The overall artistic effect of utilizing a dark base while simultaneously highlighting in fragmented, brighter lines is to make the images appear to leap off the wall or the canvas. He says he is concerned by the number of beginners in China who are doing graffiti to copy western trends. In Brooklyn, people did graffiti in the 1970s because they were suffering in society; they felt like they were in the bottom. In China Street art is more like a fashion. His trademark style of metallic, monochromatic, sculptural figures can now be experienced all over the world. His practice remains strongly influenced by Eastern philosophy and by the spirit and energy embedded in the natural world. DALeast attempts to confront the viewer on a conceptual level, forming a unique pictorial synthesis of half-mechanized, half-organic world.

Recap

If I want to answer my first question: How in Beijing is Street Art shaped and what kind of western influences are showing in imagery or technics. I have to point out a difference between the artists who really stick to street art and artist who use the street as a medium that is for a specific project the right canvas for their art work. When I look at the first group there are a number of points that catch the eye.  These groups of artists are still very young (under the age of 30) and share a similarity in how they first came in to contact with street art. By visiting the West or/and by surfing the web for images and examples of street art from the West.  These artists all feel the need to show their work in a broader sense. I read a lot of blogs and platforms of these artists who were clearly translated from Chinese into English by Google Translate because they want to be recognized by the rest of the street art world. In imagery and style they are much related to the Western street art, all tough they want to give their own spin to it. The imagery feels familiar to me, but the intention and the message are clearly of their own. And I think because this art form is still very young it will evolve and become more and more of their own including the imagery. I read on several platforms who focus on the street art scene worldwide, that they have great expectations of the Chinese street art because most off the practitioners have a background in art or design and strong work ethic to improve themselves. The second group of artists, who use the streets temporarily for a specific art work, have in common that they want to bring awareness to the streets.  They have been participants of the Democratic Movement and still have a very great sense of responsibility for what is going on in China on a more political level. This is way they choose the streets as a medium to call attention for the case they feel needs this attention. The artists I have highlighted in this writing are the big names of the Beijing street art scene. For one thing because they already have a name for themselves within the (street) art world, on the other hand because they fanatical create promotion for themselves through blogs and a website. And because I personally believe they deserve the attention.

 

Sources:

Chaffee G., Political protest and street art: popular tools for democratization in Hispanic countries, Santa Barbara, ABC Clio (1993)

Ganz N., Graffiti World, London, Thames & Hudson (2009)

Schacter, Rafael, The world atlas of street art and graffiti, London,Aurum press Limited,(2013)

BBC – Culture – Graffiti tests the limits of free expression in China.pdf (2012)

C Sebag Montefiore,BBC – Culture, Graffiti tests the limits of free expression in China,(2013)

DALeast_ The street artist breaking out of China – Features – Art – The Independent. Pdf (2013)

http://www.88mocca.org/blog/?p=322

http://www.abs-crew.com/about.php

http://aestheticsofprotest.org/guerrilla-intervention-the-art-practice-of-ma-yongfeng/

http://allcitystreetart.com/2012/05/31/robbbb-beijing-china/

http://andrewsolomon.com/articles/their-irony-humor-and-art-can-save-china/ (2014)

http://www.artspeakchina.org/mediawiki/The_Stars_Group_%E6%98%9F%E6%98%9F%E7%94%BB%E4%BC%9A

http://artspeakchina.org/mediawiki/Zhang_Dali_%E5%BC%A0%E5%A4%A7%E5%8A%9B

http://www.chinaphotoeducation.com/Carol_China/Zhang_Dali.html

http://www.chinatoday.com/city/beijing.htm

http://chinese-democracy-movement.wikispaces.com/Democracy+Wall

http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2014/04/chinas-graffiti-artists

http://www.froot.nl/posttype/froot/murals-van-dal-east-een-bijzondere-combinatie-van-street-art-en-moderne-kunst/

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/study-abroad/090929/chinese-contemporary-art-under-the-influence

www.idaprojects.org_IDAA_brocures_CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ART IN THE WEST.pdf

http://www.stencilarchive.org/node/1322

http://www.sammlung-wemhoener.com/en/portfolio/zhang-dali-graffiti-as-a-symbol-of-revolt/

http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/zhang_dali.htm

http://sonntagimpark.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/sensibility-is-under-control/

http://www.vice.com/read/zhang-dali-brings-chinese-street-art-to-new-york

http://www.visualnews.com/2012/05/05/robbbb-beijing-street-artist/

 

Attachments

 Background 1: The rise of Contemporary Chinese Art 

For me it’s necessary to have some background information of contemporary art in China to have an impression of the scene and atmosphere in which the Street Art is evolving. Chinese society is always hierarchical, even the most informal group has a pyramid structure. The leader of the Chinese Avant-Garde is Li Xianting, called Lao Li. He is a writer and curator, his main role is to guide artists gently into their own powerful history. It was in 1979 that the Stars group initiated and Li Xianting was a big promoter of this form of art and was an active participant of the group. The Stars Group was among the first collectives or organized artists’ groups to present the beginnings of a Chinese avant-garde following the Cultural Revolution. Hoping to undermine the Socialist Realism of years past, they employed banned Western styles in their art and unlawfully staged their inaugural exhibition in a public park. After officials banned the exhibition, artist-members took to the streets to champion artistic freedom. It was part of the Democracy Wall movement, which brought together social, cultural and political impetus for change. They could not show their work, so in 1979 they hung their paintings on the fence outside the National Gallery. When they encountered police resistance, they demonstrated for individual rights. When the June 4 massacre took place, artists and idealists realized that their influence was being ignored.

The rise in popularity of Chinese art since the 1990s has been phenomenal. Although Chinese artists had been experimenting with contemporary art previously, it was only after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, when many artists immigrated and began to practice abroad that contemporary Chinese art came to the attention of the West. Their work reflected the greater freedom of expression available and often the artists chose to use their distance to reflect on circumstances in China. China´s modern art scene has grown and evolved quickly in the last decades and contemporary artists have secured themselves a place in international art. The market for Chinese art has expanded rapidly in the past decade. Beijing’s art gallery districts have seen unprecedented growth. But the path between local and international has proven difficult to navigate. For Zoe Butt (Executive director and curator of San Art) the problem lies not in the lack of international exhibitions for Chinese artists, but the lack of cultural exchange and engagement. Chinese artists are taking too many cues from Western art rather than acting independently.

 

Background 2: Street Art

Street Art is possibly the most common popular art form in existence today. There are many different motivations, styles and approaches within this artistic arena as there are practitioners themselves. The street art scene is a social network with unwritten rules, hierarchies, alternative identities, friendship and the impetus to prove oneself in the scene. Stylistic and formal innovation is an artist’s primary goal. Street artists abide by a set of unwritten rules and ethical codes. The most critical of these rules in that ´going over´ or crossing out another writer´s work is disrespectful and should be avoid unless initiating a writing battle. Street artists replicate and subvert the signs and symbols of urban environments, sometimes with an overtly political agenda. While contemporary street art is undeniably more accepted as an art form, it owes much to the original culture of graffiti writing, which paved the way for creation of unsanctioned art in the city. And while the origin of this art form can be found in several influences, it is most significantly connected to the ubiquitous consumer culture. And the street artists reclaim the public space for a more diverse public. Street art aids in the creation of city spaces by occupying a physical location in the cityscape and by engaging people in the experience of art. Faile (New York based artist duo) are representative of street art as a whole. Working from comic books, signage, novel cover-art, newspapers and photographs, Faile visually reproduce the fragmented reality of our experiences in the city. To communicate with societies at large.

Whether exhibited in marginal spaces, or as modifications to billboards and other sides of visual consumption, street art functions as a reminder of free thought, free expression and individuality in networks of conformity.  On some level most street artists produce work as a way to participate in the creation of an alternative visual culture. Street art is strongly associated with its location and the element of a surprise encounter with the works of art.

That’s why the experience of an encounter with street art via photographs posted online is incomplete. But this does not render its significance, because it’s the most valuable foundation on which the movement thrives and evolves. Street artists who live in remote places away from major cosmopolitan cities rely on the internet to make themselves known. In a way, the internet is not only a source of information about street art, but is also swiftly becoming the primary vehicle for an encounter with the work.

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