Books have always been perceived as a source of knowledge and power. Throughout Chinese history, the most respected artists were also well-learned scholars. To excel in painting and calligraphy, the major art forms in China, artists also had to be well versed in classical philosophy and literature, so that their artworks could convey lofty sentiments. Reading was therefore a prerequisite for making good art. The book, as a symbol of learning, cultivation and knowledge, became inextricably linked with the arts.
Yet contemporary Chinese artists, many of whom were born in the '50s and '60s, developed an ambivalent relationship with the book. Raised during the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, many of these artists were encouraged in their younger days to work on farms and in factories rather than attend school. They were deprived of learning and books, with a few exceptions, such as the Little Red Book, which was a compendium of Chairman Mao's quotes and teachings. These few selected books became powerful tools of the ideological indoctrination to which the artists, along with most youths in their generation, were subjected.
This is the subject of Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art, a traveling exhibition organized by the China Institute under the guidance of Wu Hung, professor of Chinese art at the University of Chicago. Featuring 31 works by 23 artists, this exhibition examines the impact and notion of the book (shu in Chinese) in the artists’ upbringing and in their art.
In contrast to traditional artwork, contemporary Chinese artwork is inspired by the book—and, by extension, knowledge— in an almost perverse way, because many book-related artworks parody the purpose and power of the book. Some artists create unintelligible books with blurred characters, or books devoid of a logical sequence or narrative, thereby nullifying the authority of the text. They create meanings without words and words without meaning. In addition to distorting the content of the book, they critically examine and reinterpret its format. Nevertheless, these works should not be understood simply as defying the authority of the book. In many ways, they echo other forms of contemporary art in the ways they challenge conventional wisdom and perceptions.
This exhibition is not only connected to the life experiences of contemporary Chinese artists, it also examines the roles that books have played in education, globalization and politics. The regard for books has changed in contemporary China, and while they may not serve the ever-changing art scene in the same they did before, books remain a source of contention and inspiration. It will be clear by the end of the exhibition that a book is not something that any of us should take for granted.
–Josh Yiu, Foster Foundation Assistant Curator of Chinese Art