On the Phenomena of Academies’ Transition to Contemporary Art --Li Xiangqun’s Exhibition in the Palace Museum Author: Zhu Qingsheng

Li Xiangqun has become one of the pioneers of contemporary art. The solo exhibition in the Palace Museum is the final declaration, or an indication that his pursuit is started. In the past 3 decades, the contemporary art circle has gradually become attached to capital and power. Driven by the interest mechanism, it seems lack of self-discipline. Sometimes it is even more manipulated and controlled by power in contrast with the academy system, and weak in regulatory mechanism. 
Based on the continuous observation, record, analysis and research in China Modern Art Archive (CMAA) since 1986, the contemporary Chinese art showed an obvious change. First, the academy system changed their position, accepted and promoted contemporary art from the previous opposition and repulsion. The Central Academy of Fine Arts, China Academy of Arts, Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts and other major academies took the lead in creation, promoting the concept in a controlled and skilled manner, and introducing it into teaching; Meanwhile, Chinese National Academy of Arts and China National Academy of Painting set up relevant institutions to study on and intervene in contemporary art; China Artists Association also set up the organizing and steering organ, the “Committee of Experimental Art”. In 2014, the 12th National Fine Arts Exhibition specially arranged an area for contemporary art, and named it as “experimental art”. Since then on, the public medium, exhibition and education institutions became fully open to contemporary art after 2 decades of rejection. The Ministry of Education opened the department of contemporary art in academies across the country under the name of experimental art. The contemporary art gradually gained the proper position as a basic subject in the quality-oriented education, and secured its legitimate status. China Annual Art Critics Assembly, which remains independent and gathers people with the same ambition, unswervingly promotes contemporary art as a civil mechanism (non-governmental organ outside the official system), actively builds professional academy of contemporary art, advances relevant education and systematic theoretic research, and forces the academies to transform. Thus, the front line between the originally intense and conflicting aspects is blurred. 
Such a phenomenon perfectly corresponds to some phenomena in contemporary art field, and each can be converted to the other. Some already established contemporary artists suffer from degraded creativity, and remain unconscious to modern critics. They deviate from the bottom line of contemporary art for independent personality and democratic spirit, and boast of power and prosperity. Some, who started and made fame by exploring new techniques, “experimental art” and “contemporary art”, experienced fundamental change in mentality, turned their own creations and styles into brands and characteristics, and made them new classics and traditions. They maintained such traditions, and even manipulated the press, forged documents and archives, paid for favorable reviews, and tried all their best to do so, even to establish a hegemony. Such a hegemony is the routine of commercial companies, and the alliance for political interests. With the “privilege” obtained in the name of “art”, unrestrained forgery (in the name of “creation”) and play against the rules (in the name of “free will”), they easily and quickly accumulated fame and fortune, i.e. the so-called “contemporary art field”, which was opposite to academy art and special with its own characteristics before, has already fallen apart, and transformed into the incubator of interest, conservative and autocratic forces. It is hypocritical and calculating, and completely opposite to the political modernity and aesthetic modernity advocated by contemporary art. Such things even happened in the authoritative departments controlling academic research and professional writing. Having heard the opposite opinions or arguments, an artist even asked for more power to suppress, insult and dismiss the dissidents, which fully showed the violence and dictatorial tendency. As market economy exerts greater and greater influence, and predominates a hierarchical society, it will be unavoidable that the contemporary art, which creates rare and precious products of spirit, becomes the target of capital and the carrier of financial operation. However, if the contemporary artist abandoned criticism and rejection, actively engaged in and made use of capital and power beyond limit, this is a corruption of contemporary art in China. 
After all, contemporary art has significantly developed in the recent decade. However, the boundary among the contemporary art (as a concept and a method), academy art (traditional western art) and traditional art (traditional Chinese art), became blurred. After a chain of changes in 2010, it has greeted 3 tendencies. The third is the opposition against the over-commercialization of contemporary art. It encourages self-improvement in academies, it transforms idealism and youth (students’) thoughts into more social challenge, realistic criticism, pure cultural transcendence and responsibility. 
The first tendency after transformation is the critical consciousness and independent will. In this aspect, a couple of productive artists targeted at the condition and situation of Chinese Government, and ignited the fierce conflict and extensive argument between different ideologies worldwide. Such conflicts over the reality in the complex international political environment, where value judgment is being rapidly spread by modern medium and internet, attracted the attentions of all countries and regions, as well as all social ranks with different ideologies. This is unprecedented since the contemporary art took its form in China. 
The second tendency is related to the new media. The “contents” of those artists’ works came from the communications of the new media of mechanical photography in the media era. However, new media goes far beyond the single function of communication, it is meaningful because it changes human sense, and the nature of the world. The virtual “images” are used to substitute the “material world”. This is an opportunity for human being to replace “truth” with creation. The profoundness is far beyond the modern power tactics and international politics. Such a tendency is not controlled only by artists. Though many artists have got involved in it, the new media education in China has broken through the scope of art. It understands, handles, expresses and communicates the real world and worldly wisdom with the internet and mobile terminals. The ever-updating new media and new technology are bringing great possibilities to us, putting everybody at the front and in the same group, with every region and group exploring and innovating the way to break through in the future. In this context, the thriving media as movie is now outdated and abundant like the setting sun. The updated media is being invented and created every day, and the contemporary art is also changing day by day as a result. 
The third trend is the contemporary Chinese art represented by Li Xiangqun, the transformation of academy art to contemporary art, i.e. “Fine arts”, the techniques often used by academies (The “fine arts” here, beaux-arts in French which means “art for the art’s sake”, is the fine arts making art the classics), is used to correspond to the “human alienation” caused by the mechanical photography in the era of media, in this way to intervene in contemporary people’s aesthetic consciousness and convention in feeling the world, which are often guided by the ever-changing media. It has made people unconscious and lost as if they had lost the sense of reality. The human feeling of running through artworks remained since the ancient time should be used to drag people back to the reality from the virtual images and visual fabrications. The tendency does not mean the superficial return to academies, to revitalize the original art scope, concept and practice in academies. Fortunately, Li Xiangqun has a clear understanding about it! And he consciously differentiated and chose in between. 
In the Chinese social system, it is the academies, rather than anywhere outside of academies, could easily produce new talents (students) and new insights. People in the art circle in contemporary China, including the artists, theorists and critics, are mostly from academies. The so-called artists “in society” (outside of the system), are mostly trained by academies, and involved in contemporary art after obtained the (arguably) fundamental skills and systematic knowledge to be an artist. Many successful contemporary artists also teach in academies, while many who do not teach are respected and invited by academies. Sooner or later, they would be engaged with them. Thus the paradox came, shall we oppose the “academism” and the system, or get deeply involved in academies to “change” them? This is a dilemma to all the insiders, and also an important subject, i.e. how to develop new contemporary art with the approaches of academies? There are two ways to solve the problem: One is to completely transcend, break through and push it forward, by not only going beyond academies with western art, but also going beyond the contemporary western art, with the unprecedented technology and media, and the brand new concepts and art; The other is to introduce the ancient approaches and techniques in academies, which were all abandoned by people in their hometowns, for a modern upgrade. Many artists trained in academies have a clear understanding to the future development, knowing that only contemporary art will be written in the art history, and have a habit related to their own mind, mentality, knowledge and culture. They are trying to join the efforts on the front line of contemporary art as an academy graduates, thus they form a special force in contemporary Chinese art. Such a phenomenon in the west, the home of academies, is absent. 
The traditional art taught in academies of fine arts and introduced from the west is a mixture, combining the classical skills in western art, realistic techniques and concepts. 
The classical skills were born as the model of (sculpting) form 2,000 years ago (from the classical age in the 5th century B.C. in Greece). Such the accumulated forms are a whole sets of rules and concepts extracted from specific contents and techniques, which are concentrated with the generic and ever-lasting relationship between man, creation and feeling. They transcend time, touch and inspire the common feelings and experience of different cultures and different individuals in different times. The feeling and experience beyond time and culture are generated by classic form, and the response to it is hiding deep in the body and mind of many or all individuals. That is the root cause for the classic art to be the “classics”. 
Traditional art taught in western fine arts academies includes the realistic techniques and concepts which developed and achieved greatly in history. However, art, as a means to record (phenomenon and image) and narrate (the world and events), has been replaced by modern media and mechanical photography. It forced the art in western academies to end their historical mission at the place where it was created, developed and perfected, and to start its own revolution. 
The third tendency of contemporary art is the new art after the realistic art was surpassed and undermined by new media, concept and technology, and the era of imagery media started. The new art makes use of the classic elements of academy art as an approach to keep the “historical nature” of human beings, to avoid their being completely alienated by the virtual world and the medium in the information age, and to maintain the contact between man and the reality. Classic artworks can be understood as an “ever-lasting nature” by all people in any times. They may awaken and intensify people’s feeling and sense, link to the memory of culture, conserve human feeling to their own suffering and self-respect as an individual life. Thus the human nature can be conserved, without being covered and submerged by information and images.  
“Academy” was introduced into China in the past century, originally to break the old tradition and initiate the “New Culture Movement”. It is an overturn and revolution in opposition of the art’s inheritance of Confucian and Chinese cultural traditions. As time goes by, the actions and thoughts by that time, in retrospect today, are unavoidably extreme and hasty. But in early days of modernization in China, academies once served as an active but rebellious force, with the consciousness and power to save the state, resist suppression, break away from backward China and build a modernized country. But because of the historic change, the “innovation” gradually lost the momentum and disappeared in only less than 100 years after being introduced, under the restriction of time (the combined influence of ideology and the development stage). It could not keep up with the time, became the conservative, limited and ruling power of the art, by and by, the resistance holding back the mental liberation, cultural innovation and development. At least, it could no longer assume the pioneering responsibility to drive the modernization, the rise and revitalization of the nation. So after the reform and opening up in 1979, the new art emerged in China is not the academy art introduced from the west 100 years ago, but the contemporary art which opposes academy art. While in academies, the self-revolution never gives up the efforts in exploring contemporary art. The achievements made in the 3 decades of reform and opening up proved to the world and the history: Modernization is the only way empowering China’s development. Could art be an exception? Today, though Chinese cultural policy emphasizes opening up, diversified concepts and creative approaches both in China, the west, modern and ancient times, and opposes profit-seeking and vulgar art. But the authoritative system of fine arts still sticks to the western realistic concept introduced in with the fine arts academy. It just positively affirms the achievements made by contemporary art. Maybe after a few years, the public would realize the rise of China, the rapid development and the economic growth in the 3 decades after the reform and opening up are witnessed by all. The potential spirit is echoed and reflected by contemporary art, since art often tells the thinking and mentality of the society, which can never be shown on the surface, and can hardly be fully demonstrated by realistic record and depiction. In turn, China’s reform and opening up could hardly make such achievements without the contemporary Chinese art’s participation and promotion (At the very beginning, it was called as “modern art” which emphasizes the nature; Now, it is called as “experimental art” which emphasizes the approach). I am not exaggerating the role of contemporary art, but telling the meaning of modernization. By saying that modernization only enriched materials and increased social wealth, we have underestimated modernization’s true value to human civilization and a nation, i.e. the profound influence to fundamental human rights and spirit. Art is only the aftermath and a momentum (stimulating the creation). In the process of a nation’s modernization, art cannot be confined to existing traditional, classic and conservative academies. Though the society and market need the cultural troupe and craftsmen for publicity, civilization requires the art to take the lead. Art academies, under the influence of modernization, will see the experimental and rebellious activities, and art itself will respond to the demand of playing as the momentum of modernization, and become the basis and motive of creativity, the propeller and the most creative force in a modern society. 
When the system and structure of academy remain unchanged, many teachers and students who mainly focused on oil painting, sculpture and printmaking (Chinese painting is dealt with in another article), together with the artists who got involved in experimental art and modern art, including new media, multi-media and trans-media, consciously turned to contemporary art. There are two groups in academies in studying and practising contemporary art: One is in academies, but never creates in the way taught by art academies. Their concepts and methods are just the same as contemporary artists’ outside of art academies, but they are different only because the group of people belong to academies. Actually they are the majority in contemporary art circle. The second group sticks to the basic knowledge and skills taught in academies, and uses them as a way to get access to contemporary art. Li Xiangqun is the representative of the second group. In leading the practice and experiment of contemporary art, we should face two issues: One is how to establish contemporary art as a counteract of academy. The second is how to differentiate the contemporary art in academies from the old-fashioned and stylish “copies” which were bought at high prices and highly appreciated by outsiders.
Li Xiangqun’s colleagues in academies are actually struggling with the conflicts between contemporary art and academy art. The cultivation and foundation made by classics find no place in contemporary art and the evaluation system of art value, and no association with the current artistic review and future history of art. It is warned by the Louvre with the collections as the examples that Chinese academies could never catch up with. But in their home, the west, none of the contemporary artists follow the concepts and approaches prevailing in the Louvre. The art history created by Louvre has stopped in 1840. But by following its approaches, nobody has been written into the art history later on. Some academy artworks demonstrating excellent skills may be sold at high prices, and may be well accepted by the public and the authority, but can never be written into art history. The artists with such an ambition have to proceed towards contemporary art. But contemporary art denies academy art, and subsequently their experience, taste, dignity and status. In the west, artists have broken away from the Louvre, so they do not struggle. But in China, the academy’s approach similar to the Louvre’s can still lead people to the political and economic success today, how can the artists not struggle inside? Then a way out was created, i.e. to single a factor out from the classics, and turn it into a distinctive strength fighting against the era of image and media. In this way, the artists transcended the failing approach and re-emerged as the contemporary artists at the end of an era. 
The struggling artists are actually self-contradictory. Such an effort could be easily misunderstood as an return to the classical approach, which is totally different in nature. Li Xiangqun has been dedicating to the experiments in contemporary art, but he was welcomed by the laymen and the public (most of the collectors in China) as a traditional artist. 
On the way came one of the most important representatives Li Xiangqun. His art sticks to an approach: With the sculpting skills, the passionate body was created. And with the structure shaped by classical and implicit techniques, attracted the audience to the obsession with subject matter and image. By taking one step further, any simple political meaning was undermined by self-denial and self-offset. Getting to the audience’s heart is a dangling “classics”, delivered to human sense via human body. The techniques once appeared in the late classicist period, when Roman sculptures removed and dismissed the divinity (meaning) of Greek sculpture, but only kept appreciating and gazing at the classic style. Such a loss was named as weakening classicism, but actually it represents human “nature” breaking through standards. It is difficult to understand how Roman sculptors look at their practice of removing the divinity but keeping the appearance of the classical Greek sculpture. But when abstract classic form was appreciated and used independently from the meaning by that time, the individual’s freedom was unshackled from time space and system, interest and rational comment, and got into the straightforward state of communicating with human being. The feeling could then be felt and perceived, but not expressed by words, so it ran through words defined by time and power, and flew among people without any limitation through time and culture to be “ever-lasting”. 
His art, therefore, cannot be simply categorized as the general contemporary art. But it creates a new possibility. This is his destiny and also his responsibility. There are many ways to extract, independently use academy classics, and to intervene into contemporary art. His extremely delicate and sensitive sculpting skills represent the exploration into the contemporaneity, which goes beyond the meaning and the present, the enormous restriction and repression over human beings. In China where the academy system is the only educational system, the activities in academies are necessary and meaningful. Now his art under discussion is not about the theoretic direction to be discussed, but the artistic achievements to be studied on after decades of creation. The study is not carried out temporarily for his solo exhibition in the Palace Museum, but to start the long-term research from different perspectives of the world civilization, to test and prove to what extent Li Xiangqun could be an “artist written in the art history”. 
There are already some studies on his experiments. Three experts from the International Society of Art History came to Beijing 4 years ago, and carried out studies on Li Xiangqun. After repeated investigations, discussions and visits to his exhibition and studio, they have made preliminary achievements, and built Li Xiangqun Art Archive in Peking University. 
Prof. Gehard Wolf, the President of Florence Art History Academy, mainly focused on the common point shared by Li Xiangqun’s art and the Renaissance art, i.e. both expressed the changes in the public concept and awareness by changing the portraits of the authoritative figures. The study discovered a perspective of contemporary portraits, i.e. it does not demonstrate all the features and background of the subject, as well as the special physical and psychological conditions. Instead, the artists created the figures beyond the visible appearance to express their own comments and opinions. Based on the understanding to portraits in the REnaissance period, especially to the carvings of the dead’s tomb, everything was not made for the people at that time, but for the people in the future. People in the future would never care what the subject looked like, but what he “could” look like today, or how people look at or comment on it in the sculptor’s time. This is an approach of academy art, an approach and technique to create the virtual reality of history. Historical figures processed in this way would surprise the audience, and make them unconsciously forget the subject itself. The technique was developed in the Renaissance, especially in sculpture. And this is the approach adopted by Li Xiangqun. 
Prof Frederick Asher, the President of the U.S. Society of Art History, studied on Li Xiangqun’s art through comparison to Indian sculpture. He targeted at the relationship between human body and the divinity. In India, there were once such experiments--combining the holy experience with the sexual passion. The sculptures thus demonstrate a kind of insolence and obsession, and visually freeze the transient consciousness. By shaping the body, the feeling brought about by human body was used to break the boring doctrines, and thus to produce the sense of transcendence after offsetting the antagonism and removing limitations. The sense of transcendence gave the artists a possibility: Liberating from the rigid meaning and content with the technique. In the process, the individual’s critical attitude to history was suddenly ignited, and human value was returned to human body. 
The third study was conducted by Peter Frieger, the Chairman of the Mexico Society of Art History at the time. He started from the comparative observation of Mexican art. The Mexican art has two meanings: One is that it was originated from the ancient Maya culture. They once mysteriously associated human life and blood with the tropical rainforest, sacrificed human life for fertile land and good harvest. Such sacrifice and dedication empower the “sculpture” and “building”, as well as the venue (which equals to the spatial installation perceived by contemporary art) with the function of directly telling the audience’s physical passion and psychological panic. After the function disappeared as the extinction of the Maya civilization, sculpture and building, as the modern “artwork”, the two subjects of exhibitions, are associated with human body and architecture. The ancient human body and the abandoned palace were integrated into a single sculpture, with the Palace Museum being highlighted as a political arena where human nature is sacrificed. Originally, Li Xiangqun’s art is absent from the theory in the relationship between man and building (human body and the Palace Museum). Prof. Krieger’s analysis made up and extended the vacancy. Also, Prof. Krieger further promoted his art to a new level in terms of imagery politics, which is the focus of his study on the methodology of Mexican contemporary art. Li Xiangqun never looks at a figure in a historically isolated manner, or as a realistic ornament, or as if standing on a square of entertainment. But he would puts it in a real political environment, where human body was suppressed by order and the fight against the suppression. Krieger combined the new studies with the analysis on Li Xiangqun’s art. 
The exhibition in the Palace Museum eventually showed the intensified struggle between human body and environment. The classic sculpting skills obtained in academy perfectly highlight the axis of the shining Jianfu Palace running through the courtyard which was not repaired and maintained. The historical figures are either grace or sentimental. The Palace Museum is a conserved power arena regulating and controlling human nature in ancient China. Doors after doors, enabled the implementation of contemporary art experiments, and lead to the treasury at the far end--the heaping clouds and snow. The Heaping Clouds and Snow is a symbol indicating his transformation from academy art to contemporary art. The two human bodies seemingly separated from the center of political powers, a piece of song dissolving the political cruelty, though they might have never existed, the spirits always linger there. The special regulations do not allow its display, so the exhibited is only an unimplemented plan, just as a blank in the sky. As the president of the Palace Museum said, it is still too cold? 
To continue studying on Li Xiangqun’s art, we may continue to ask a question: How does the art academies in China transform? How to go into contemporary time? How to become a key base gathering pioneers and cultural creations? Li Xiangqun’s transformation in art is not only a personal contribution, but also a potential leap forward. The change in the relationship between contemporary art and academy art is only a phenomenon, behind which there is a bigger issue, i.e. what kind of students shall art academies, where the art talents are supposedly trained and cultivated, produce for the country, the nation and the coming era of image and information? What kind of teaching is proper? What social role should they assume? 

Zhu Qingsheng
Nov. 11th, 2016