Contemporary Chinese Art
ZHdK’s first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) launched in 2016 on the e-learning platform iversity.org. “Chinese Contemporary Art Award — A Case Study on Global Culture” sheds light on the issue of “ global culture” by tracing the development of contemporary Chinese art. Michael Schindhelm, head of the English speaking programme, offers insights into course contents and explains why China is an exciting example worth studying more closely.
BY ANDREA ZELLER
Andrea Zeller: What do participants learn on the online course “Chinese Contemporary Art Award — A Case Study on Global Culture”?
Michael Schindhelm: Coursework offers what is probably a unique survey of the developments in contemporary Chinese art since its emergence in the 1970s. The course is based on access to the collection of the Swiss entrepreneur, art collector, and patron Uli Sigg, who has built the most significant collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world. Sigg’s experiences and his encounters with over a thousand artists make him a unique expert on the scene. Many artists owe their international acclaim to Sigg. Ai Weiwei once said about Sigg: “No matter how famous I will become, he is my maker.”
The course has grown from close cooperation with art historians from ZHdK’s Institute for Contemporary Art Research, with international curators like Pi Li, Li Zhenhua and Lars Nittve, and with Uli Sigg and curator Kathleen Bühler from Bern Art Museum.
Why take the “Chinese Contemporary Art Award” as a case study?
The award — known as CCAA — was established in 1998 by Uli Sigg to provide insights into the Chinese art scene. At the time, there were no galleries or media reports, nor did a market for contemporary art exist in China. When the award was announced, more and more artists contacted Sigg. This provided him with exclusive information about their work and outlook. Over the years, he has developed a vastly ramified network, which also includes international museums, biennales, and curators.
Given its relevance, the CCAA offers broad insights into the brief history of contemporary art in China. This is certainly not the only way of reading this history, but doubtless an especially significant one.
How far does the development of contemporary art in China enable one to draw conclusions about global culture?
Global culture is culture that has broken away from the moorings of local circumstances, traditions, and techniques and thus meets the requirements for worldwide reception. Now, this doesn’t mean that the contents, forms, techniques, and messages of global art are understood in exactly the same way across the world. No, they are simply considered relevant and interesting in different places.
We self-evidently assume that Western art is global art. But we wouldn’t claim the same about African or Islamic art, for instance. Due to its forms of expression, history, themes, and positions, Chinese art was at first also understood as a national or regional phenomenon. After a development spanning three decades, we are now witnessing a transformation. A new generation of artists and an international audience better schooled in Chinese culture are now beginning to consider this art part of global culture. The most paradigmatic aspect of this case is that as globalisation evolves the art world is less and less nationally but more and more globally oriented. China is now also moving down this path.
Is the course also suitable for people interested in international contemporary art but not necessarily in Chinese art?
Anyone interested in the expansion of art beyond its established confines should also take an interest in developments in China. Today, the world economy and world politics are inconceivable without the Middle Kingdom. So it’s really worth studying Chinese art if one wants to better understand international developments in art.
You are the course director. What are your connections with China and contemporary Chinese art?
I have been involved with China professionally for the past fifteen years. I have worked with Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei, Feng Mengbo, Zhao Bandi, or Cai Fei. Whereas Western discourse seemed to be revolving around itself until recently, I have the feeling that existential issues are at stake in China. The almost old-fashioned belief that the artist can change society is palpable across the generations. Having spent the first thirty years of my life in Eastern Germany and the Soviet Union, this belief strikes a familiar chord in me.
At the same time, though, I am not a professional curator, but a curious amateur. My aim is to make things possible and to bring people together.