MA in the History of Art

(Re)Made in China: Appropriation, Subversion and Transformation in Chinese Art (1978-2008)

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Course Description

This MA Special Option examines the critical dimensions of artistic appropriation in Chinese art from the ‘open door’ economic reforms in 1978 to the present day. Moving beyond the reductive understanding of contemporary Chinese art as merely derivative of the Western canon, it focuses on key historical moments in which both Western as well as traditional Chinese aesthetic models have been adopted and adapted to serve various social, cultural, political and commercial agendas. We consider how acts of faking, borrowing and stealing have not only characterised the wider strategic transformations to China’s socio-economic, cultural and urban landscape over the last few decades, but have also been tactically employed by artists to subvert state restrictions on freedom of expression, information and assembly. One of the principle strands of investigation will be on the evolution of mass media, spectacle and the public sphere after the Cultural Revolution, looking at how grassroots forms of subversion such as shanzhai (piracy), egao (online parody) and liu mang zui (‘hooliganism’) might stimulate a radical reassessment of the appropriative paradigm in art historical discourse.

While our focus will primarily be on work (re)made in mainland China in response to specific social, political, urban and economic events over the last few decades, the wider geopolitical anxieties provoked by China’s seemingly inexorable rise as a 21st century superpower will also be considered in depth – particularly in relation to the institutional and commercial reception of non-Western art in today’s globalised and increasingly neoliberal art world. A further task will be to consider the degree to which current art historical debates on participation, collaboration, eco-aesthetics, post-internet art and artistic activism can be meaningfully brought to bear on different cultural and political contexts.

The course is structured on a series of in-depth case studies that put these ambivalent questions into focus. It borrows from a wide range of inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural theoretical frameworks and methodologies, in order to interrogate the ways in which theory exercises pressure on the artwork in question and vice versa, thereby exposing to critical scrutiny the changing discourse of art history itself in the global contemporary. Some of the mainland Chinese artists whose works we examine in detail are: Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Xu Zhen, Madein Company, Huang Yong Ping, Geng Jianyi, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Zhang Dali, Zhang Huan, Cao Fei, Wang Wei, Hu Xiangqian, He Xiangyu, Zhao Zhao, Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, Ma Qiusha, Li Liao, Xu Tan, Song Ta and Li Jinghu. While the focus is predominantly on mainland China, we will also look at comparative examples of artistic practice in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea to facilitate a nuanced understanding of Pan-Asian artistic exchange and conflict in the modern and contemporary period. The course typically includes a group study visit to East Asia, funding permitting.

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements. Knowledge of Chinese or another East Asian language will be an advantage, but not a requirement.