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“The Phoenix Years” and the Rise of Chinese Contemporary Art

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Madeleine O’Dea, author of recently released book, “The Phoenix Years,” held a small gathering in Krieger Hall at UCI as part of her international book tour on Oct. 30.

Moderated by East Asian culture and history professor, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a handful of students and alumni came for the presentation and talk on Chinese contemporary art and artists.

Wasserstrom explained the purpose of the talk was to expand the general understanding of Chinese contemporary art. He noted that the general misconception is that Chinese art is dominated by only several artists but is in fact composed of many.

O’Dea’s book, which follows the stories and lives of prominent Chinese contemporary artists starting from the 1980s to the present, simultaneously documents the radical changes China has undergone in just several decades and the effects of those changes on its citizens.

She described the 1980s as “a time of wonder and openness… The doors were opening and Western modernism was slowly beginning to trickle into China.”

“I always say, if you think about China in the 80s, it was like America in the 60s; just the excitement and sense of revolution was happening in China,” she said, explaining the changing state of China as well as the newfound sense of freedom the nation experienced. This sense of freedom lead to an explosion in experimental new schools of thought amongst university students.

However, she noted that the freedom would come to an abrupt end with the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. The government’s decision to turn its military and tanks on its own students would leave a dark mark in its history and traumatize many young university students of the time.

O’Dea, speaking on the protest’s impact on art said, “The terrible incident lead to a disillusionment of the citizens and the boom of contemporary art and artists… Chinese curators created the term ‘cynical realism’ to describe much of the art that came in reaction to the incident.”

“In much of the art, there’s a sense of tragedy and sadness inherited over generations, an inescapability.”

O’Dea noted that in many ways, art became an avenue of protest, which lead to an uneasy relationship between the government and artists, many of whom has to leave the country due to harassment.

“The most influential and popular figures in current Chinese contemporary art are those who managed to stay within the country; it’s those who found a way to sort of hide that became the biggest players later on,” she said.

For the presentation, O’Dea compiled a slideshow of art from the artists she followed as well as read excerpts from her book. She started the talk by showing a picture of revolutionists called “The Stars” from a demonstration  on Oct. 1, 1979, some of the pioneers of Chinese contemporary art and advocates for the end of a closed communist China.

“The birth of contemporary art is what many now know as the birth of open China,” she said.

O’Dea’s own introduction to the country occurred in the mid-1980s, when she travelled as a financial journalist to report on the boom of economic activity in the country.

“I had the great opportunity to travel to China at such an exciting time… the mid-1980s was probably the most open China ever was and is, even to today.”

The session concluded with a question-and-answer period in which students asked O’Dea to explain and talk about specific pieces she showcased. During this period she noted that some artists showcase different pieces inside and outside of China in order to avoid trouble with the government and censorship laws.

“China has gone through cycles of closing and opening but it seems after the 2009 Olympics, we’ve been in a period of continual tightening…Artists try to bypass that by putting their art online… they want their countrymen to see their art and so there are things that get through.”