The Background

Art in Smog revisits, after 25 years, three very interesting Beijing artists who were the main characters in Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China, shot in Beijing in 1991.

The earlier documentary told how the artists grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, became inspired by the flood of foreign books suddenly available in the 1980s, and sought a “modern” life where their individual, internal visions would define their art. This individualism made them “avant-garde” in view of Chinese tradition and socialist ideals. The avant-garde art movement culminated in a sensational exhibit in Beijing in early 1989, but in 1991 the art scene had been dampened by the shock of the Tiananmen Square suppression. Deng Xiaoping had not yet formulated his 1992 decision to forge ahead with economic development. The artists were quietly pursuing their art, not knowing what to expect for the future.

Now, two decades later, Beijing has become a megalopolis with idiosyncratic skyscrapers overhead, automobiles densely jammed on every ring road, incredible wealth for the well-connected, floods of information on social media and the Internet, the world’s business on the doorstep, and minimal interference from the state on art, especially if it drives the economy. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but how does that mesh with the artistic soul?

Printmaker Su Xinping in 1991

Su Xinping was a young lecturer in 1991 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), producing exquisite black-and-white lithographs inspired by scenes from his native Inner Mongolia. His early prints evoked loneliness, hope, illusion, terror, and fatigue. Since then, he has become tremendously successful on the international art market—with works sold by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams—and has also risen in the academy to become vice-president of CAFA. He is now in charge of shaping the education of China’s next generation of elite artists. What have his works evoked over the past two decades? Has wealth and fame changed him? What is his vision for the next generation of artists? Is his interior world still his key inspiration? How does he handle his busy official position? What can we learn from him about art, bureaucracy, and survival?

Painter Xia Xiaowan in 1991

Xia Xiaowan was a pony-tailed, academy-trained painter in 1991, comfortably employed at the Central Academy of Drama. He enjoyed visiting with friends and creating Goya-inspired oil paintings of the human condition: a giant eerily floating in a cavern, an elongated youth leaving behind his house-shaped mother. He was one of eight students admitted to the first class in oil painting at CAFA in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution. Over the years, his work has steadily focused on the human figure and faces, finding meaning in deeply worked forms and unconventional perspectives. Xia Xiaowan has also become enormously successful on the international art market, especially since he began producing sequences of painted glass sheets aligned in layers to convey three-dimensional forms, like a CAT scan. His 3D glass paintings reveal contorted human figures, iconic heads, and traditional Chinese landscapes. Has he packaged his art for the market? How has he navigated his life, with what priorities? He has received a green card to the United States and bought a home in Los Angeles, although he speaks no English. Why? What does he aspire to in his art now? His experiences and his art will reflect serious issues for accomplished Chinese professionals today.

Vagabond artists Mushi and Heiyang in 1991

Mushi, a “vagabond artist,” joined the modern art movement in Chongqing, Sichuan as a teenager. He came to Beijing illegally in 1990, with his friend Heiyang, and they formed a painting duo named “Blue Belly.” They promoted modern art and followed their passions by living a liberated life as unofficial artists. They did not have the benefits of an academy pedigree, Beijing residency, or high-level connections. Mushi eventually  returned to Chongqing and became a businessman, selling antiques and offering advice to the newly wealthy on how to be cultured. Finally, he can paint without worrying about finances. What are his hopes and dreams now?

Art in Smog is the story of Xia Xiaowan, Su Xinping, and Mushi as their careers and personal visions have developed through China’s rapid growth, on different paths. It is also the story of individual personalities maturing over time.

In addition to the three main characters from 1991, we meet Xia’s wife Chen Hui, a talented painter who strives in her husband’s shadow, and Cui Cancan, a young man who has risen, these 25 years, from being a rural child to being an insightful international curator.

Beijing has been changing so fast, in physical infrastructure, lifestyle, and social values. It will probably change tremendously in the next 25 years as well, and toward what? We will want to look back to see how people were navigating, responding, and contributing to China’s transition. The lives and works of artists provide a visually rich, humanistic glimpse of people in a changing world.