Chinese Memory.

“Not having any memory is, for a nation, a form of spiritual suicide”, wrote the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. At a time when the Chinese government still refuses to recognize the seriousness of the Tiananmen Square massacre against the students which occured June 4, 1989 , many artists choose to position themselves as witnesses, librarians or archivists, to revive the memory and witness to China’s History. It’s generally a whole part of History that is truncated or altered, blurring people’s relationship to History and furthermore, to their own identity.

The issue is mainly handled by the more politically engaged artists of the 60s generation, but the theme is found in the work of some younger artists like Gao Shiqiang (b.1971) whose videos somehow trace the last hundred years of Chinese history. For the artist, it is essential to fight against oblivion. China is developing so fast that people tend to only look forward. They are so busy that they don’t stop and think or ask: Who am I? Gao Shiqiang thinks people lose their ability to think in a reflexive space, and become creatures guided only by money and gain. For the artist this is a ”ahistorical” process of alienation and the loss of the sense of history is strongly felt not only by artists but also by all those born in the 70s and during the Cultural Revolution. He’s trying to position himself in a specific mental spacei.e. to report the history that shaped his childhood. In a way, history has left deep marks on his life and personality, and the artist uses himself as a tool to understand the social reality of contemporary China. Although it never actually appears in the work, the subject of his video Great Bridge (2007) is the famous Nanjing Bridge over the Yangtze River, which opened in 1968. The artist filmed another bridge and another river, the first iron bridge built in China over the Qiantang River, now in ruins. It is a symbol of the completion of the “old society” while the Nanjing Bridge represented the “new society.” Both are old, outdated and embody the great stories of Chinese history, which they have been sterile witnesses to. The black and white video lasts about half an hour and is close to an actual movie. The artist shows ordinary people whose lives evolve around the bridge, despite being obsessed with this symbol that dominates them and whisper his name softly as in a dream, an obsession or a residue in their memory: ‘Daqiao’, ‘Big Bridge’. Generally, Gao Shiqiang is trying to put major political symbols of modern China’s history down in everyday situations, real and almost down-to-earth.
All his work constantly moves from an everyday and trivial level to a transcendent dimension, close to the sublime. A violent conflict between human aspiration and reality is thus expressed.

The question of history is also handled by younger artists like Hu Yun (b.1986) who works on retracing China’s history as seen by the 19th century Western anthropologists and explorers.
In 2010 the artist spent four months in London, as part of a residence, to revisit the Natural History Museum collection, comparing it with contemporary art practices. Hu was particularly interested in the John Reeves’ collection, which is bringing together hundreds of illustrations reporting an early 19th century expedition to China. From his expeditions, this East India Company tea inspector brought back many flora and fauna watercolors from the region of Guangzhou. As a European he had to remain in port and had no right to enter the Chinese territory, so he made anonymous local artists work for him. Hu, who works a lot with watercolors, was inspired by these works and by the history of that time, to create more original works: his drawings in colored pencils are made in the manner of botanists of the time, but represent objects which the contemporary artist meets in his daily life  (carpets, tomatoes, carriages, etc.).
This work was very new and crucial to him because this is the first time he works from a collection. It was particularly interesting to study how the works were exhibited. According to him, the many museums in China are not showing the collections in the same way, always bringing an implicit political dimension and the idea that there is a good and unique way of looking at works. It is more difficult to undertake research in China because many records are unavailable to the public.
Through the eyes of Reeves and the British at the time, Hu discovered a new face of China and a new perspective for understanding the history of his country. History is actually studied at school, but in a very one-sided way, the official version never being  questioned. Finally, everything he knows, he didn’t learn in the classroom but in doing research and reading by himself.
For Hu, the artist is precisely a researcher, an intellectual whose role is to help enable everyone to think freely so that everyone can independently make up their own idea of ​​the story. In this way he feels responsible to society and contributes to its evolution.
There are no images related to this work because Hu Yun made a gift of his work to the London Natural History Museum, where it anonymously joined the Reeves watercolors collection, like the others.

The artist doesn’t create anymore, he sorts and documents. In a chaotic and overloaded world he tries to bring back some sense, to weave back scattered links and rebuild a language. From this point of view, we can say that Hu is heir to artists such as Zhang Dali (b.1963), a long time agitator and sometimes archivist , Yang Zhichao (b.1963) or Chen Shaoxiong (b. 1962) offering his vision of 100 years of China’s history in his video Ink History. This series of 150 ink drawings is showing the country’s highlights, as many pages witnessing China has made sometimes radical turns since the fall of the Empire in 1911. Made from photographs, they show the need for a reclaiming and an overall articulation of the national history. According to the artist, what we call historical facts are elements written in the books and this vision is partial: there are many other fragments, and other historical truths, that we cannot see or bring back to mind. For him, the memory is silent and doesn’t need to speak. He wanted to put the images in the foreground to give a new look at history. He chose the ink because this medium was the most obvious for his everyday work.
He draws almost every day using black ink.
It’s not about preserving a tradition, but rather to discover new possibilities of expression in seeking to apply these techniques to contemporary language. The Cultural Revolution having destroyed everything cultural in society, he grew up in an environment of ruins. However, some books were saved and thus he learned to draw by copying the sketches of a Russian publisher.

For his part, Yang Zhichao (b. 1963) has never ceased to document his life, and through his own life, that of Chinese citizens. In particular, in a very strong work, the artist put together nearly 300 diaries together that were written in China between 1949 and 1999. This masterful and moving installation, Chinese Bible, brings these small notebooks he sought for more than three years throughout the flea markets across the country, and that he has then carefully cleaned.
These books, often abandoned by their children authors, all look strangely similar: small size and red or blue cover, but the interior illustrations are actually quite different. They include 50 years of China’s history and are very varied: some contain notes to learn a language, others contain scientific statements or observation on how to raise a baby. But all are politically correct and not very intimate. There are confessions like, “I am ashamed to have gone to school today instead of being at the meeting of the party” or urges such as “let’s go and kill all the sparrows!” in response to the Great Leap Forward. Citizens of the time seem so conditioned by ideology that they are unable to express any criticism towards the system, even in these supposed intimate books. Is it self-censorship? Would more critical diaries have been burned? Nevertheless it is interesting to note the pervasiveness of politics in the daily life of Chinese at that time.
For the artist, these books represent a chance to look at history from a new perspective and urge the public to open the books and go through.
Today, very few Chinese people have seen his work as it has not been exhibited in China, but it would be interesting to know how the audience would react to these notebooks that could be theirs. The artist would very much like to meet the authors and this quest is part of the current project.

Chinese Bible installation is currently exhibited by 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in their space in Mei Wan Chai in Hong Kong.

Caroline Ha Thuc.

__________________________
-Gao Shiqiang
Great Bridge, 2007
Courtesy of the artist.

-Hu Yun
A Piece of Land, 2009
drawing on paper
Courtesy of the artist

-Chen Shaoxiong
Ink History
Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts

-Yang Zhichao
Chinese Bible 1949-2009
installation
Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery