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In this course, we have looked at 16 socially engaged art projects created in China over the past two decades. They occurred in many different parts of China and took many different forms, but they shared a common set of values. They all addressed real and pressing social issues, and aimed to effect social change. They all moved away from the idea of artist-as-genius and celebrated collaboration and participation. I hope you have enjoyed this course, and have gained a good understanding of socially engaged art, a vibrant field in contemporary art, and a good understanding of contemporary China.
The main issues addressed by
these socially engaged art projects include: our relationship to land, water, and other beings; social justice, for migrant workers, and for queer citizens; the preservation of history and collective memory; and the rebuilding of social life in local communities. These issues are not particular to China; you probably encounter them in your country or region. But they might be more salient in China because of China’s modern political trajectories and its role in global capitalism today. For example, the magnitude of the migrant worker phenomenon is unprecedented in history.
The forms of socially engaged art created by Chinese artists range from knowledge production to antagonistic action. They materialize as visual archives, pedagogical workshops, awareness-raising campaigns, and critical performances. As we have seen throughout this course,
performance is central to socially engaged art: the New Worker Art Troupe singing on construction sites, Grass Stage actors restaging assembly-line movements, residents of Tongyuanju dancing in front of a tropical beach photograph, and queer activists taking wedding photos in Qianmen. Performance of one kind or another is present in almost every project we discussed in this course. Through performance, difficult issues are raised, relationships are built, and alternative futures are imagined.
Because social movements are almost non-existent in China, Chinese artists cannot embed socially engaged art inside social movements. Having no movement infrastructure to rely on, they have to create something akin to mini movements on their own. This requires enormous efforts.
Different artists have invented different strategies: some, like Wang Jiuliang and Wang Haichuan, spent years on a single project in order to reach certain scale for the project to be impactful; some, like Xiong Wenyun and Xu Bing, repeated the same idea multiple times, scaling it up each time. The most common strategy though is to create a platform and invite others – artists or not – to collaborate. We see this most clearly in “Keepers of the Waters,” “Everyone’s East Lake,” “SSRD,” and “Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society.” The artists acted as producers, not just authors.
Being a socially engaged artist in China is not easy. There is very little support from the state or the market. Ideas like rights and liberty are not firmly established in citizens’ consciousness. It requires courage, tenacity, and resourcefulness to be a socially engaged artist in China. On the other hand, China also offers some advantages. Education is highly appreciated. This is perhaps why many socially engaged projects are framed as pedagogical. And a sense of radical equality, cultivated by the communist revolution, still lingers in the social imaginary of many people, particularly those born before the market reform era.
Furthermore, the modernist trope of “art for art’s sake” is not as entrenched in China as in the West. For most part of the twentieth century, art was intimately linked to China’s social and political struggles. As Professor Tang Xiaobing articulates in his book, Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde, the woodcut movement in the 1930s succeeded in defining the goal of avant-garde art not merely as inventing new forms but more importantly as saving the nation. In this sense, contemporary socially engaged art can be seen as a revival of this tradition of committed art.
Younger artists, born after the socialist period, come to socially engaged art because they start to sense many shortcomings of a society that prioritizes individual greed over collective wellbeing. Compared to artists born in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, whose practice is often issue-driven – for example, ecology for Xu Bing, global capitalism for Zhao Chuan – younger artists, born in the 1980s and after, have shown a stronger interest in local communities, places where they grew up or are currently living. As we have seen this week, both “Nanting Research” and “Dinghaiqiao” are site-specific, instead of issue-specific. In fact, multiple issues are being addressed in a single site.
The younger artists are more interested in thinking about national or global issues through rooted practices in their local communities, and more are concerned about building teams, structures, and sustainable practices, rather than transient performances.
It must be clear to you by now that socially engaged art is a multidisciplinary practice.
Socially engaged artists need multiple skills: critical skills to analyze social issues; visual skills like drawing, photography, and performance; and social skills like listening, dialoguing, and organizing. I hope the case studies in this course have made you both comfortable with and excited about socially engaged art. Like other forms of art, socially engaged art requires practice. Why not start with something that you really care about in your community, and try to approach it as an artist?

In this video, Dr. Zheng summarizes this short course. He also discusses how Chinese socially engaged art differs from Western practices, how younger artists in China are approaching socially engaged art differently from the older generation.

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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