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Exhibition Tour | Wen Pulin: 1980s - from Concept to Action

1980s - from Concept to Action

Essay | Wen Pulin

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art
The 1980s flew by in a rush, in the fashion of a rapidly beating heart.
Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

The great discussions on the criteria of truth ushered in a top-down ideological emancipation. In its wake, the Chinese mind that had been shackled for years was suddenly liberated, Western ideas poured in and traditional culture began to recover. This new more active and independent thinking brought about enormous ideological changes, which in turn directly fuelled new actions.  

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

In 1986 on a cold December day, the members of Concept 21 gathered in Beijing University to make their debut – all completely naked. “Concept 21 doesn’t give a damn about the consequences” they told the bewildered audience. “Concept 21’s Action Art” was the title of a media report.

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

“Conceptual action for the 21st century” became the group’s guiding logic. 

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

There were plenty of conceptual art works at the China Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989, but it was more intermittent radical actions that drew Chinese modern art towards an international stage.     

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

On the Tomb Sweeping Day in 1987, I led a crew to the monument of the Tangshan earthquake to shoot a memorial ceremony for the victims of the earthquake, with Zhang Mingwei acting as the director of the event. This also marked the beginning of the documentary film The Great Earthquake. 

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

To some extent, these artists, like Shaman sorcerers, were capable of foreseeing that, what had been dormant in the universe was to be awoken, so they started one step ahead. In an age of great social transformation the influence that artists could have was rather limited, but they were undoubtedly vanguards. Of course, they soon found that my documentation of “The Great Earthquake”, taking place within the domain of art, was to foreshadow an earthquake in the real sense of the word.  

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

In October 1988 - utilizing the name and motivations of The Great Earthquake crew - we organized Bandaging the Great Wall, an action premised on “bidding farewell to the 20th century”. The rock and roll music on the Great Wall that night became a coming-of-age ceremony for the youths that were present and some even called it the “Chinese Woodstock”. 

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

The ’85 New Wave can justifiably be called an artistic and cultural “movement”. Art groups formed across the country, they focused on making their voices heard, and by enacting art actions with tropes such as bandaging, they began to make their way into public spaces. The artists, desperately longing to break free and sometimes revealing their wounds and scars, could not wait to embrace the future.  

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

The Fine Arts in China newspaper was considered the centerpiece of the avant-garde art movement during this period. It was thought of as the standard bearer for new artistic trends, inside its pages were remedies and advice in the form of words and images focusing on: Dadaism, Expressionism, Modernism, Postmodernism, all kinds of isms, ideas, concepts… 

Wrapping the Great Wall, 1988, Image from the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

Looking back, we remember that decade as “an age of idealism, dynamic youthfulness and open mindedness”.