1989 Avant-Garde Exhibition 前卫艺术展


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The 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition was a show put on at the National Art Gallery in Beijing at which more than three hundred works by almost one hundred avant-garde artists from all over China were displayed. Following a controversial performance piece by Xiao Lu and Tang Song, the show was closed down.



The exhibition "China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition" took place at the National Art Gallery in Beijing in February 1989.


The exhibition was organized by ten young art theorists, including Gao Minglu, Hou Hanru, Zhou Yan and Kong Chang'an, and highlighted work by artists Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and Wu Shanzhuan. All seven of these participants went abroad following the show's closure.[1]


The 1989 Avant-Garde exhibition is widely regarded as a seminal moment in the history of contemporary Chinese art.  With ongoing performance art and unprecedented installations, the environment was more chaotic than the museum's usual offerings. Zhang Peili recalls: "More than your typical art show, it really looked more like a farmer's market....What mattered that day wasn't the art, or the show itself. Everybody knew that we were making history. We were totally invested in our roles as actors on a stage where anybody could suddenly become a star." 

Inaugurated with fanfare at 9 a.m. on Feb. 5 in the China Art Gallery, the exhibition displayed some 300 pieces by 186 artists. The police shut down the show at around 3 p.m. the same day, after artists Tang Song and Xiao Lu opened fire on their own work, paradoxically titled "Dialogue". And yet, showing a degree of political flexibility, authorities allowed the exhibit to re-open, twice, before its scheduled closing date two weeks later. 

The historical import of the event, clearly perceived by the participants, did not just derive from the nature of the works on display but also from the association of such extreme art with that museum. The China Art Gallery--a Sinified socialist-style building managed by the Chinese Artists Association and, at the time, only a few steps from the Ministry of Culture--functions as China's national museum of modern art. For the first time ever, authorities were allowing a prominent exhibition that openly broke with the fundamental principles of artistic creation laid down since the beginning of the People's Republic. [2]


The exhibition assembled many of the artists who had been a significant driving force behind art in China since 1985. By allowing the artists and their works to cross the threshold of the most important official art hall in the country, the exhibition conferred on these artists a kind of officialdom. The show's alternate title, "No U-Turn" was reflected by the "No U-Turn" traffic signs hung as banners and emblazoned on floor mats.

Reality set in as the exhibition was shut down only a few hours after it opened when Xiao Lu and Tang Song performed their happening, "Two Gunshots Fired at the Installation, Dialogue" in which Xiao fired live gunshots at the glass on a telephone kiosk containing a photographic life-sized photographic image of Tang placed on the inside. Tang Song was detained and arrested and later that day Xiao Lu turned herself in to the Public Security authorities.[3]

Both were released after three days when it was discovered that the gun they had used was registered to a high ranking official and that they were also the daughter and son of two high ranking officials. (It is now recognized that this was also part of the overall Performance work.) The shooting incident resulted in the exhibition being closed twice and eventually forced Chinese avant-garde art back underground.  It became clear as a result of the closure of the show that the authorities remained highly sensitive to any art that was ideologically in opposition to its priorities, or anti-establishment in nature. Much as it had been when the Stars Exhibition was shut down in 1979.

China/Avant Garde heralded an end to a phase of development in modern art in China and eventually a final playing out of modern art of the 1980s. The year 1989, similar to that of 1979, was one of intellectual vigor and ferment in China, especially in the fields of art and theory.  In one respect, the shooting happening in the gallery was a precursor to later tensions in as much as it was an idealistic attempt to bring about structural and political reform.[4]

The first half of 1989 revealed a dogmatic backlash against idealism, both in art and society, which in turn formed the backdrop out of which Political Pop and Cynical Realism would emerge. Conceptual Performances included Huang Yongping's, "Towing the China National Art Gallery Away," of 1989. The sketch, shown at China/Avant Garde revealed a broken down pick-up truck situated in front of the National Art Gallery. The truck's tow ropes were to be tied to the front columns of the building and the truck would proceed to try to tow the building away. The plan illustrates the humor and irony of Huang's work and the community's frustration with officially sanctioned programming at the time.[5]



In her book, “Going Beyond the Limits: Chinese Avant-garde Art from 1979 to 2004,” Lu Hong recounted that the idea of a ‘national modern art exhibition’ was actually first conceived in 1986 at the “Grand Slide Show and Symposium on 1985 Trends of Young Artists” jointly conducted by Zhuhai Art Academy and China Fine Arts Daily. The art critic Gao Minglu organized the first exhibition-planning meeting in March of 1987, but the application for an exhibition stopped half way through the process because of the nation-wide campaign against the ‘bourgeois liberation.’ Not until October of 1988 did the preparatory committee for ‘Modern Art Exhibition of China’ come into being, and seven institutions including Fine Arts magazine, China Fine Arts Daily, were decided on as the sponsors to collect art works nationally, and to hold ‘Modern Art Exhibition of China’ at National Gallery of China in February of 1989, which was entitled “No U-Turn”. [6]

Art critic Yin Shuangxi, then editor of Fine Arts magazine, who was involved in the preparatory work, still remembers that event vividly. “My job was similar to that of an ‘office director,’ responsible for the specifics in organization and coordination. Then an office for exhibition was set up in the small red building where the Youth League Committee and the Students Union of the Fine Arts College were located. The job division went like this: Gao Minglu and Li Xianting were chief members of responsibility for the exhibition. Gao was in charge of the whole affair; Li was responsible for designing the layout of the exhibition hall; Fei Dawei dealt with foreign contacts; and Hou Hanru assumed the printing of exhibition handouts. The other critics involved were Fan Di’an, Tang Qingnian, Wang Mingxian, Zhou Yan and Kong Chang’an.[6]

As the first massive exhibition, it set several precedents: it was the first national exhibition accomplished via a planning mode; the first time art critics worked as a group to organize and discuss the works; the first time artists were charged fees for exhibited works – 100 yuan, or about $12, for each artist.” Strict examinations of the works had to be made before the show opened. On the eve of the exhibition, in February 1989, Gao Minglu says officials from the National Gallery and the Art Bureau of the Ministry of Culture were still meeting with the organizing committee, questioning and criticizing some of the exhibits. “Mao Zedong AO,” a provocative painting by Wang Guangyi, received the most attention, and it was barred from being shown until the artist supplied a written statement promising that his work was a rational analysis of the late Chairman.[6]


Xu Bing, "Book from the Sky" (1987-1989)
Xu Bing, "Book from the Sky" (1987-1989)

On February 5, 1989, ‘China/Avante-Garde” exhibition at the National Gallery opened after three months of intense preparation. It was the eve of Chinese New Year. The logo of the exhibition consisted of three massive posters printed with the ‘No U-Turn’ traffic symbol hanging in front of the entrance to the Gallery. Also, the carpets leading into the Gallery were colored black and all printed with that “No U Turn” symbol. In an after interview, Huang Zhuan said it represented the wish of artists that China’s reforms should go on forward, and not turn around or go backwards. [6]

At 9 AM that morning, exhibition planner Gao Minglu announced at the opening ceremony that “the first grand modern art exhibition of China organized by Chinese artists themselves is now open.” About 186 artists from around the country, including artists from Tibet and Inner Mongolia, exhibited 297 pieces of artwork in six exhibition halls on all three floors of the National Gallery. The avant-garde artists’ collective show included sections like, ‘exotic arts’ such as performance, installation, political pop art, rational painting and experimental wash and ink. Many of the works were provocative and dramatically different from the traditional aesthetics of realism, Cultural Revolutionary art or traditional ink and wash painting.[6]

Visitors swarming in through the eastern hall entrance on the first floor would suddenly feel the psychological impingement from the installation “Mass of Midnight,” by the Gao brothers. Against the black and red background, a huge Cross formed with over a hundred condoms filled with air created a massive air-filled object of strong sexual implication was hanging down from the ceiling; and there were also air-filled medical gloves tied in a bundle on the floor.[6]

“Some artists or artist teams with more articles were allocated small divisions of rooms, such as Gu Dexin, Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yongping and the like,” Zhang Peili recalls. “My painting ‘X?’, installation ‘Report about Case Hepatitis A’ created out of glass and rubber gloves, and some calligraphic works were all displayed together. The performance art pictures by ‘Xiamen Dada’ were also grouped in a small division. On the first floor there were also paintings and pictures by Gu Wenda, who had settled in New York for two years.”[6] 

The huge painting “All were Sinners before Our Arrival” by Qu Yuan was displayed in the middle hall on the second floor, above which hung Xu Bing’s “A Book from the Sky” installation. On the same floor were paintings by Wang Guangyi, Ding Fang, Ye Yongqing, Mao Xuhui, Liu Xiaodong, Fang Lijun and Geng Jianyi. Performance artist Zhang Nian, whose works failed to pass the examination, began to practice the performance art ‘floating egg’ on the second floor immediately after the opening ceremony. In the pictorial memorabilia, Zhang Nian sat on the floor with crossed legs; around him was a scattered straw mat and eggs; on his chest he attached a piece of white paper with the writing. “No theoretical debate during my floating egg performance, lest it troubles the next generation.” Two young visitors drew near him, as if asking about the significance of such absurd performance works, Zhang recalls.[6]

Singled out for display on the third floor were works of ‘pure art language’ categories, which featured abstract painting and experimental wash and ink painting. The installation work “√” by Wang Youshen and Yang Jun consisted of a 2X8 meter wooden board pasted full with human photos shot in the Wangfujing Boulevard, and a court ordered death notice with a large red ‘√’ square in the middle. Demanded by organizers after the opening, the ‘√’ symbol was covered, and the words in the notice were also sealed up with glue paper. Wang had recorded the visitors’ reactions to the work with a video camera. [6]


Performance art was first demonstrated to Chinese visitors during the 1989 “No U Turn” exhibition. Wu Shanzhuan was selling prawns on the spot, and was prohibited after questioning by police; Li Shan, in red clothes and trousers, was washing his feet in a basin filled with images of a person’s head. Like the ‘floating egg’ artist Zhang Nian, Wang Deren also failed to bring his works through the examination, but he managed to carry out his performance art by ‘throwing condoms into the air’ on the scene. The numerous exotic scenes staged at the exhibition shocked all the visitors and news media; its sensational effect soon reached across the Pacific Ocean. A review article about that exhibition appearing in Time magazine of the same year was directly titled “Eggs, Gunshots, and Condoms”.[6]

Xiao Lu fires at her installation "Dialogue"
Xiao Lu fires at her installation "Dialogue"
Xiao Lu’s shooting at her installation “Dialogue” was undoubtedly the most eye-catching incident among the kaleidoscopic performance arts. Demonstrated by a part of the video shot by Wenplin, around 11 a.m. on February 5, Xiao stood in front of her “Dialogue” installation, which was created out of two phone booths, and then she fired a revolver at it. In the crowd came a shout “Give it another shot!” by Tang Song. Then Xiao shot another bullet, which together with the first one left two holes of moderate size in the glass booth. The gunshot plot was beyond all planners, artists and visitors except Xiao and Tang. Chaos ensued in the Gallery, and it was only two hours after the opening. The police arrived in force, and arrested Tang as the gun shooter, while Xiao reported herself to the police at 5 PM in the afternoon. The exhibition was closed at 3 PM that afternoon, and the Gallery announced a 5-day closure in the name of the Spring Festival.[6]

The ‘gunshot’ incident soon made its way to various key foreign news media; many domestic ones, including People’s Daily, also followed the event. And two different voices rose from exhibition planners: one, representing most critics, favored clarification of the irrelevance of the incident to the sponsors and condemnation of the gunshot action, another, representing Li Xianting and some of the artists, persisted in a jointly-signed letter of appeal for release of Xiao and Tang.[6]

The exhibition was resumed five days later, but on February 14, Beijing Daily, Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau and National Gallery of China received simultaneously anonymous letters, threatening to set an explosive device in the exhibition hall if the exhibition were not closed immediately.  The exhibition was forced to close again for two days. The letters were later claimed to be performance art and the implementer remains a mystery of modern art history to this day. On February 17, the exhibition reopened, and it closed as scheduled two days later.[6]


The 1989 China/Avante-Garde exhibition was the first and only time when avant-garde artists appeared as a large group at the National Gallery, the country’s most important arts venue.[6]

After the exhibition, helped by art critic Gao Minglu, Song Wei, an individual businessman in Beijing who had contributed part of the fund for the exhibition, bought the works of over a dozen artists including Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing, Ding Fang, Mao Xuhui and Zhang Peili, at a price of 10,000 renminbi, or about $1,200 a piece.  Song, who later set up one of the country’s first private art galleries, has since disappeared and it is unclear whether the works he acquired survived.[6]

Also, many of the artists who appeared in the show later returned to their work units. Most of the exhibited works not claimed at the end of the show disappeared in the following years, and are now lost to history. Recently, however, more than 16 years after the exhibition closed, some of the works that were believed to have been lost have appeared unexpectedly in the auction market, particularly at the China Guardian Auctions this year, creating a sensation. The National Gallery exhibition works sold for a total of about $130,000 in the spring, and then perhaps as much as $700,000 in the recent auction, this November. To reclaim the copyright to his work “Philosophical Manuscripts,” the artist Liu Xiangdong sued the auction company in court, making the 1989 grand modern art exhibition again the focus of public opinion. 

The art critic Huang Zhuan has remarked: “The moment the Exhibition was over, another storm of passion swept the whole country. When that storm died down, it was already the 1990s. Then, the Exhibition was just like an answer to a curtain call. After the 1990s, the entire world had changed, changed to a time of pursuing material comforts and a time of consumption. And the previous avant-garde artists all scattered about: some went abroad; some changed their lines; some began to live in seclusion. It’s just like a dream, stopped abruptly. The modern art in the 1980s had disappeared almost overnight, without any trace.”[6]




  1. http://www.china-gallery.com/en/zhang/the_two.htm
  2. http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/99/0927/art.html
  3. http://www.chinese-art.com/volume2issue2/image100/feature/feature1.htm
  4. http://www.chinese-art.com/volume2issue2/image100/feature/feature1.htm
  5. http://www.chinese-art.com/volume2issue2/image100/feature/feature1.htm
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 http://www.artzinechina.com/display_vol_aid252_en.html
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