From the slogan “A Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend” in 1956, to the Four Modernizations” in 1975 and to the “The Eight Honors and the Eight Shames” in 2006, Chinese culture has had a penchant for pairing numeration with big concepts. In this spirit, haphazard proudly presents “99 Days of China,” by artist Gao Yuan, a diaristic collection of daily ink paintings addressing the social, economic and cultural tensions of China today.
When the Cultural Revolution ended and China opened its doors to the west in the late 1970’s, a flood of different artistic styles entered. This marked the beginning of a new Chinese art, one identified by the increasing influence of western sources. From then till now, China contemporary art has oscillated between varieties of tradition and avant-garde on the one hand and between idealism or cynicism toward China’s official ideology on the other. Gua Yuan’s “99 Days of China” participates in this discourse and extends it further. Through satire, humor, and fantasy, “99 days” situates present-day China and it citizens in what is their new psychological landscape in modernization. The year is 2015. And for the many Chinese living in big cities, gone are the days of hunger and hardship; and in comes progress and with it the tumultuous and boiling consequences of a new era. From the outcry to limit “weird” architecture to the reality TV show “bling” dynasty, a new culture-war rages, setting private desires and expectations fueled by an ever-expanding capitalism against the collective pull of traditional Chinese values.
Progress continues to bulldoze the past, many urban Chinese find themselves credulous in this new land of follies. Feeling under threat from China as it does, there is no shortage of criticism coming from the west, sometimes expressed in headlines mocking the vulgar “tuhao,” which loosely translates to “nouveau riche,” who function as a convenient sign of moral decline. By contrast, “99 Days” offers stories of ordinary individuals struggling in these new settings where values collide. In this they are perhaps like Mo Yan’s novels of social observation or the wicked satires of Lu Xuan before that. Each a unique tale, these images depict the commoners face to face with the new China. Gao’s pictures, using a visual vocabulary and painting sensibility that is undeniably Chinese, are disastrous and hideous rendering of mankind. The apparent lack of subtlety in this artist’s condemnations and parodies may trouble some viewers, for the protagonists in these hyperbolic scenes exhibit little sense of remorse or embarrassment. Here however, outrage trumps subtlety, winning humor in the bargain.