Qiu Deshu’s Empty No. 1 (1982).

HONG KONG - If you, like me, love the thrill of collecting works by emerging artists – relying on your own personal taste, intuition and awareness of art and cultural history without much guidance from critical discourses and market forces – haven’t you often wondered how these artists would develop and be recognized or forgotten by history?

Here is a rare opportunity to look at China’s art scene before the birth of the so-called avant-garde movements and see what the artists from that era turned out to be. Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985, on view at the Asia Society Hong Kong, makes a powerful statement about China at the cusp of major experimental artistic movements, with young artists struggling to find their footing in an environ that still prioritized political dictates over artistic independence.

The author with curators Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, in front of Qiu Deshu’s Crack_6-11 (2011).

Emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), these artists stood up against the prevalent ideology that art must serve the state. For them, non-political art was in itself a strong political statement. Many of these artists forged their varying degrees of allegiance after making each other’s acquaintance in the propaganda classes at Workers Cultural Palaces. The Asia Society show focuses on three groups: Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Stars) and Caocao (Grass Society). 

Ma Kelu’s Snow at Wumen Gate (1974).

The members of the Wuming Group, mostly born into families considered the “enemies of the Chinese Communist projects”, started painting clandestinely together in and around Beijing in 1972, when such group identity and gatherings were illegal during the repressive late years of the Cultural Revolution. As represented by works by Ma Kelu (b. 1954) and Wang Aihe (b. 1953), they were mainly interested in representations of nature; trees and landscape offered an alternative, non-dogmatic motif away from the revolutionary grandeur of figure paintings and helped “fashion an alternative subjectivity for the artist, outside the processes of institutional subject formation.”  

Wang Aihe’s Moonlight Night (1974).

The Xingxing Group broke out in 1979 with an exhibition that has become one of the seminal events in the history of contemporary Chinese art. Associated with a larger literary and cultural movement in the post-Cultural Revolution transition, the group’s prominent members such as Wang Keping (b. 1949), Huang Rui (b. 1952) and Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) explored historically Western modes of Modernism, Surrealism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Wang Keping, for instance, used found wood blocks to carve out grotesque-looking, often deformed, figureheads, such as the mouth-gagged, one-eyed man in Silence (1980) and a cartoonistic critique of idolatry in the Mao-turned-Buddha Idol (1979).

Installation view of Wang Keping’s Idol, wood (1979) and Silence (1980).

The Caocao Group was formed in Shanghai in the fall of 1979, but was shut down by the government immediately upon the launch of its first and only exhibition in 1980. Trained in ink and color on paper, the group’s members took upon themselves to shatter the dual burdens of Socialist Realism and classical Chinese painting tradition by turning to new forms of abstract ink painting. Despite the demise of the Caocao Group, Qiu Deshu (b. 1948) experimented with abstract painting and calligraphy, calling the sighting of works by Jackson Pollack at a 1981 exhibition of American art in Shanghai an illuminating moment in his searching artistic endeavor.

An exterior view of the Asia Society Hong Kong, with a serene Buddha’s head surrounded by dramatic skyscrapers.

Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, co-curators of this exhibition, told me that most of the works included in the show are still in artists’ own possession. Not sought-after commodities, they had been overlooked along with this brief transitional period. Although some of the works from this early period showed a painful search for artistic identities and individual visual languages, they were not lacking artistic ambition or promises. Years later, siblings Zheng Ziyan (b. 1951) and Zheng Zigang (1953-2012) turned their energy to design and art administration, while artists such as Wang Keping, Ai Weiwei and Qiu Deshu have made waves with their expanding projects.

Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985

Asia Society Hong Kong

9 Justice Drive

Admiralty, Hong Kong

May 15 – September 1, 2013

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China.