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Rauschenberg's Cultural Jet-lag

陈溪 Cecilia Chan 2016-09-30 09:19

In the 1980s, in a selection of Robert Rauschenberg's colour photographs titled Study for Chinese Summer Hall, the painter vividly documented how China was like at that period of time with a Hasselblad camera. In 1982, he dived into AnHui province's Jing county - a little-known small town, to witness the craftsmanship of rice paper making and seek opportunity for cooperation. The local government prepared an exhibition for the Rauschenberg group for communication "purpose" but forbid them from going into any rice paper manufacturing factory to prevent the "secret" from leaking out. Rauschenberg had to convey his own ideas to paper workers mixing the rice paper, silk, and fragmentation of folk images together in the pulp. With their help, Rauschenberg finished the art piece titled 7 Characters which is a set of 70 collage of artwork. 


In November of 1985, "Rauschenberg's International Tour" was exhibited in Beijing National Museum (now National Art Museum of China). It exhibited 47 art pieces encompassing paint, cloth, photographs, newspapers, and even specimens of animals. The impact of the show rippled through China's art world where it attracted an audience of over 300,000 people within three weeks of opening. For artists at that time, Rauschenberg's use of these unusual materials in art was simply unheard of. At the same time, this wind of freedom was very inspiring for the 1985 New Wave. Therefore, "Rauschenberg's International Show" could be considered one of the most influential exhibitions in China's contemporary art history.

1/4 Mile 

"All the categorizing are aimless… labeling objects is the same… we have to throw it to either this garbage bin or that garbage bin… this thing saves you from the threat of must knowing the essence of objects - you don't have to think about it," Rauschenberg once said. Because he hated the abstract art that was popular at that time, and he refused to label any forms of art, Rauschenberg was very much interested in the real life objects. In his creative world, anything could be his art material: newspaper, advertisement, trademark, film images, magazines, fast food, and cartoons. This way of gathering things together without grading is exactly one of the main characteristics of New Dada (Pop Art).



To Chinese at that time, the appearance of Rauschenberg was incidental but not to Rauschenberg himself: everything was part of a larger plan. After experiencing WWII and the Cold War, Rauschenberg likened himself to a journalist. Being a medium for communication and bridge for different cultures and races, he tried to solve problems with his art. From his huge art piece that he started in 1981, ¼ Mile, you can see his intention. In fact, this art piece shows his different styles through different periods as it took him 17 years to complete. Even in the whole painting history, this size was still quite rare. Even though this piece didn't really reach the length of a quarter mile, it realized Rauschenberg's wish in a different way. Through this piece, Rauschenberg included "travel souvenirs" from different regions: Chinese characters, flour bag printed with Mexican emblem, copper produced in Chile, and transferred images from photos of different places - like an eccentric photojournalist, he recorded the world. 


Sino-Trolley / ROCI CHINA

Cultural Jet-lag 

Under the opportunity given by history, the meeting of China and Rauschenberg was almost mysterious. Maybe the Japanese scholar Hiroko Ikegami's concept of "cultural time lag" explains the situation more aptly: in the 1980s, the Chinese art world was imitating Western art from 1900-1950. At that time, Chinese artists were trying to break through the realism tradition from the Soviet education system and actively seeking new ways of artistic expression. They were starving for new culture. On the other side, Rauschenberg, who held his exhibition for the first time in China, was an over 60 years old mainstream "art star" in the world of Western art. This high culture time lag was the reason for the strong reaction to Rauschenberg's exhibition. 


To this American artist who was curious to the veiled world, 1980s China was right on his "must-go path". His exhibition happened around the time of the 1985 New Wave. Rauschenberg's trip to China was denounced by the West as "cultural imperialism", but the "aggressiveness " in art practice accidentally met the "cultural heat" of 1985 New Wave in an irrepressible combustion. This hot and cold contrast highlights the "Culture Time Lag" under cultural isolation. 

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