Art at the Edge10 min read

Renée Reynolds reviews The Phoenix Years

On a sunny early September afternoon in 2014, I arrived at the steps of a spired building on Nanjing West Road in central Shanghai. First known as The Sino-Soviet Friendship Building and since renamed the Shanghai Exhibition Centre, the grand hall was set to host a highly anticipated (and sold-out) International Photography Exhibit – and a friend who was “Almost there!” had tickets.

Waiting alone on the Stalin-era steps, I was beginning to wonder if I was in the right place. Where were the people?

It was the Year of the Horse, the last of my nearly eight years in China, and the first year of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s presidential term.

This September day in 2014 also marked three months since the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square – a day that the PRC leadership strictly forbids commemorating.

Expression in China on June 4, 2014 was met with an especially thorough crackdown that significantly included social media. Along with the blocking of the candle emoji and even the word “candle,” any references to the date were also blocked, such as “1-9-8-9,” “six-four” and “May 35” – a list that grew to at least 264 terms by 2016.

My Chinese friends had told me that for the 20th anniversary in 2009, it had been easy to slip the word “today” by the censors, and if it was posted during those 24 hours, Weibo would write the date for you. By 2014, the censors had caught on. At the time, it struck me as oddly excessive that such a ubiquitous word would be blocked. I’d yet to learn about the deeper cultural significance of posting the word “today” each June 4 in China.

“I hope it’s still on,” my friend said after arriving, also noting the lack of people. We climbed the steps and paused at the banner: “Photo Shanghai 2014: World-class exhibitions in partnership with international curators.”

At the far end of the foyer, a lone, nervous ticket taker welcomed us. She inspected our tickets closely and explained that there were no programs, but more should be coming from the printer – maybe tomorrow. The ticket taker apologized profusely, saying, “I hope you can enjoy the show anyway.” We assured her it was quite alright and went into the empty, echoing halls, toward the photographs.

We had wandered to opposite corners when my friend spotted someone she knew. Soon, they were speaking excitedly, looking around and hushing themselves – a guard looking on, cameras in every corner. Finally, my friend waved me over. The friend of my friend was a gallerist with pieces in the show, and so had the inside scoop on why the exhibit was so empty. The three of us went outside to talk, free of the echoes, cameras and guards.

Over the four years since my repatriation to the US, recollections of life in China have naturally faded. Reading a memoir by journalist and foreign correspondent Madeleine O’Dea about her years in China has not only brought many of my own memories back into focus, it has illuminated the need for new narratives about the most populous country on the planet.

The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China, a 300-plus page book for independent publisher Pegasus Books, is more than a memoir. It is also a chronicle of how economic, social and cultural transformation under an authoritarian government has shaped contemporary art and the ongoing struggle for freedom of expression in modern China.

Having covered the political, economic and cultural life of China for the last three decades, O’Dea brings the perspective of an insider with a personal stake in the way the story is told and what it could mean for the country’s future.

O’Dea brings the perspective of an insider with a personal stake in the way the story is told and what it could mean for the country’s future”

The Phoenix Years begins in 1986, the Year of the Tiger, when O’Dea first traveled to Beijing as a journalist for the Australian Financial Review, “to get the ‘big story’: how the opening up of China was revolutionizing its economy.”

O’Dea describes staying in the center of “Beijing’s burgeoning bohemia” at peak Open China: a free-wheeling but still conflicted time when “the Chinese authorities did everything they could to keep foreigners and locals apart,” yet “there were no rules about who could talk to whom; there were no off-limit topics.”

In these pre-Tiananmen years of the 1980s, there were unsanctioned art shows and underground parties, and Beijing’s avant-garde scene thrived. Enter O’Dea’s first crew of friends: pioneering bohemians, some of whom would go on to participate in the collective call for democracy that would culminate in the peaceful protests met with deadly force on June 4, 1989 – some sealing their fates as exiles or dissidents, others less lucky.

No background knowledge of China is necessary to enjoy this book – it is full of details that only witnesses can provide while remaining highly accessible; each unique story is given historical context, and for readers less familiar with China, O’Dea extends bridge-building comparisons to the West:

To understand what it felt like to live through the 1980s in China, it helps to think about the 1960s in the West…The 80s saw the birth of rock and roll in China and the beginning of a sexual revolution. But just like the 1960s in the West, the 1980s ended in violence and bloodshed for China.

The Phoenix Years also enables readers to virtually travel around modern China, delving into its different regions and their histories. Via O’Dea’s focus on nine artists personally known to her, we visit many corners of the continent, accompanied by locals of various ethnic groups sharing experiences from their art-making lives. International superstars like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo are also featured, but the key nine are comprised of accomplished yet lesser-known artists from China’s many distant corners.

Among this group, there is also diversity of art media and ages, shedding light on what it was to grow up painting, sculpting, photographing, performing and filmmaking during the 70s, 80s, 90s and aughts in China.

Of note are Gonkar Gyatso, born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1961 and Aniwar, born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1962; both travelled to Beijing to attend art school in 1980 and 1984, respectively; and both went on to draw from the traditions of their home regions in post-university work.

In 1992, we follow Gonkar Gyatso to Dharamsala, Nepal (the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile) in search of guidance and his Tibetan identity. There, Gonkar Gyatso studies traditional thangka painting, which is later integrated into My Identity, a series of self-portraits that explore tradition, modernity, politics and religion through costume and eclectic studio scenes.   

In 1987, Aniwar also made a pilgrimage to his homeland: The Taklimakan Desert, at the heart of Xinjiang, famed for its “shifting sands” and “ancient cities lost beneath its dunes.” Somewhere near Black Sand Mountain, he lost his way, suffering five days of panic, thirst, hallucinations and sleeplessness. He returned “transformed,” with an “intensified sense of the immensity of nature,” and “determined to create work that embodied its force.” Once back in his Beijing studio, Aniwar collaborated with the city’s famous summer and spring storms by placing canvases “face-up in the open yard,” as well as creating hundreds of woolen-felt mats inspired by traditional weaving methods from the XUAR – two techniques O’Dea recounts watching him employ during a visit in 2009.

Another of the key nine is Huang Rui, a Beijinger and one of the creators of Today, “the first unofficial literary magazine to appear in the country since the founding of the People’s Republic.” During the late 1970s, copies of Today were posted on the Democracy Wall in Beijing and then passed between university students across China, spreading messages that urged free thought, creativity and political participation. Upon learning this from O’Dea, I realized a new layer of meaning to the posting, and consequent blocking, of the word “today” on Weibo each June 4.

Cover for the Australian edition, published by Allen & Unwin

Back to Photo Shanghai 2014: where the people were not. My friend, the gallerist and I walked to a busy part of Nanjing West Road. Amid the din of commuters and shoppers, we learned what had happened. The day before had been the exhibit opening, and members of the Ministry of Culture had entered the packed hall, locked the front doors, and seized all of the programs as well as a photograph on exhibit. “It was of Tiananmen Square,” explained the gallerist, “a plain postcard image but blown-up.”

Once the MOC had exited the premises, the organizers announced to a startled, program-less crowd that all would go on as planned – but how could it? The incident was a message from Beijing demonstrating what the new leadership under Xi Jinping meant for artists and their art in the China of that day.

O’Dea observes that some members of the “Tiananmen generation,” now entering their late forties, are “likely to be nominated for membership of the new Politburo,” and that these “new junior leaders will serve beside Xi Jinping and his Premier Li Keqiang for another five years until those two men are due to retire in 2022.” This would be a reassuring point to end on if not for the recent lifetime appointment of Xi Jinping in March 2018.

Thankfully, O’Dea goes on, reaching back into China’s history to find filaments of hope, noting that one of the first actions Deng Xiaoping made upon taking control of the Chinese government in 1978 was to change the ruling on the ‘Qing Ming Incident’ of 1976, first condemned as a ‘counter-revolutionary riot’ but rebranded as an act of patriotism. “In the same way,” O’Dea continues, “a future leadership must one day change the verdict on June 4, 1989.”

We then learn about citizen-led efforts such as the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that collects the names and stories of June 4 victims, and campaigns for historical accuracy and government accountability; as well as documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang, who sent young people back to their home villages to record the memories of survivors of the Great Leap Forward.

In the context of such counter-narratives, the continuing work of artists and rogue historians make the idea of a new verdict on the Tiananmen Square massacre, and a less authoritarian future China, seem less impossible.

This book is a rare, vital, compassionate record celebrating what a cross-section of extraordinary people in China have managed to create and to share with the world. The multiple vantage points woven together in their stories ensure that there is something for any reader interested in modern China.

Back at Photo Shanghai, the sun was setting. Before parting ways, my friend, the gallerist and I, recalled our versions of recent speculations that if Xi Jinping was going to be anything like his father, Xi Zhongshun, China might have a “more moderate and relatively tolerant” future – said a pundit or two. After all, while serving under Mao in the 1950s, Xi Zhongshun was applauded for meeting with and befriending the Dalai Lama, as well as leaders of the XUAR. Of Xi Jinping, such speculations on being moderate and tolerant have turned out to be far from accurate. But artists in China continue to create and, as O’Dea puts it, “dance along the edge of the permissible” and “give us a shining glimpse of what their country will one day be.” ∎

Madeleine O’Dea, The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China (Pegasus Books, November 2018)