One Saturday afternoon in January 1999, a show opened in the basement of a Beijing residential tower not far from where the Olympic Stadium would be built a decade later. When the doors opened—staying open for just a few short hours before being shut down—viewers entered a warren of cramped spaces filled with works that confronted them viscerally, some incorporating extreme materials such as animal carcasses and even human body parts. “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion” was the opening salvo in an art movement, structured as a series of exhibitions that spanned the turn of the millennium, that would provoke adverse reactions from Chinese authorities and Western media alike, even as it encapsulated a specific historical moment and went on to launch a generation of artists who work at the core of the art scene in China today.
Tempered by the first flicker of the Internet and the tense urban condition of a city on the verge of explosive growth, the Post-Sense Sensibility artists worked amidst a political climate that had yet to enter the pre-Olympic, post-WTO accession exuberance of the 2000s. Materially, Beijing was very much a work in progress, without a gallery scene or even a cafe culture. For these artists, graduates of China’s top academies working day jobs as graphic designers and videographers, information on exhibitions abroad—including Charles Saatchi’s 1997 exhibition “Sensation” at the Royal Academy which was the show’s indirect namesake—came largely in the anecdotal form of catalogues and stories brought back by traveling friends.
This raw, emergent condition proved a source of inspiration to a group of artists who saw themselves as peripheral to both the Chinese mainstream and the larger global conversation around contemporary art. Qiu Zhijie, in his preface to the exhibition, named this state in a series of now-dated staccato answers to a rhetorical question: “What is Post-Sense? Post-Sense is the trace of blood that flows from your chest when you prick it with a razor; you don’t feel pain but you still feel an urge toward retaliation. Post-Sense is looking at your aged parents and doubting the purity of your bloodline. Post-Sense is how every person on the street looks uncomfortably similar to you. Post-Sense is Dolly the Sheep and Viagra. Post-Sense is Internet romance. Post-Sense is something you don’t want to admit and cannot name, something that spills forth from your heart uncontrollably.”
Artistically, these artists were looking for a third way—beyond what they saw as the tone-deaf conceptualism of their slightly older peers and the gaudy commercial painting that then, as now, formed the core of the market. They found it not so much in their particular materials as in the primacy of the xianchang—a word best translated as “scene” which marks the space of display as a place for a happening, and a site over which one has to work to exert control. This engendered a spirit of radical collaboration; some even championed the idea of the exhibition as a single work formed of multiple parts, instead of a collection of distinct works. This notion would be played out through a string of subsequent exhibitions in 2000 and 2001, as well as a series of affiliated projects and collaborations in the ensuing years.
Much has changed in the decade and a half since a few artists rented that basement in the otherwise nondescript neighborhood of Shaoyaoju. China now boasts institutions, collectors, media, and entire urban districts devoted to just the sort of artmaking the Post-Sense generation championed. Their initial camaraderie, like that of most artistic movements, fractured and faded, only to reconstitute itself in the following years as their youthful exploits became part of the art-historical canon. This hanging at Duddell’s reunites many (though not all) of the initial and subsequent members of the Post-Sense Sensibility formation, each represented by a recent work. (The Chinese title of this hanging, which translates more literally as “lingering symptoms of Post-Sense Sensibility,” speaks to the impact this moment has had on each of these artists and their practices.) While it may seem that little connects these works formally or stylistically, they are united by a shared understanding of art in complex relation to its social context, and as a vehicle uniquely capable of a kind of provocation that leads to reflection, and hopefully, transformation.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
Press release courtesy Duddell's.