By Laura Shen
The UCCA director Philip Tinari, an American national, is introducing Peter Wayne Lewis’ new works in fluent Chinese Mandarin to audience, while inside the booth is the old photos taken in 1988 for another similar exhibition of Frederick J. Brown, an African American creating Abstract Art as well, in the then Revolutionary Museum. The organizer then was a Chinese cadre sitting on sofa beside a tea table, wearing the 1980s trendy white suits and aviator glasses. He shook hands with the “Foreign Friend” and gave an official smile to the camera. At that time, curator is an unfamiliar concept for Chinese art circle, but what people were aware of was that any foreign affairs shall be led by the cadre in a bureaucratic way. Contrary to this, Peter Wayne Lewis’ works today are displayed in private gallery founded by Belgian aristocrats and curated by an American proficient in Chinese. The previous imposing Revolutionary Museum is replaced by the exotic Ullens.
The summer of 1988 in Beijing witnessed long queues of visitors waiting to be allowed in. People’s attires reflected the 1980’s fashion of aviator glasses, jeans and shirts, which would rather be regarded as rustic today. In the winter of 2016, visitors no longer have to follow the crowd in a Collectivism way. In an exquisitely designed gallery, they can make free choices provided by the multi-functional space, wherever children art education area, art library in café, art shop, exhibition hall, or the ongoing promotion activity on how to use 3D design to decorate your stylish electronic mobile devices. The WeChat public account, Weibo, official website, and the stylish postcard-like booklets have substituted newspapers, government newsletters for circulating information, which is available by simply touching mobile screens. New fashion is easily seen from visitor’s dressing, their Western, Korean or Japanese style copied from diverse fashion media.
If Beijing Citizens and Intellectuals constituted the audience in 1988, then it is the new Middle Class forming the main visitors in 2016. These Middle Class people come from diverse parts of China and the world, and many of them are foreigners working, studying or living in Beijing. They may reside or sojourn in Beijing permanently or temporarily. It is much harder to define who Beijing local is. Knowledge is no longer the privilege of any certain class, it is more closely connected to income and life quality. Based on monetary fortune, the Middle Class has started to embody art into their tastes and life styles. On the other hand, to a larger extent, art is favoured owning to its business value. Its investors include Chinese new rich and foreigners hyping Chinese art in international market.
African American artists mean differently to people of the present and 30 years ago. When its door was newly opened in 1980s, China’s cognition of outside world was very limited to the range of “The Foreign Others” or “Capitalism Countries”. Chinese were impressed by Brown as the first American artist holding solo exhibition in China, and all his works were created in United States in the 1970s and 1980s, transported through long distance from a faraway country. However, when we meet Peter Wayne Lewis today, we would like to hear his narrates of personal stories, such as how identity as immigrate from Jamaica influences his ideas, his experience in different cities in the world, how he is inspired by music and physics, and in particular, his residence in Beijing since 2007. Different from Brown’s, his works exhibited here are all created during his residence in Beijing, they contain his personal participation in this city and country. This authentic observation and practice has largely distinguishes it from Brown’s vague and reluctant Other’s perspective. The 1988 exhibition was accompanied by China’s frantic enthusiasm and worship towards avant-garde Western concepts. However, in Lewis’ display today, I am more impressed by his rich imagination of colour, endless exploration on human’s visual sense, and his brave blend of Buddhism, Thangka and music. Concept is no longer that important.
The come of Frederick J. Brown bore China’s desire for Western fresh ethos, it represented the spirit of Idealism in 1980s, regardless of the Collectivism vestiges. People at the moment were not able to realize where to locate themselves in history, while a retrospect today helps us to re-orient our position on the map, the indispensable labels of Idealism, Bourgeois Liberalization at the time, and it was inconceivably followed by the landmark political movement during reform and opening up process in the next summer. How will Peter Wayne Lewis’s exhibition today predict and mark our history? Is it globalization, individualism, or New Normal, Internet+, Economic Decline? Only time can give an answer.
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