Skip to main content

Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar (HAA 1020) - Oakland Campus: Chinese Apartment Art

This guide was created to assist students in Jennifer Josten's Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar (HAA 1020)


Section I - Introduction


From September 9 to September 24, 2016, the six graduate students enrolled in Professor Gao Minglu’s Curating Contemporary Chinese Art seminar traveled to China to learn more about contemporary art in Beijing and Shanghai. Generous support from the Confucius Institute and the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) gave us the unique opportunity to study Chinese Apartment Art first-hand by interviewing artists who were involved in the movement decades ago. Our journey took us to artists’ studios, major museums, large commercial galleries, and smaller independent art spaces. This section includes a number of photographs of our trip, including studio and gallery visits.

Another important element of this section is an edited film including clips of interviews with 10 renowned artists featured the exhibition. Their warmth, and the esteem they have for Professor Gao, was touching and humbling.

Students enrolled in Professor Gao’s Curating Contemporary Chinese Art course include Madeline Eschenburg, Ellen Larson, Marina Tyquiengco, Yijing Wang, Zhen Wang, and Sandi Ward.

Students in Gao Minglu’s Curating Contemporary Chinese Art seminar posing in Beijing’s Caochangdi Art Village (Left). Left to Right: Yijing Wang, Zhen Wang, Madeline Eschenburg, Ellen Larson, Sandi Ward, and Marina Tyquiengco. Right is an exhibition view of the first section. 

Section III - Projects on Paper


Presenting another dimension of Chinese Conceptualism, the Projects on Paper section on view features reproductions of some of the most important group projects in Chinese contemporary art including Agree to November 26th as a Reason, Wilderness and works by New Mark Group as well as some individual artists’ works by Wang Luyan, Geng Jianyi, and Wang Jin. These projects were distributed and circulated in the form of low-budget publications, allowing organizers to “curate” art exhibitions which included works by artists from multiple cities that would not have otherwise been permitted for exhibition in gallery spaces. Some of the works included in this section only ever existed as preliminary sketches while others include extensive documentation of fully realized projects.

Exhibition view of Projects on Paper section (Left) and Agree to November 26 as a Reason (1994), from the Projects on Paper section (Right).

Chinese Apartment Art: An Introduction


The Exhibition “Chinese Apartment Art: Primary Documents from Gao Minglu’s Archive, 1970s-1990s” was organized by students in Gao Minglu’s graduate seminar titled Curating Contemporary Chinese Art in the Fall semester of 2016.

“Apartment,” or gongyu in Chinese, literally means “government-owned residential complex,” or simply “public house.” From the 1970s to the 1990s, a number of Chinese artists pursued their own private work space within public residential complexes. Therefore, apartment art, as a mode of existence of underground, experimental, and avant-garde art, shows the distinct social space of contemporary art in China throughout the last three decades of the 20th century.

This documentary exhibition features Chinese apartment art in three different parts. The first is characterized as jiating shalong, or “family salon,” presenting apartment art from the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, artists arranged salon-style exhibitions of paintings in modern art styles, including Impressionism and abstract painting, in their personal family apartments. The second part of the exhibition is fang an, or “projects on paper,” which consists of works that were not exhibited in gallery spaces, but were compiled in private publications and distributed photocopies which were easy for artists to mail to one another or trade in person. The exhibition’s third and final section, jiating chuangzuo he zhanshi or “household art practice and display,” categorizes the avant-garde production carried out in the 1990s in which artists created many small-scale, unsellable installations by using materials selected from their surroundings. The artists’ homes turned into centers for the small-scale avant-garde throughout the decade.

An exhibition view of Chinese Apartment Art: Primary Documents from Gao Minglu’s Archive, 1970s-1990s (Left) and Professor Gao Minglu (Right).

Section II - Family Salon


The origins of Family Salon Art may be traced back to the socio-political backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During this politically tumultuous period, groups of artists distanced themselves from state mandated Social Realism in favor of more expressive and avant-garde forms. Groups, such as the No Name Painting Society, traveled to the rural outskirts of Beijing as well as Yuanmingyuan and Purple Bamboo Park to paint en plain air landscapes and still life pictures. Their philosophical “art for art’s sake” paintings rejected officially sanctioned Socialist Realism, the only approved artistic style during this time. Following a short period of relaxed art regulation, the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign once again targeted Western modernism and abstract art. Artists working in these styles were forced to show exclusively within their own apartments to small audiences of close friends and other artists. Many group exhibitions took place in the apartments of foreign friends and diplomats, as their residences were deemed safer than the homes of Chinese artists.

Reproduction paintings included in this exhibition are hung in a manner similar to salon exhibitions staged in the 1980s. The arrangement of paintings features works by three groups of artists active during this period. The first group consists of No Name artists who often exhibited at Zhang Wei’s apartment located in Beijing’s Xinming Hutong. The second group, led by Zhu Jinshi, staged apartment exhibitions at his home in Beijing’s Ganjiakou neighborhood. The third group exploited large courtyard style spaces for their group exhibitions.

Photo album from Family Salon section (Left) and an Exhibition view of Family Salon section (Right).

Section IV - Household Art Practice & Display


After the 1989 governmental shut down of the student democracy movement, the creation and exhibition of contemporary art was deemed illegal and many artists moved abroad to escape China’s oppressive cultural and political environment. The result in many urban centers was that artists began making and exhibiting artwork in the privacy of their own homes for a small audience of artist friends. Whereas earlier salon-style apartment art exhibitions tended to display abstract oil painting, apartment art in the ‘90s was primarily made of domestic materials such as furniture, paper, thread, and clothing; the works were only exhibited for a short period before they were destroyed. This section of the exhibition includes photographs and other forms of documentation of works by Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, Zhu Jinshi and Qin Yufen, Lin Tianmiao and Wang Gongxin, Wang Youshen, Shi Yong, and Wang Jin. Video works by Liang Yue, Wang Gongxin, He Chengyao, Yang Zhenzhong, and Song Dong are also included. Through common themes such as the everyday, temporality, and ephemerality, these artists explore the relationship between avant-garde art space and society at large.

Exhibition view of Household Practices and Display (Left) and Wang Youshen, Nutritious Soil, 1994 (Right).