September 16th, 2015

An Opinionated Chinese Art Critic Who Breaks the Mold

By: R. Orion Martin         Source: Hyperallergic     7/9/2015

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CHENGDU, China — ARTWOCA’s writing is part ferocious critique, part gossip, and part adventure in typography. Reading ARTWOCA’s art criticism is like talking to an old friend who is cluing you in to what’s really going on in the art world. Based out of Chengdu, a city of 14 million people and a regional art center of China, ARTWOCA’s raucous, slang-heavy articles (all written in Chinese) circulate widely in the city’s art community and beyond. The writing is completely unlike other Chinese art criticism, and the blog is unique in one other aspect as well: since its inception, it has been published anonymously.

ARTWOCA (pronounced “Art-Whoa-Tsah”) has been posting articles on the popular smartphone platform WeChat for over a year. S/he writes in a conversational style, peppering the blog posts with movie screencaps and hundreds of exclamation points. In its approach to art, the blog exemplifies tucao (吐槽), the mocking ridicule of someone’s faults. ARTWOCA delights in lampooning the often pretentious events that art and culture organizations put on (“Having an international guest is not a chance to prove how well you speak English”) and approaches local exhibitions with open hostility. Regarding a recent exhibition of cartoony oil painting, ARTWOCA writes, “Visually unable to provoke, thematically unable to generate interest … Which is not to mention, it looks bad. Which is not to mention, it looks baaaaaaaaaaaddddddddd………”

Regarding a musical event titled “Cheng Bi: I want to Fritter Away Time With You,” ARTWOCA writes, “Who is Cheng Bi???? Who???? Why does she want to fritter away time with me????”

Part of the blog’s appeal is that it reads so differently than the lofty prose of other Chinese art critics. Whether published by state-owned media or on web platforms, criticism is written in vague terms (many essays refer to the artists’ neixin or “innermost being”) and it is rare to see artists or exhibitions discussed critically. In speaking with Yi Hong, a freelance critic based in Chengdu who contributes to Artforum, she noted that writing negatively about an artist’s work can have repercussions in the tight-knit art community. “If you write a negative review, you may get a call demanding an explanation.”

The close relationship between galleries and writers in China also discourages criticism. In the absence of support from universities, foundations, or independent media, critics rely on galleries to finance their work. ‘Media fees’ in red envelopes are distributed to critics at exhibition openings with the understanding that reviews will be gentle if not overtly laudatory.

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When I contacted ARTWOCA on her/his WeChat account for this article, s/he confirmed that avoiding backlash was a major motivation for writing anonymously. “I could easily predict that what I said would enrage people.” S/he also had much to say about the compromised state of Chengdu’s art media. “They are machines, they write mechanical reports.” S/he added, “Some so-called reporters leave as soon as they get a red envelope, without even looking at the work. They don’t even have basic objectivity, so you can’t hope for a discussion.”

Without explicit financial or social ties to the art world, ARTWOCA can express negative opinions that few others can. One gallery attendant told me, “ARTWOCA says what we’re all thinking. That’s how it became so popular.” ARTWOCA said that s/he receives messages from gallery employees agreeing that the events they organized were dull. “Someone from an art organization will tell me beforehand that they’re planning an event that’s complete bullshit.”

Recently, however, ARTWOCA’s impartiality has been questioned by local gallery directors. In addition to criticism, ARTWOCA also writes about working in an art gallery, and these articles fuel a constant debate about the author’s identity. ARTWOCA indicates in her/his posts that s/he is a woman, both in her/his daily life stories and in feminist essays (a post about women in the art industry described the current moment, “male chauvinism burns like an uncontrollable wildfire and straight man cancer continues to see women as objects and consumer experiences”), but as I was researching this article, several people in Chengdu’s art community told me that the writer is a man who works at L-Art, a commercial gallery in the south of the city. Some of the suspicion stems from a feeling that ARTWOCA treats L-Art more graciously than other art organizations. One gallery director told me, “He shits on everyone equally but never on L-Art.”

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While ARTWOCA did not explicitly deny being affiliated with L-Art, s/he dismissed outright the idea that association with a gallery skews the writing. “Whether I have a relationship with L-Art is boring and fundamentally besides the point … Every expression is subjective.” All writing may be subjective, but it’s hard to believe that working full time at gallery wouldn’t influence one’s view of the art scene. Because ARTWOCA is published anonymously, the audience has no way to judge from which perspective the articles are written. In ARTWOCA’s “First Annual Acting Like a Pretentious Prick Awards,” L-Art was unironically given the award for “Best Gallery.”

Gallery directors I spoke with vehemently criticized ARTWOCA’s ‘lack of professionalism,’ not only in writing style but in terms of her/his approach to the exhibitions, arguing that s/he has little knowledge of contemporary art and that the blog posts are superficial crowd-pleasers. Art critic Yi Hong, however, had a different opinion. “I very much enjoy reading ARTWOCA,” she told me. “I think that ARTWOCA offers a different, hilarious perspective on art that more people can connect with. This is what it means to have a diverse art ecosystem.”

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ARTWOCA’s writing sometimes crosses the line separating negative criticism from ridicule. For instance, at the end of a recent review, s/he posted links to introductory textbooks on museum curating and recommended that the gallerists educate themselves. This tendency towards meanness obscures ARTWOCA’s important contributions to Chengdu’s art community, which is more vibrant and accessible because of her/his contributions.

When I asked ARTWOCA about the blog’s role in Chengdu’s art scene, she said, “I don’t think it has any great impact. It’s just to entertain people, to anger people. But what I most want is for everyone to reflect a bit and make some progress, ha ha.”