- Children of Marx and Coca-Cola: Chinese Avant-Garde Art and Independent Cinema
Xiaoping Lin's study of contemporary Chinese avant-garde art and independent cinema is the second offering of the newly launched Critical Interventions series published by the University of Hawai'i Press and edited by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu. The book successfully brings together a range of critical perspectives and artistic domains including film, video, installation, photography, and performance art. It examines them in the context of China's growing status in the global cultural arena. It provides an informative account of recent aesthetic developments in the light of the dramatic sociocultural transformations that have occurred in post-socialist China in the past three decades since the inception of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. It also addresses the impact of nationalism, globalization, and transnational visuality in China's artistic expressions and the cultural significance of Chinese diasporic practices and discourses at home and abroad.
The title of the book reprises a well-known phrase coined by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard to describe the lost generation of the 1960s in his Masculin féminin (1966)—"the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." Among other issues, Lin's volume engages themes comparable to Godard's film: radical politics, youth culture, popular fashions, social trends, gender relations, consumerism, cultural commoditization, and the clash of socialism and capitalism. As with Godard's, Lin's narrative at times takes on a bitter and melancholic tone, as the author places the notion of "postsocialist trauma"—"the trauma of China's transition from socialism to capitalism" (p. 23)—at the core of his account as a key to understand the Zeitgeist of China after Mao. The filmmakers and visual artists selected for analysis manifest this traumatic subconscious through a series of persistent tropes dealing with disturbed subjects, demolished landscapes, and distressed human and natural ecologies.
The volume is divided into three parts and comprises a theoretical introduction; nine analytical chapters (six of which previously appeared as book chapters [End Page 544] or journal articles); a postlude; a Chinese glossary of names, titles and terms; a filmography; and a bibliography. It also includes thirty black-and-white photographs of artworks and film stills that nicely complement the discussion.
The introduction, "Reading Chinese Avant-Garde Art and Independent Cinema in Context," sets the stage for the investigation of China's postsocialist cultural practices vis-à-vis transnational trends by defining the geopolitical coordinates of the inquiry. Lin's account is extensively informed by his firsthand experience of the artistic scenes of "the two 'global cities'" (p. 1)—Beijing and New York. He also notes the "dual identity" (p. 2) that is constructed upon the visual artists and filmmakers working in these two locales as they attempt to come to terms with both domestic and international demands.
The author surveys the local and global implications of the book's foregrounding concepts—"avant-garde art" (qianwei yishu, aka "experimental art"), and "independent cinema" (duli dianying, aka "urban generation" or "sixth generation" cinema)—and aptly underscores the conceptual ambiguity that is frequently attached to such terms ("avant-garde," "experimental," "independent") both inside and outside China. While reviewing a number of key Western theories of the avant-garde, such as those proposed by Matei Calinescu, Andreas Huyssen, Peter Bürger, and Hal Foster, Lin makes a fundamental point: In spite of the artists' appropriation of this inherently Western term, the implication of being part of an avant-garde in China "was different from the earlier meaning derived from Western modernism" (p. 2). As local critic and curator Gao Minglu has pointed out, the Chinese avant-garde was "caught in a far more complicated relationship between localization and globalization, ideology and materialism" (p. 2). Significantly, therefore, Lin does not simply impose a Western theoretical structure onto a non-Western practice, as we see sometimes in Euro-American critiques of Chinese or other Asian cultural phenomena. Instead, he takes into account the unique specificities of...